(This is Part One of a two part series by Sarah Said. Her post tomorrow will share specific ideas for “brain breaks.)

Sarah Said currently serves as a Director of Language and Equity programs in the Chicago land area. Sarah is an avid writer about issues regarding English Learners. She is a Contributor for ELL Confianza. Sarah has been serving English Learners for 15 years.


You’re in the middle of a lesson and you pause.  You take a look at the children in your classroom. One has his head down on his desk.  The other is coloring. Your history lesson has nothing to do with coloring A third child is staring at the wall and tipping back and forth in her chair. Yes, it is time for a refuel.  What does that mean? That means really pulling back and giving your students a brain break or an energizer.

Can I ask you something? Are you able to sit and through an eight hour professional development and really focus on the content that the presenter is delivering when they are just lecturing?  I’m going to guess that you have never gotten chit chatty with the teacher sitting next to you during training. Never have you checked or your email or twitter during a training where you needed to be professionally learning. Does this mean that you are a bad professional learner? No!  You needed a break. You were acquiring lots of information and your brain needed a refuel.

Our brains need a break.  They need time to refuel before they can keep going to acquire new information. We’re not terrible students – we’re just human.  If we have a difficult time paying attention for eight hours in professional development regarding a field we are passionate about without giving our brain a break, how do children in a classroom feel on a day to day basis? When something is difficult to understand and not engaging, the brain will shut down. We’re not wired any differently than the children we teach.

Imagine that the child is hearing the content in a different language or in a strange place that is not the home they know. The learning is being interrupted by more tension and the child may suffer from other types of brain trauma.  I want to advocate for the students that I have seen in classrooms throughout my career really struggling. Yes, they’re struggling academically, but there is something deeper that the child is struggling with beyond their academics. It is important that we advocate for education the whole child not only from a linguistic standpoint but also a social emotional standpoint, as well. With this, we really have to set up classrooms that provide an appropriate climate for English Learners.  This climate may provide an opportunity for a brain break (a time where a child can rest their brain for part of the lesson as they are processing information) or an energizer (a time where a child can really be re-energized in their learning to continue on to more learning). It’s important to allow your classroom to “refuel” their brains. This will assist them in accessing quality learning and language input.

The Pressures that Our Learners Face on a Daily Basis

When I first started teaching English Learners about fifteen years ago, I would push so much content and language into a lesson! I felt like my students needed to catch up on their language proficiency.  Their English Language Arts class needed to be more rigorous because of all they needed to know to keep up with their grade level peers. It was to the point where my students just completely shut down. I had students who had shut me out with numerous issues. At times, I had difficulty managing them.

Yes, we want to expose students to language.  We want them to experience language for learning.  Because of this we do tend to overload English Learners with so much language and content in order to “catch them up.”  Are they really grasping this? What we are doing is like running on a treadmill. We’re working hard and breaking a sweat, but we’re not going anywhere.  Just stop…really…stop. Yes, you and your students need to stop and let your brains take a break..

Let’s think about the typical day of our students.  Their phone alarm or clock goes off in the morning to wake them. Depending on the age of the child, some of this may differ.  They may press the snooze button a couple times. Then they get up and start their day. Maybe they will eat breakfast, and at times make sure a younger family member has eaten breakfast.  As they get themselves ready for school, they may have an older sibling helping them or have to help support a sibling themselves. Some of our older students may have had a short night’s sleep after working a full time job at night. It’s all different per child…  Then, they go to school and it’s in a language in which they are still gaining proficiency.

Many of our children do not come from traditional households. Their lives come with responsibilities that their peers may not have.  This, along with learning a new language, can cause anxiety and even depression. According to an article by Lauren Nott on teenage anxiety, “Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental illnesses and affect 25 percent of all teens and 30 percent of all teen girls.” (Nott 2013)  She also explains that over the years anxiety in young people has had significant increases. Thinking about this – when a quarter of teens have anxiety, it is important to understand that the daily pressures are tough and adding learning a new language to that becomes even tougher. Whether you are working with teens or younger children, anxiety can really take a toll on their ability to grasp concepts and language.

What does this all have to do with brain breaks and energizers?  It has lots to do with this: When we chunk up a student’s time in our classroom and give their brain time to refuel then we are giving them a chance to really dig deeply into language. We are not taking time away from learning.  We are giving the brain a chance to catch up and learn more. When we do this, we are taking down anxiety levels and creating a climate that is healthy for our students. This can  positively impact a student who may have other responsibilities outside the home or suffer from past traumas that are impacting their learning.  Our students’ mental health statuses are more important than their test scores.


Nott,Lauren (2013)