‘Brain Breaks’ Boost Test Scores

Researcher finds letting students move around boost test scores, reduces behavior problems

Zientarski never went more than 20 minutes during his presentation before stopping the audience to participate in brain breaks.

Zientarski never went more than 20 minutes during his presentation before stopping the audience to participate in brain breaks. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Can something as simple as exercise really improve discipline, test scores and health problems?

Yes, says Paul Zientarski, a retired physical education teacher from Illinois.

Mr. Z, as he likes to call himself, gave a presentation and demonstration to all Payson Unified School District staff and the community the week before school on his Learning Readiness Physical Education program.

“Exercise prepares the brain for learning,” said Zientarski.

This year, Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case said the elementary school students will have brain breaks added to their curriculum. In his presentation, Zientarski showed P.E.T. scans of brains from people with exercise and without doing intellectual tasks. Those who had worked out prior to an exam showed more of the brain lighting up.

To illustrate what he meant, Zientarski had the audience pair up to do cross hemisphere exercises.

“Cross your arms and clasp your hands together,” said Zientarski. “Twist your hands up, then have your partner point to different fingers. Wiggle the finger your partner points to, but does not touch.”

That example showed how the brain is used to work on the left side or the right side. When mixed up, the brain struggles to respond.

As members of the audience did the exercise, they laughed and joked about moving the wrong finger. It took some a bit to get the hang of it.

After the exercise, audience members said they felt more alert and ready to listen.

Zientarski then presented much of the information and studies he has collected on his Web site: http://www. learningreadinesspe.com

Mr. Z said the average elementary school child has a roughly 5- to 7-minute attention span. By the time a person becomes an adult, that attention span expands to 20 minutes.

Zientarski never went more than 20 minutes during his presentation before stopping the audience to participate in brain breaks.

His lecture covered almost a dozen studies done on exercise and brain function, including the data he collected for six years at Naperville Central High School.

“We decided we would collect data,” he said. “We had created a class of students who were reading below grade level.”

The district created a remedial reading class and asked if Zientarski would lead a P.E. class before the reading class, it had to be zero hour, the hour before school officially started, because the remedial reading class was during the first period of the school day.

“We had 16 kids in literacy class. Seven chose to get off bus and go right to class. Nine went to zero hour P.E.,” said Zientarski. “The students who got right off the bus improved by .9, almost a full year of improved reading. But the kids with the P.E. class improved 1.4 almost a year-and-a-half worth of reading improvement.”

Zientarski then collected data on students who took a P.E. class at the end of the day, same results. Those who did physical education before class improved more than those who did not.

The math department got in on the program. They also saw tremendous improvement.

The high school then implemented P.E. for every high school student for all four years. When the school took an international test, they scored No. 1 in the world in science and seventh in the world in math.

Zientarski and the Naperville Central High School successes came to the attention of Dr. John Ratley, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry from Harvard Medical School.

Ratley wrote the book “Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain,” based on what he learned at Naperville Central High School.

Payson Superintendent Ron Hitchcock came to both the PUSD staff lecture and the presentation Zientarski gave to the community. Although excited about the program, he does not see implementing the program this year as the district has changed much in the last year.

“No plans to implement another new program,” said Hitchcock, “but, there will be further discussion and emphasis on infusing movement and brain breaks into our classrooms.”

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