Practiced alone, mindful breathing can help to reduce stress and provide more balance. But practiced with your students, it can lead to better self-control and a more harmonious classroom.
Mindful Breathing Worked in My Classroom and it Can Work in Yours
An early learning classroom can be a stressful place, especially for small people who haven't learned self-regulation yet. While I understand that sometimes medication is necessary to help children with severe emotional issues, I wanted to find a way to help all of my students gain tools they could use to help them find a calm, centered place in an increasingly chaotic world. We found it through breathing exercises.
Why We Started
In early 2005, a new student started in our program; we'll call him Jacob. Jacob had already been removed from several classes because of his behavior and, at age four, had already earned a reputation as a 'troubled child.' This was having a serious impact on his parent's ability to find care for him.
Jacob's mother was desperate when she came to us. She wanted to find a way to help her son without resorting to powerful medications that would alter his personality or leave him feeling numb. After consulting with some colleagues and a local Yoga instructor, we decided to try deep breathing exercises and other mindfulness exercises to help him find some balance.
The Exercises We Employed
We began slowly, with Gaiam's Sun Salutation, which is several yoga poses that help the children loosen up their bodies and put them in the frame of mind to focus. Once the series was completed, we would instruct the children to sit on the floor, preferably cross-legged if they could, and we would begin our breathing exercises.
I instructed the children to breathe in deeply and then exhale slowly and completely as though they were trying to blow all the seeds off a dandelion. By placing their hands on their bellies, they could feel the air entering and leaving their bodies and control the rate of their breaths. I demonstrated controlled breathing, letting my breath out slowly in an even stream, rather than a frantic puff that could cause hyperventilation. The children followed along. We repeated the cycle five times in a slow series.
Next, I would instruct the children to cover their ears, forming a cup with their hands. They were then told to breathe in deeply and exhale while making a low noise as the air left them, similar to the omm sounds yogis make when they meditate.
We had a little pushback from Jacob when we first started, but the other children were having such a good time, he eventually decided to join in. When he did, we saw an immediate change in his morning affect. He was happier and more relaxed, making our early transitions smoother. Over time, we introduced controlled or 'belly breathing,' as demonstrated by Elmo here, to help with his terrible outbursts of temper. When we saw he was becoming agitated with another student, we could instruct them both to attempt the exercise, teaching them to calm themselves before intervention became necessary. By the time he was six and entering the local public-school program, he was using the tools regularly to help calm himself without our intervention.
Why it Worked for Us
The idea of teaching a child to breathe might seem like an odd one, but according to the University of California at Los Angeles's work on mindful breathing, it has many benefits. According to Diana Winston Ph.D. from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, practicing mindful breathing can reduce the body stress response to negative images and trick the body into relaxing into a more natural state. She found that participants who completed a 15-minute focused breathing exercise reported fewer negative emotions when subjected to stressful inputs.
Harvard Medical School agrees, reporting that breath focus is a key component in many programs that help to elicit a state of profound rest, essential for stress reduction and improved health. This was certainly true for our student who used deep breathing techniques with us and at home and saw an improvement in his behavior and overall health as a result.
Not surprisingly, his family also reported lower stress levels.
One Tool Among Many
Deep breathing became one of many tools we would use over the years to help our students learn to control their emotions in a positive, natural way. While it wasn't a magic cure - Jacob does require additional help in controlling some of his stronger impulses - it has been beneficial for our students and the staff who do, occasionally, need to take a deep breath before taking corrective action in the classroom. We often recommend it to families as well because it's easy for even the youngest pupils, fun, and free for the entire family to use. Try some of our activities, or use those recommended by Cosmic Kids, and see if you and your students don't see the benefit of deep breathing and its calming effects.