It’s the start of the new school year for many of us and it’s a perfect time to talk about breathing. I mean, teachers, just breathe…seriously! I rely on my apple watch to remind me to take some deep breaths throughout the day and I practice meditation on my own as well as with my students. If you’re not an apple watch junkie then come up with a way to remind yourself to breathe on a regular basis. We really need it the most in these beginning weeks of school. We can’t have too much of the beautiful and beneficial effects of deep breathing.
How many times have you told someone to, “just breathe”? Perhaps you’ve been told to, “Just breathe.”
It’s the common directive given, sometimes in jest and others in all seriousness, to somebody who is agitated in some way. In labor rooms all over the world women are told to, “Breathe through it”. Yogis remind themselves to, “Come back to the breath.” Every hour my apple watch exhorts me to spend a minute in deep breathing.
The command to breathe is everywhere. And it’s a little amusing that we ever utter the phrase considering that our bodies breathe without thinking. We don’t tell ourselves to “Just blink”. We don’t tell friends to, “Digest food.” These functions occur involuntarily as does breathing.
So why DO we tell people to breathe?
It’s not because anyone forgets to breathe or because they need to be reminded. It is because when our emotions become intense those emotions control our breathing.
In the classroom we witness our students’ varying emotions all day long. When I’m attuned to my students, rapid breathing is one of the first things that alerts me that a student is becoming dysregulated. If I catch it early I can engage the entire class in a simple and quick breathing activity to regulate the students’ respirations. The aim is to provide a healthy intervention for the students who are centered and regulated while simultaneously returning the dysregulated student to homeostasis. The beauty of it is that when done in such a fashion the struggling student is never called out.
At other times a student may articulate that they are feeling distressed. In that case I will decide if I want to suggest a breathing activity for that student alone or if I want to engage the entire class in the breathing activity. All students benefit so I usually choose a whole-class version. But there are times when students are entirely engaged in an activity and I would prefer to address just the one student.
The value of controlled and slow breathing is great and teachers will see clear results in their students when meditative breathing techniques are used in the classroom. One peer-reviewed article explains that "slowed breathing results in increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion." That sounds like everything we need in our classrooms.
The best use of mindful or meditative breathing is to teach the strategy and engage the students in a practice before the need arises. This helps to prevent dysregulation. I like to start my classes with a minute or two of guided breathing exercises. Occasionally, if I sense that the students need it, I’ll stop at a point during my lesson and lead the students through a breathing exercise. Then we get right back to work. My students are so accustomed to the practice that they don’t think anything of it.
I start the year teaching the students how to take those deep belly breaths; the ones that engage the diaphragm. I like to begin with leading them through inhalation of 4 counts, pause at the top for 5 counts, and exhale for 7 counts. I lead them through about 8 of those. They are allowed to sit anywhere in the room. I have found that even reluctant meditators think it’s really cool to meditate if they can sit on the table. So this year I started out modeling it whilst sitting on a table. Those reluctant kids hopped right up on the table and meditated. Most of the students chose the chairs and the floor. I let them know that I’ll keep my eyes open so that they will be safe in closing theirs but if they aren’t comfortable closing their eyes they should simply choose a focal point.
I use a breathing ball to demonstrate the inflation of the lungs and the way the lungs deflate on the exhale. It’s a perfect little illustration for them and it’s really helpful in leading those reluctant students. The most reluctant students will usually join in if I ask them to hold the breathing ball and lead the class through some breaths.
If you’ve been following me for long you’ll remember that I am crazy for quick interventions that require little to no prep and need little in the way of props. Mindful breathing fits my order! You should spent 1-2 minutes on this activity. You can spend more time but the full benefits are rendered within two minutes. Then you can move right along with your lesson. Gorgeous!
So hop to it, my educator friends. Breathe in everything you need to bring your best to your students and share this powerful practice with your students.