You’re at home in the evening, trying to cook dinner, and your kids are running around like crazy people. You know they’re just playing and working off some excess energy, but you feel like you’re about to snap. What do you do?
Or, you’re driving down the road, obeying all the rules of the road, when someone cuts right in front of you and makes you slam on the brakes. No turn signal, nothing. What do you do?
Or, you’re teaching class, and the boy in the back row pulls the hair of the girl sitting in front of him…for the third time this hour…after you’ve already had a discussion with him about the inappropriateness of this behavior. What do you do?
Or…any of a thousand other daily occurrences that can annoy you. What do you do?
If you’re like many people, you have a few self-maintenance tools that you can fall back on to get through the situation without losing your mind. And, if you’re like many people, one of those tools–quite possibly tool #1 in your toolbox–is breathing.
Why? Because you know from personal experience that it works. In fact, few (if any) strategies work better to calm us down when we’re stressed than deep, focused breathing.
But Why Does It Work?
As discussed above, we all know from personal experience that slow, deep breathing calms us and allows us to handle challenging situations effectively or remain focused on an important task despite annoying stressors.
But until recently, we didn’t have a very good idea about why breathing works so well to calm us in such situations. Thanks to some cutting-edge brain research, however, we now have a much better understanding of the mechanisms involved.
In a recent study (Yackle, et al., 2017), a team of researchers identified not only a small area within the brain stem of mice (we humans have an equivalent area in our brains) where the neurons connecting breathing to arousal are located, but they have also identified two specific neuronal sub-types that, when genetically deactivated, caused mice to remain calm in just about any situation. Upon further investigation, the researchers found that, when these neurons were deactivated, the mice tended to breathe more slowly and deeply than other mice and that this respiration pattern, in turn, caused the mice to remain more calm and mellow than other mice around them.
Why is this important for us as we think about how to use breathing techniques to manage arousal (ours and that of others) in challenging situations? Because, among other things, it proves that breathing techniques are virtually guaranteed to work because they are based on a reliable biological mechanism. Many people think that deep breathing techniques are some kind of New Age hokum. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Five Uses for Deep Breathing
Now that we’ve established that breathing techniques work to calm and focus us when we’re stressed, the next question is, “How can I use this in my classroom?” Great question! Here are five situations (you can probably think of more) where it makes sense to employ breathing techniques:
1. For Starters–At the beginning of the day or beginning of a class period, having students close their eyes and take a few deep breaths has a couple of benefits. First, of course, is that it calms down those who are hyped up, as many students are upon first arriving at school. Second, it allows kids to put out of their minds everything that has happened during the morning up to that point–running late to get to the bus, dropping their books in the hallway, talking to their friends–and become present in the classroom. This allows them to transition more smoothly and get started on classwork more quickly. If you’re an elementary teacher who has the same class all day, you also might consider “resetting” again with deep breathing right after lunch.
2. Following Movement or Other Arousing Activity–Breathing is a powerful way to adjust arousal levels. When you have students up and moving around for an activity or a brain break, their arousal level is up–sometimes up a little too much. If you plan to do some direct instruction following the arousing activity, or plan to have students do some individual seatwork where focus is needed, you may need to bring them down from the arousal “high” they’re currently on. Nothing does this more quickly than some deep breathing, especially if you add some quiet calming music in the background. Thirty seconds to a minute is often enough to bring students back down to an appropriate arousal level.
3. Before a Test–If you’ve ever suffered from test anxiety, you know how your heart rate can spike and your respiration can become fast and shallow. Some of your students may suffer from test anxiety, as well, and taking them through some short deep breathing exercises is one of the best tools you can use to get them in a better physical and mental state for the test.
4. For Students Who are Upset–When students become stressed, frustrated, anxious, or angry, their arousal level rises to a point where they’re unable to focus on class work. Often, being in one of these negative states leads to the student getting in trouble by saying or doing something inappropriate to a classmate (hitting, pushing, calling names, etc.). In such cases, the best approach is often to physically separate the student from the situation (I recommend a partitioned-off “cool down corner” of some type set up explicitly for such situations) and provide, in that corner, some tools the student can use to return to a more calm state. Many teachers stock this area with countdown timers, stress balls, etc., but you can also simply remind the student of the breathing exercises you take them through in the morning and have him practice deep breathing for a few minutes while you return to the rest of the class and continue with the lesson. At the next opportunity, drop back in on the student in the cool down corner to see if he has breathed himself down from the “ledge” and is ready to be reincorporated back into the class. You also might record yourself going through the directions to a focused breathing exercise and have the student listen to this recording on headphones and follow along.
5. For You!–Studies have shown that students pick up on the states and stress levels of their teachers. If you’re stressed out, your students will likely become more stressed in response. Very quickly, everyone in the room is on edge, which can lead to unfortunate situations. So, when you feel yourself starting to get stressed, take a few moments while the students are working on something else or transitioning from one activity to another to go through some deep, cleansing breathing. You will feel your heart rate slow down along with your breathing, and you will feel more ready to handle anything else that comes up. Your students will also pick up on your calmer state and respond by becoming more calm themselves.
A Few Breathing Exercises to Try with Your Students
OK, so we’ve talked about a few situations where you might employ breathing exercises for either your students or yourself, or both. The next obvious question is what are some of the exercises you can use in these situations? Here are a few ideas. This is hardly an exhaustive list. If you really want to build a large inventory of breathing exercises to try with your students, though, a quick Google research will net you many more ideas. This list should get you off to a good start, though:
Focus on the Breath–This one’s as simple as it gets. You simply coach students to breath deeply and pay attention to the air coming in their nostrils, to their stomachs rising on the inhalation, and to their stomachs sinking back in as they exhale through their mouths. You can ask students to close their eyes, or not, as they breathe. Closing the eyes helps by cutting down on visual distractions. You can also ask students to count their breaths while they do this, which focuses their attention even more on what they’re doing.
Pursed Lips Breathing–In this exercise, you have students breathe in for a certain number of seconds (four or five seconds are common lengths of time), and then exhale through pursed lips (only slightly open, as if you’re going to blow into a flute). Pursing the lips makes the opening through which the breath can escape smaller, meaning that it takes longer to get the air back out than it did to breath it in, usually somewhere around ten seconds. Forcing the exhalation to take longer slows the students’ breathing down more quickly.
The Deep-Dive Breath–This exercise adds holding the breath to the equation. You might have students inhale through the nose for four or five seconds, hold that breath for four or five seconds, and then exhale through the mouth for four or five seconds. This type of breathing forces the exhalation to be more forceful, as students will be anxious to take the next breath due to having held their breath. This results in the next breath (and each subsequent breath) being deeper, which better oxygenates the brain.
Rise and Fall Breathing–In this exercise, students lie down on the floor and breathe deeply, focusing on their stomachs rising as they inhale through their noses and sinking as they exhale through their mouths. If you teach older students, this one probably won’t be one you want to try (I won’t go into all the reasons why this one might not be appropriate for older students, but I’m sure you can figure them out). But if you teach elementary students, and if you have a comfortable, clean space where students can lie down and stretch out, this one is excellent.
Breathing Plus Movement–This one works especially well for students who need to “get their wiggles out.” In this exercise, you direct students to complete a movement while they breathe deeply. For example, you can tell students to raise their left arm as they breathe in deeply, stretching their hand up toward the ceiling at the end of the inhalation, then slowly lower their arm as they exhale. You might repeat this several times, then switch to the right arm. You might also have them wiggle an arm or leg while breathing.
Visualizing Colors–It’s often helpful, for focusing purposes, to have students visualize something while they engage in deep breathing. In Visualizing Colors, you ask students to see in their minds one color as they breathe in (for example, have them “breathe in blue air”) and another color as they exhale (for example, have them “breathe out red air”).
Triangle Breathing–This is another breathing exercise, like Visualizing Colors, that adds a visualization element to increase focus. In this exercise, you close your eyes and visualize traveling up one leg of a triangle as you breathe in, then down the other side and along the bottom as you breathe out. So, if you “travel” with your visualization at a consistent speed, you’ll be breathing out twice as long as you breathe in.
Adding Sound to Breathing–You can also add sound as a way to focus breathing. For example, you can have students initiate each breath at the sound of a bell, chime, or any other appropriate noise maker. Another way to increase focus on the breathing through the use of sound would be to softly play some calming music in the background to filter out any distracting environmental sounds. This is probably too much work if you’re only going to have students take a few deep breaths, but if you intend to lead them through a couple of minutes or more of breathing, music can be a nice addition.
We have indisputable scientific evidence that breathing slowly and deeply calms us down, so clearly this can be a powerful tool for classroom management. Choose a good time or two during the day when some deep breathing could help your students calm down and focus (or re-focus after movement or some other arousing activity) and use one or more of the breathing exercises listed above. You may have to model first to make sure they’re doing things correctly, but none of these exercises are exactly rocket science.
So give these quick, easy, cheap (heck, FREE) techniques a try and let me know how they work for you. Shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!
Desautels, L. (2016, September 16). Energy and calm: Brain breaks and focused-attention practices. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/brain-breaks-focused-attention-practices-lori-desautels
Goldman, B. (2017, March 30). Study shows how slow breathing induces tranquility. Brain in the News, 24(5), 1-2.
Will, M. (2017, June 7). Social-emotional competence starts at the head of the class. Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/06/07/social-emotional-competence-starts-at-the-head-of.html
Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., Sorokin, J. M., Huguenard, J. R., Feldman, J. L., Luo, L., and Krasnow, M. A. (2017, March 31). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science, 355(6332), 1411-1415. doi: 10.1126/science.aai7984