Sunday, June 25, 2017

Make Breathing Work

“Breathing doesn’t work for me.”

This common student disclaimer is often thrown out early on in conversations about coping strategies. I typically find that it’s because while they can parrot back the wisdom they’ve heard that when upset they should “take deep breaths”, they don’t know what deep breaths feel like, or why they should work.

So how can you make breathing work?

I love to start with the science behind breathing. By doing this, I’m letting the student know that the reason they should give deep breathing a shot is because of brain physiology, not just because their school counselor says it works. Even the most skeptical students are willing to give it a try once they understand the why of deep breathing.


MindUP™ is a great resource for teaching children about the brain and deep breathing. They have a PreK-2, a 3-5, and a 6-8 version. It delves into a host of mindfulness topics beyond breathing as well, including using your senses mindfully and practicing gratitude. The explanation I give is a condensed version of some of the content in the first few MindUP lessons. Here’s some key points to the scientific explanation:

·      The amygdala is the part of the brain that protects you. It reacts quickly and strongly to anything it finds scary or threatening, and triggers the fight or flight response.

·      The fight or flight response is really useful if, for example, you’re being chased by a bear, but not so much if you have a math test or if a friend says something mean.

·      The PFC sits at the front of the brain and is responsible for helping you pay attention and make good decisions. It reacts slower than the amygdala.

·      Slowing down and taking a few deep breaths gives the PFC the time it needs to take over and help you react consciously, rather than letting the amygdala take control.

·      The brain is made up of lots of cells called neurons that connect together to form pathways. The more you practice something, the stronger those pathways get and the easier something is to do. This is how people get good at skills like multiplication or playing the piano. Breathing works the same way. The more you practice, the better it will work when you really need it.


Then of course, there is the how of breathing. A common technique is to use counting, such as breathing in while counting to five, holding for two, and breathing out while counting to five. Students are often tempted to take in air too fast during a deep breath, and getting them to slow down to make the inhale and exhale last the full count is key. My absolute favorite tool for breathing is the mini Hoberman Sphere. 



You can use this to guide breathing by opening slowly with the inhale, and closing slowly with the exhale. This also acts as a visual anchor to help calm students as they breathe, and is very concrete to mimic their own breathing patterns. I have had multiple students who showed initial resistance to deep breathing end up using deep breathing with the Hoberman Sphere as a go-to strategy in moments of panic.


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