Teaching Students to Breathe

When we practice mindfulness practices such as core breathing, we're able to have a little separation between our thoughts, our feelings, the sensations in our body, and our breath—We're cultivating self-awareness.

We want our students to bounce back from adversity—to be able to get up, and try. And there are three things that really are related to our ability to bounce back.

One of them is, how extreme is the adversity? The more extreme, the more difficult it is to bounce back, and then what’s in our environment that might support us? Caring relationships, caring adults, even one caring adult that supports our ability to bounce back, that one adult that will listen and be there for us. I was just in a school the other day with a young girl who was crying, and I just got to walk around the field with her, and talk with her, and hear what is going on, and be able to be a support. I knew that was the most important thing for her that day. The third factor is cultivating the inner resources, so that we can be self-aware. We can regulate our emotions. We can be confident. We can be courageous. We can be determined, persevering, and have a “not yet” mindset.

Fostering a Nonjudgmental Environment

We are all different, and so how can we celebrate that difference, and use it as an opportunity to learn from each other? This leads us into fostering a nonjudgmental environment, more of a curious environment. Tell me more, tell me more about how you think, and how you feel, and what’s going on for you. Expressing generosity and gratitude. We know how healing gratitude is, and so teachers can model this, and invite their students to show appreciations of one another. Every day, and this idea of identity development. To make that part of it, who are we becoming, and inviting students to share how they’re feeling in class, and what’s underneath that, and being able to label those emotions, and express them appropriately, and being able to resolve conflicts.

We have to be able to manage our conflicts, and be able to have win-win solutions, and cultivate empathy, and compassion. Of course, there’s physical, emotional, and psychological safety is so critical, and encouraging hope, and aspirations.

There is a teacher at a school in Oakland, at the Urban Promise Academy, and at the end of every class, she says, “You are awesome,” and the students reply, “Yes, we are.” Then they all together say, “Remember, the decisions that we make today will shape our world tomorrow,” and they all just say it, and they know that they have a role in shaping their world. It’s on them. There’s an agency. There’s empowerment, and sometimes in schools we take that away from teachers and students by just being so top down, and this is what you’re teaching, and this is how you’re teaching it, and this is what you’re learning, and this is how you’re learning it. Students are different in the way they learn. How can we make it okay to learn differently, and to respond to the needs of our students?

A Loving-Kindess Practice for Students

We all need a sense of self-worth, and inner fulfillment, and feeling secure, and those need to be our underlying core beliefs, but we don’t always have those as our core beliefs. We really need to send these messages to ourselves, so I want to invite you to take a moment, and we’re going to send some messages of loving kindness to ourselves, to cultivate a little self-compassion, a little kindness towards ourselves.

  • If you feel comfortable, and close your eyes, or maybe even just turn your gaze downward towards the floor, and just, let’s just breathe.
  • Inclining your attention to your breath, becoming more and more relaxed with each breath.
  • Repeat these phrases silently in your own mind. May I be safe, and protected. May I be healthy and strong. May I experience love and joy. May I live my life with ease, and may I be at peace.
  • Breathing again, just naturally. Relaxed, putting your attention on your heart center. Our center of love, and compassion, and joy, and equanimity, knowing we can always return to that place of knowing, I am enough. I am loved. Whenever you feel ready, open your eyes.

Our students need to hear those messages for themselves, and then sending those messages to one another, and even sending those messages to someone with whom they’re in conflict, so that you know you can be in conflict with someone, and still know that you are connected, because really ultimately, we are all connected. We all need to feel safe, or calm, or relaxed, or engaged and alert. In order to have healing-centered schools, we have to practice stress reduction strategies. Teachers, easy to get triggered in a moment from, just imagine if the student is feeling stressed, and they express that by being disrespectful, or aggressive, or bullying, or even if a student is withdrawing, and disengaged. Students feel stress. Teachers feel stress, so let’s learn a lifetime habit, which mindfulness practices, breathing practices, chi gong, Tai chi, yoga. You can call it stretching. A body scan.

One thing really is just ongoingly inviting students to breathe. I work with a number of teachers who have taught their students this core breathing strategy, and they did an experiment. The experiment was, I wonder if my students can A, have less, fewer fights on the playground if we do core breathing. If they can manage their emotions better, and if they can be more engaged, and actually yes to all three, and what began happening is after several weeks of teaching this core breathing, and practicing it together, this was at an elementary school, five teachers, different grade levels, trying it out, the students would come in from recess and get into the teacher’s chair, and begin leading the core breathing, or I would get photos sent to me, text messages of a child who was in the middle of a math test, and had just stopped to do a little breathing because he was anxious. 

A Breathing Practice for Students

Core breathing is really important, and there are things that you can get to support your students, just to know that we usually breathe very shallow, right to our chest. What we want is to support students to do full belly breathing, to really breathe with their full diaphragm.

  • Close your eyes, or lower your gaze, and as you take a deep breath in.
  • Feel the breath coming all the way into your belly, feeling our belly expand, our diaphragm expand, our shoulder area, our clavicular area expand.
  • As you exhale, exhale a full exhalation through the nose, or the mouth, feeling the belly fall. So, feeling the belly rise on the inhalation, feeling the belly fall on the exhalation.

Ask your students how they feel just before a core breathing practice, and how they feel afterwards, is eye-opening, because they usually will say, “I feel more calm. I feel peaceful. I’m ready to learn,” so it is a brain break.

You can do this standing up. Ask all your students to stand up, and just take a deep breath in, and exhale. Giving your students those brain breaks is helpful. I do want to come back to this idea of emotions as being foundational for mental and physical health and well-being. I remember hearing a quote from Dr. Bruce Lipton. Your thoughts become your biology, so the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another. How in the world do we do that? Certainly, when we practice mindfulness practices such as core breathing, we’re able to have a little separation between our thoughts, our feelings, the sensations in our body, and our breath. We’re cultivating self-awareness. We’re cultivating this ability to stand outside of ourselves, and observe ourselves, and that gives us an opportunity to make a choice. If we’re feeling triggered, for example, and we take five breaths, just five rounding breaths or centering breaths, we can observe the situation. We can observe ourselves, and make a choice that may be a better choice than if we’re reactive.

Let’s get students up and moving, and let’s teach them about their body, and let’s teach them about the mind-body-emotion connection that our bodies have an intelligence, and they’re telling us often how we’re feeling. They’re telling us when we’re thirsty, when we need to move, when we’re worried, and anxious, and stressed, or when we’re happy. Lifestyle, so I just took a workshop this weekend with Dr. Rachel Abrams, who wrote a book Body Wise. It’s about the body intelligence, and she made a startling announcement about 80 to 90% of disease in developed countries are caused by 21st century lifestyle, so how can we help students really cultivate a lifestyle that will be lifelong healthy? Because we want them, of course, our standards say we want our students to be college career, community and life ready. We want them to be able to contribute into our communities, and they have to be healthy, mentally, physically, emotionally healthy, and we want them to be healthy in their bodies for a long time instead of aging, and really having a variety of diseases.