Girl meditating outside

How to bring deep breathing and meditation to the classroom

I was in position at the starting line for the 1600-meter run, and while the other girls looked like cats about to pounce, I was yawning … like a cat preparing for a nap. Once the starting pistol sounded and the race began, I was fine. But for those few awkward moments leading up to the race, I just couldn’t stop yawning.

A savvy coach finally clued me in on why. Turns out, I’d get so stressed and nervous before the race that I’d forget to breathe. This caused my body to run low on oxygen. And when your body doesn’t get enough oxygen, it yawns.

Breathing — it sounds like such a simple, automatic thing. I always thought it was an involuntary action (true) that I didn’t need to think about (false). However, the practice of breathing, especially deep breathing, is a much more intentional act with benefits beyond keeping us alive.

Benefits of deep breathing

Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted on the effects of deep breathing. The results have shown that deep breathing can: 

  • Calm emotions
  • Reduce stress
  • Allow the body to relax
  • Enhance focus
  • Improve overall health

5 reasons why students need deep breathing

1. Calms emotions

Our feelings can be difficult to manage, understand, and consciously describe, especially when we’re young. As a result, students can get extremely angry without knowing why and may not know how to handle that anger. Extreme fear, sadness, or anxiety can overwhelm them (and you) at unexpected moments. Deep breathing can quickly and efficiently help students calm these emotions and help them re-focus.

2. Reduces stress

Students today are under tremendous stress. Besides dealing with more standardized tests than ever, many students are also facing high expectations and intense pressure to succeed. Just like adults, they need help finding positive ways to manage their stress.

3. Enables the body to relax

Students are understandably excited when they return from a fun activity such as recess or physical education. Breathing exercises can help calm them down and transition to a state of learning readiness. When the muscles relax, the mind and emotions follow suit.

4. Enhances focus

Students of all ages sometimes have difficulty focusing on tasks and information. Deep breathing puts the emphasis on one simple assignment: breathing in and breathing out. This helps the mind put aside other distractions and readies it to pay attention to the work at hand.

5. Increases body awareness and self-control

There is much in this world we can’t control as adults — imagine how difficult it must be for children and young adults! Breathing techniques provide students with something they can control: their bodies. If they can control their breathing, they can learn to control other actions and behaviors as well.

17 ways to incorporate deep breathing into the classroom

While teaching has its share of beautiful, joyful moments, it can also be stressful and exasperating. When you feel internal tension rising, try some of these exercises to help you get back on track. Your students will feed off of your calm state just as they would feed off of your stress and agitation.

1. Tension release

Take a deep breath and hold it as you curl your toes for about five seconds, and then release your breath all at once. Take another deep breath and hold it as you tense your muscles one area at a time. Exhale in one forceful blow, immediately relaxing your muscles.

2. 8-4-7 breathing

Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Inhale quietly through your nose for four seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds.

TIP: Start the day off with breathing. There is often a hectic rush to get kids to school on time, get everything situated, and begin the lesson. Incorporating a short breathing exercise into the morning routine can help students put the craziness of the morning behind them and focus on moving forward with the next task at hand.

3. Balloon breaths

Have students stand and face each other in a large circle. Ask them to imagine a giant balloon of their favorite color. Guide them to slowly and deeply inhale through their nose, filling up their bellies (their balloons) with air. As their imaginary balloon fills up, have them extend their arms, raise them over their head, and then hold their breath. “Pop the balloon” for your students, and allow them to twist, turn, and fall down as they exhale, like a deflating balloon.

4. Focus on the breath

Guide the students to deeply inhale through their nose and exhale through their mouth. Encourage them to pay attention to the air coming into their nostrils and to their stomach rising and falling as they inhale and exhale. Students can choose to do this with their eyes open or closed, whatever they think will help them focus better. You might also want to help them count their breaths while they do this to increase their concentration even more.

TIP: Open the class period with breathing. If your students change classes or if it seems like they’re having trouble with effectively transitioning from one subject to the next, try a quick breathing exercise. This will help them refocus for the next subject.

5. Seated breath awareness

Have your students sit upright in their chairs with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Ask them to place their left hand over their belly and their right hand over their chest. Invite them to close their eyes if they want to. Tell the students to inhale through their nose in two parts: their belly and their chest. They should be able to feel their belly press into their hand as they inhale and fall away from it as they exhale; the opposite holds for their chest.

6. Pursed-lips breathing

Guide your students to breathe in for four or five seconds and then exhale through pursed lips. This reduces the time to breathlessness, helping students to slow down and better regulate their breathing.

TIP: Transition from lunch and recess with a breathing exercise. It’s especially hard for little bodies to immediately adjust from running full-steam ahead to sitting still and listening. Help your students with this task by utilizing an active breathing exercise before you begin the next subject.

7. Breathing plus movement

Lead students in completing a movement while they breathe deeply. One way to do this is to use a “Simon says” or “follow-the-leader” format. For example, you can instruct the students to slowly lift their arms as they breathe in and then slowly lower them as they breathe out.

8. Flower power (for younger students)

If you have the space for it, have your students lie on their backs. If they’re comfortable and would like to, invite them to close their eyes. Tell them you’re going to come lay a flower on their bellies. Let them know they have a choice of whether they want a real flower on their belly or would rather imagine one there. If they don’t want a flower, ask them to raise one leg in the air so you know not to give them one. Once the flowers have been distributed, instruct the students to direct their focus to the flower on their belly button. Guide them to raise the flower by inhaling into their belly and make it fall by exhaling. Lead students through five to ten breaths. Each inhale should last as long as each exhale.

TIP: Use breathing exercises to help students move from a state of active learning to a time of sitting. Sometimes, a student’s mind needs time and help to transition from one train of thought to another. If the students were engaged in group work or other form of active learning, take a few seconds, and once they’re all seated, perform a breathing exercise. This will enable the brain to more easily transition to the next part of the lesson.

classroom with students sitting at their desks meditating
Photo: Unsplash

9. Sigh the blues away

With your students seated, have them inhale deeply through their nose. As they do, they should tighten the muscles in their body and feel their shoulders rise to their ears. They can clench their fists, toes, and facial muscles. When they exhale through their mouth, instruct them to release all of their muscles, allow their shoulders to drop and let out a big sigh. Repeat this three times.

10. The deep-dive breath

In four- or five-second intervals for each section, have students inhale through their nose, hold their breath, and then exhale through their mouth.

TIP: Redirect focus with a breathing activity. As adults, we can be easily distracted and lose focus on what we’re supposed to be doing (such as when we check Twitter rather than write an article!). Students of all ages share the same struggle. When you see a distracted student, or when the entire class seems to have lost focus, try a quick breathing technique to get the students back on track.

11. Breathing colors

Add an element of visualization and increased focus to the breathing process by incorporating colors. Have the students imagine that they are breathing in one color and breathing out another. For example, they might pretend that they’re inhaling pink and exhaling purple.

12. Triangle breathing

Like the above exercise, this one helps increase student focus by adding another element of visualization. Invite students to close their eyes and imagine traveling up one side of an equilateral triangle as they breathe in, then down the other side and back along the bottom as they breathe out. This encourages the students to breath out twice as long as they are breathing in.

TIP: Breathe together before a test. Tests are a common cause of stress and anxiety. To help the students combat these feelings, try leading the class in a seated breathing exercise to help them calm their emotions and sharpen their minds.

13. Protection hands

Students open their palms, bend their thumbs down onto their palms, and wrap their fingers around the thumbs. This position invites them to draw their focus inward. With their hands in these inward fists, have them rest their left hand on their left thigh and their right hand on their right thigh. Tell the students to take a slow, deep breath in through their nose and a long, slow breath out through the mouth. Repeat this five times.

14. Balloon breaths #2

With their elbows relaxed, have your students pretend they’re holding a large balloon in both hands. When they inhale, instruct them to gently pull their fingers apart so there’s plenty of space between them. When they exhale, have them slowly bring their fingers back to gently touch. 

TIP: Use breathing techniques as a means to address poor behavior. Include breathing exercises in your tool bag for dealing with unruly students. If a child starts acting up, separate them and have him/her practice breathing exercises until they feel that he/she is calm and ready to rejoin the class. Check out this article from Study.com for an example of how breathing techniques as a method of intervention worked at one school.

15. Belly breathe

Either sitting straight in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, have your students place their hands on their bellies and expand their stomachs as they slowly breathe in. They should feel their stomach get smaller as they slowly breathe out.

16. Belly breathe with ears covered

Have your students cover their ears and listen to the sounds of their breathing as they slowly inhale and exhale.

TIP: Teach and encourage students to use breathing exercises as a way to de-escalate tensions and conflicts between each other. If you notice two students getting increasingly frustrated with each other, separate them and have them engage in a breathing technique with you or on their own until their anger subsides.

17. Counted breathing

In a calm voice, ask your students to take deep breaths with you. Instruct them to breathe in through their nose for five seconds. Count these aloud if you’re with them. Have them hold their breath for three seconds and then breathe out through their mouth for five seconds. Repeat this exercise as needed until their breathing has become steady and their anxiety has visibly subsided. Once they’ve calmed down, you can move on to discussing the topic at hand.

For more breathing exercises, check out these sites: The Friendship Bench, Britannica Digital Learning, Willy Wood Teaching, and Mindful Schools.

A simply complex wonder

Breathing — it’s a vitally simple function with incredible impact. As a runner, I found that concentrated breathing enabled me to push myself further and faster. In the midst of experiencing labor contractions, it helped me to work through the pain. As a teacher and parent, I’ve also noticed that it helps me calm down and resist the urge to lash out when I’m frustrated. Learning more about various breathing techniques has given me another tool to help myself and my children manage their energy and emotions. While it isn’t a miracle solution to every problem, it is one more idea to include in your repertoire of classroom management practices.

Photo: Unsplash

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