Let’s talk about breath baby!

The Problem

A student in your class has become extremely agitated. They show the typical symptoms leading to a melt down. Tightened fists, tense facial muscles, perhaps some tears and of course, shallow quick breathing. In this moment, our first words are “Take a deep breath”. Easier said than done. But, we persevere and break through the barrier that was put up by this tiny body and guide them through several deep breaths, with our own lungs modeling the activity, before reaching a conflict resolution.

Now, let’s hold on a moment. This seems like a great moment! We were able to guide this student to a relaxed state and work through a problem. Hooray! But what would have happened if you weren’t there; if your modeled technique was not available for copying? Would this student know how to deal with these frustrating feelings? If they were on the playground, walking home from school, riding the bus, playing with a sibling, dealing with homework on their own or any other of the vast situations that a student is left to handle emotions independently, would they be equipped with the know how to guide themselves to become calm?

How do we equip our students?

A specific set of steps to follow to instantly equip students (or ourselves) with the power of self-soothing, proper stress management or identity confidence does not exist. However, there are routines that we can put in place that bolster the schematas already in place in a student’s mind with new knowledge of self care and effective coping strategies. Breathing techniques have been scientifically proven to…

  • promote self awareness
  • calm the sympathetic nervous system by taking our bodies out of the fight or flight response
  • increase energy through re-oxygenating our brain
  • strengthen the lymphatic system
  • increase lung capacity through diaphragmatic strengthening
  • offer mental clarity

… as well as so many other benefits.

I cannot recommend enough to use breathing techniques throughout the day. We often refer to deep breathing only in moments of stress. When a student is stressed, they are told to breathe deep and guided through the process. However, by practicing breathing techniques as part of the day’s routine, students can equip themselves with these tools and call upon them in times of stress without the need for assistance.

The goal in these techniques is to foster a sense of independence and confidence in being able to take care of oneself in times of stress. Stress could be emotional, triggered by a mental challenge; or physiological, triggered by a response to a difficult exercise/activity or from lack of sleep.

Groove Breaks

It’s time for our second addition to the Groove Break series! Here, I’ve listed breathing techniques that could be incorporated into transitions, used before a study session or quiz/test and only take approximately 1 minute. These breathing techniques can be combined or used individually to target specific needs in the classroom. They will also become tools for students to put in their toolbox of coping strategies.


As we discussed previously, if students are spending most of their day at their desk, their cores are not building the proper strength to support their bodies. This goes for the diaphragm as well. We often associate our lungs with breathing, but the diaphragm is the main muscle that compresses and elongates the lungs to enable us to breathe. Strengthening this muscle through simple exercises will allow students to feel a stronger impact of taking deep breaths.

Quick side note!

Students who are developmentally delayed are at a disadvantage in school. Not only are their diaphragms lacking strength, but the intercostal muscles (located between the ribs) that allow for rib expansion are also found to not naturally open with physical development. This causes shallow breath which in turn prevents healthy oxygen from reaching the brain at sufficient levels due to smaller lung capacity.

Try these techniques with your students. Be sure to join in and model the techniques as well, rather than using only verbal instruction. Of course, a few of these might be silly. But this is why we work with early childhood and elementary students right? So that we don’t have to grow up completely.

  • 5 Finger Breathing Journey – Have students hold out one hand. (It does not matter which hand they are holding out. The point of this activity is the breathing, not the concept of “right and left”.) instruct students to spread their fingers wide to make their hand as big as possible. Taking the pointer finger of the opposite hand and place it at the base of the thumb. You can tell your students that your finger is going to take a journey. Perhaps describe their hand as a mountain. This can help engage the students more in the activity. As you inhale through the nose, travel the finger up your thumb. The peak of your inhale should be when the traveling finger gets to the tip of the thumb. The exhale brings him down the otherside. Your travelling pointer finger is now between two digits on the opposite hand. Continue travelling the pointer finger up and down the rest of the hand being sure to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. When you reach the base of the pinky, your journey is done. These are five mindful and effective breaths that engage the students while calming their nervous systems.
  • Bubble Breath – As this breath allows students (and you) to contort their face, it very easily becomes loved for its silliness and stress relief. An easy way to describe this breath is to use a puffer fish as an example. Prompt students to breathe in through their noses and then hold the breath in by puffing out their cheeks. You can adjust your lips to become a straight line rather than a “kissing face” so that the release is more of a popping sound. After a count of 3, all breath is rapidly exhaled through the mouth. This rapid exhale should feel like a whoosh of air. Encourage sound from the students in the form of a sigh or guttural noise. This sound makes students aware of something leaving them; the breath. This breath is great to do before or after a difficult assignment as well as after a movement time or recess. The hold and release method gradually lessens tension in the body while flooding them with fresh oxygen. You can repeat this breath up to 5 times.
  • Lion Breath – While this is a great exercise for every person, no matter how small, younger learners find this the most enticing. It is a great tool to use during circle time or morning meeting. If you are working with a group of older students, this breath is good when accompanied with feelings of empowerment, confidence and bravery. Before beginning this breath, make sure your students put a powerful thought in their mind. This might be a simple mantra such as “I am brave”, “I am kind”, “I’m so awesome”, “I can do this”. Once they’ve got their positive thought, have them close their eyes. On the breath in, be sure to breathe through the nose. The slower the better. Allow the belly to push out and the lungs to expand. When ready, have the students open their mouth with their tongue out on the exhale. This rapid “HA” sound should come from the back of the throat. The volume is adjustable on this breath. At times, students need a chance to make some noise. Encourage “strong” sounds rather than “loud” sounds. It is good to practice on your own as the teacher until you feel confident doing this breath. Your example of powerful breath can encourage students who may be more reserved to really let loose. These breaths are good to do in a sequence of 3.
  • Cooling Breath – This breath is a great tool to physically cool down the body. Whether the body temperature is elevated from stress, anxiety, emotional overload or even physical activity, this breath can bring refreshing oxygen into the body that brings down internal temperature. While most breaths are instructed as “in through the nose, out through the mouth”, this breath takes the opposite route. Instruct students to form a small “o” with their mouth. Similar to whistling or blowing bubbles. Breathe in slowly through the mouth. You will notice a cooling temperature across your tongue and roof of your mouth. Close your mouth and exhale the breath out of your nose. This allows the mouth to stay cool rather than heat up again as the warm air crosses your tongue. You can instruct students to place a hand on their belly or chest so connect them to the physical filling of their lungs. Repeat this breath at least 5 times.

Explaining Breath Benefits

Often it is difficult to convey the benefits of taking deep breaths to students. However, explaining the situations when they would use these breaths helps students recognize correlating emotional and physical responses.

You can explain to students that you notice how tired they seem and offer up a bubble breath to help them wake up. Perhaps before an exam you notice some tension and anxiety. Encourage your students through a lion breath to power up their confidence. As you practice a cooling breath after recess, think aloud to your students how this is a breath that helps calm your body. You can tell them how you feel more at ease and calm afterwards. When practicing the 5 finger breathing journey, relate this exercise to a time that you used it when you felt frustrated. By offering personal experiences that incorporated these techniques, you can plant moments and ideas in your students mind. This background information can then be recalled to help them work through a feeling or situation.

Closing Thoughts

Obviously, the benefits of mindful breathing are infinite. We only touch on a few here, but be sure to check back for the next edition of the Groove Break series to learn more. Perhaps after reading this you realize that breath work is something you’d like to work on yourself. Hooray! That’s great! Mindful breathing should be accessed by everyone, not just by early childhood and elementary students. When offering these moments to your students, be sure to take time for yourself as well. When we as teachers are well equipped with tools for self care, we in turn successfully prepare our students to confidently face life’s challenges. This week during your class, take 30 seconds to breathe together. Bolster your students’ toolboxes of coping strategies with these great resources.

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