Self-Regulation one breath at a time

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Amy Saltzman, a researcher of mindfulness education, stated that, “One of the primary ironies of modern education is that we ask students to “pay attention” dozens of times a day, yet we never teach them how.” In the MindUP program, students participate daily in deep belly breathing, or “brain breaks,” as we call them, in order to slowly learn how to focus their attention.

Studies of the impact of deep belly breathing have been done on everyone from stressed out medical students, to hardened criminals sitting in maximum security prisons, to kids with ADD and ADHD. The results are generally the same. Not only does it increase focus and attention, it improves pro-social behaviour, enhances daily happiness, and increases levels of calm while decreasing stress and anxiety. From a neurological or physiological perspective, deep belly breathing slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and sharpens the minds ability to focus and learn by slowing down the amygdala and supporting the higher brain function taking place in the frontal lobes.

One of the other benefits of deep belly breathing is the control it gives participants over their emotions, their learning, and their own lives. When I completed my own research on mindfulness education as part of my Masters degree, one of the surprising outcomes of my research was discovering that my students were using deep breathing in other aspects of their lives. While I had not discussed applying deep breathing to anything outside of the classroom, I discovered that they were applying this calming strategy to dozens of life experiences outside the classroom including diffusing conflicts with parents, calming anxiety before a big game, helping with sleep, and managing homework. In addition, they were teaching their families what they were learning. Below are some of my favourite pictures that came from a journal entry on ways students had used deep breathing in their own lives.

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In my class, I start students off by reading a script that helps them focus on their breath. To start, we aim for about 1-2 minutes, depending on the age of the children. In my class, I ring a resonating tone bar which, when repeated each day, signals the brain to focus. As they become better able to focus on their own I slowly reduce the amount I say until I eventually say nothing at all.

Here is the script I follow:

  • Please sit comfortably in your chair, sitting tall so the air can fill your lungs.
  • I invite you to close your eyes.
  • When I ring the chime, listen for as long as you can. When you can’t hear it anymore, slowly begin your deep belly breathing.
  • As you take a deep breath and fill your lungs, feel your stomach rise and then fall again as you breathe out. (wait for 30 seconds before moving on with instructions)
  • If your mind wanders, that’s okay, just focus your attention on your breath.
  • When I ring the chime again, keep breathing calmly. When you can’t hear the sound anymore slowly open your eyes but stay still and quiet.

Deep Belly Breathing takes practice. Here are a few ways students can begin to understand and practice deep belly breathing.

Deep Belly Breathing Techniques

HobermanHobermann Sphere: Have students slowly inhale while you slowly expand the Hoberman sphere and then exhale as you slowly shrink the sphere back to its original size. This is also a great way to demonstrate the expansion of the lungs.

Bubbles: Have students practice a deep inhale and then slowly exhale as they blow bubbles.

Back to Back: Have students sit on the floor back to back. One student begins by inhaling deeply. The other partner should feel the expansion in their partners back as they breathe deeply. Take turns back and forth.

Korea_CG_Art_design_rainbow_pinwheelPinwheels: Have students practice deeply inhaling and then using the exhale to control the speed of the pinwheel.

Objects on the stomach: Have students place a small stuffed animal or object on their stomachs. As they breathe deeply, they should feel the stuffed animals or objects rise and then fall when they exhale. For younger students, you can tell them their job is to rock the stuffed animal to sleep using the rise and fall of their stomachs.

Flower and Candle Breathing: Have students clench their fist as if they are holding a flower. Have students pretend to smell the flower by deeply inhaling. Students then pretend they are holding a candle and slowly exhale to blow out the flame.

cottonballsCotton Balls: This game doesn’t mimic deep breathing but demonstrates that breathing takes practice, controlled breathing, and focus. Students get into partners standing a good arms length apart. Students begin by blowing the cotton ball at their partner. The goal is to hit their partner with the cotton ball using only their breath. When done, students stand with their feet apart. They then take turns trying to score a goal by blowing the cotton ball through their partner’s feet. Finally, each individual student places their cotton ball on the palm of their hand. Their challenge is to slowly blow the cotton ball to the tip of their index finger without blowing it off the hand.

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Taming the Palace Guard one Breath at a Time

The amygdala is such a small part of the brain, and yet it plays such a huge role in our ability to function optimally. I was recently at the National Middle Levels Conference in Portland and had the opportunity to hear Shauna King, from UpsideDown Organization, talk about the brain science behind bullying. She talked a lot about the amygdala, and she wisely compared it to a palace guard. I had never heard this comparison drawn; however, it made perfect sense. Like the palace guard, the amygdala’s job is to protect above all else. Information and emotions need to get past the palace guard to get to other parts of the brain. If the palace guard deems it safe or pleasurable, the information is let in. If the palace guard feels it is too dangerous, it will stop information at the gate and prevent it from moving on. Put the palace guard on a state of constant high alert and it is no longer distinguishing between real threats and perceived threats. The gates are closed and nothing is getting by. In addition, you can also send the palace guard into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When you get to this state, your palace guard, or your amygdala, has taken over but at the expense of the frontal lobes where learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and focus take place.

If you have ever had an opportunity to visit London and see the palace guards in action, you will know they lack all emotion. On a past trip to London, I remember watching a child frantically waving his hands and trying to get the attention of one of the guards. I also remember the look of confusion on the face of the child when he was met with no response. This is where the amygdala and the palace guard differ. The amygdala remembers the emotions behind memories.

Take a moment to think about a happy memory. If you are like many of the students and adults I teach, you will find yourself starting to smile and will feel a certain sense of happiness. Your brain has encoded the emotion behind that memory. In the same way you felt happiness at remembering a joyful memory, you also encode the emotions behind memories that are not so happy. In children, the memory may be distant, or even gone, but the emotion behind the memory is still there. For example, a couple of years ago, I had a student who came from a family that was less than kind to him. When another student teased him, he flew into a rage I had never seen in him before. Once he was calm, I asked what had happened. He started by telling me he didn’t know but, as he talked, he related the issue in the class to similar teasing at home by a parent. When the student teased him, he didn’t think about his parent or the teasing that had taken place years ago, instead, his amygdala kicked in and sent him into “fight” mode without him even being aware. The challenging part is that the amygdala is often the dominant part of a child’s brain and “taming it” requires practice.

Students who practice mindful awareness are training the brain to slow down and process sensory data. One of the best ways to practice mindful awareness is through deep belly breathing, or brain breaks, as they are called in the MindUP program. Focusing on the breath helps calm the body by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and sharpening focus. When children pay attention to their breath, they are also supporting the strong functioning that takes place in the frontal lobes or prefrontal cortex. Controlled breathing also calms the body and mind and decreases the anxiety that sends our amygdala into flight, fight, or freeze mode. This practice primes the brain to be more reflective and less reactive. Over time, this strengthens neural pathways and connections and mindful awareness moves from being a state to a long-term trait.

For an excellent video on the connection between the brain and deep breathing, check out this fantastic Dan Siegel Video.