Breathing. We all do it. And, chances are, someone in your life has told you to take a deep breath during a time of stress or frustration. If you’re a parent, caregiver, or teacher, you’ve probably said those words to a child too. But why? What’s the secret? Why is deep breathing so important for our minds and bodies, and what’s the best way to teach breathing exercises to kids?
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Why deep breathing is a vital tool for mental well-being.
Deep breathing is a superpower. It’s one of the easiest and most natural ways to lower stress. Taking a deep breath sends a message to our brains to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to our body. Our blood pressure lowers, our heart rate slows down, and our muscles relax. It is very simple, yet it can be so hard to put into practice.
Understanding the science behind this superpower can help us realize the benefits and encourage us to put it to use. MindUP, a curriculum designed to teach kids about the connection between the brain, breathing, and focused attention, breaks it all down in a kid-friendly way. They use two key players of the brain to help explain how our brains respond to stress; the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
The amygdala regulates our emotional state and protects us from threats. When we’re in a positive emotional state, information runs smoothly and freely to the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s thinking center. When we’re in a negative emotional state (overwhelmed or stressed), the amygdala prevents the flow of information and inhibits any higher-level thinking or thoughtful decision-making. A “fight, flight or freeze” response is signaled instead, and immediate action follows. In a child, this could look like a temper tantrum, hitting, screaming, or using unkind words.
Deep breathing overrides the “fight, flight or freeze” response and helps us become less reactive and more reflective when experiencing stress. For kids, this can be helpful during disagreements with friends or siblings or during homework time when big feelings tend to arise. Simply pausing and taking a deep breath creates space and time to think and make better decisions. In other cases, children can use their breath as a tool when they’re nervous, afraid, or anxious. Test-taking, big sports games, or performances can heighten these feelings. As we practice training our brains, it becomes more habitual, and we learn to turn to it more often than not.
What’s the best way to teach breathing exercises to kids?
It’s best to teach breathing exercises when your child is calm (plus, it still has benefits then, too!). Trying to explain the importance of breathing while in a stressful situation rarely ends well. So, set up a time to practice daily. I suggest adding it to your morning or evening routine, whichever feels doable and realistic. For preschool through elementary school children, books, card decks, and coloring worksheets are a great way to introduce breathing exercises. They offer a guide for you and make the process more engaging and fun.
Most importantly, you’ll want to emphasize the importance of deep belly breathing. This means when you take a deep breath, your belly fills up like a balloon, and on the exhale, it deflates. Shallow breathing (in the chest area) does not have the same benefits. Have your child place a stuffed animal on their belly and take it for a “ride” as they slowly breathe in and out. Or, if you’re practicing while sitting up, simply have them place their hands on their belly to feel the slow rise and fall of their breath.
You can then gently remind your child to use one of the breathing exercises you’ve practiced together during a stressful time. At home, you can also create a “peace corner,” a safe space for your child to independently take a break, breathe and calm down.
Remember, children are sponges and are always watching you. Monkey see, monkey do. The more you breathe and put this into practice, the more likely your kids will too.
Additional Resources for Teaching Kids Breathing Exercises
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