I see them, a steady stream of them. I know you see them too. In my office, in the classroom, in the grocery store, maybe in your own home. We all see them: children who are melting down inwardly, outwardly, silently, loudly. They worry their classmates, their teachers, their parents. With their challenging behaviors, anxiety, or outbursts, they worry me too.
People ask why. Why so many lately? Why so much?
There’s not a one size fits all answer. Some young brains have been exposed to things well before they were able to process it and store it safely away. They have been raised from birth with adrenaline and cortisol coursing through their bodies to help them flee from real or perceived threats. Some young brains have been built with DNA that has been shaped and reshaped by generations of trauma and stress. Some young brains are just very sensitive, take in everything, feel a responsibility to fix it all, start feeling overwhelmed as they try to figure out where to start.
Think before you act or speak, we tell them, forgetting that most behavior under stress is automatic, reflexive, powered by adrenaline– that fight or flight hormone that simultaneously makes us panic while making us strong.
I sometimes prescribe medication that helps children engage their prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, more effectively. Sometimes the medication works well and is game changing. Almost always it has side effects.
Lately, I’ve been prescribing something else:
“There are two ways of changing the threat detection system: from the top down, using rich connections from the front of your brain, or from the bottom up, via the reptilian brain through breathing, movement, and touch,” says Bessel Van der Kolk in his book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” “Whenever you take a deep breath, you activate the sympathetic nervous system. The resulting burst of adrenaline speeds up your heart, which explains why many athletes take a few short, deep breaths before starting a competition. Exhaling, in turn, activates the parasympathetic nervous system which slows down the heart. If you take a yoga or a meditation class, your instructor will urge you to pay attention to the exhalation, since deep, long breaths out help calm you down.”
Not everyone can access the thinking part of the brain during times of stress. I know I can’t. But all of us can start to to notice our breathing: how it feels to breath in and fill the chest, then the ribs, then the belly with air, how it feels to let it out slowly, how the heart rate goes down the more deeply you exhale, how the jaw relaxes, the shoulders drop, how the feet securely connect to the earth below.
Recently, I took myself on a field trip to a local elementary school. I’d heard rumors that there were some teachers using breathing and mindful movement in their classrooms. I wanted to see for myself, and what a gift I gave myself by spending time with them.
I started with Ms. Allan’s media class, and here is what I saw: the children came in with their teacher, Ms. Stewart. The teacher apparently had the option to take some time for planning or even (gasp) herself, but she chose to stay with her class, to move and focus on breathing with them. Each student chose a carpet square and got settled while Ms. Allan read a book about kindness. Then she began to ask the children to begin to pay attention to their breathing. I watched as eyes closed, shoulders fell, wiggling slowed. Over the next 25 minutes, each child engaged, on his own square, in his own space, with himself, his breath, his heart, his mind. Each child listened, tried, stretched, balanced, felt safe, because they were focusing completely on the present moment, not what happened earlier, not what might happen later. Not one child was asked to refocus or calm down. Every child was already focused. Every child calm.
I followed the children back to Ms. Stewart’s class. Transitions between classes are always hard for children, especially those with special needs or high energy levels, but all children often struggle with moments of transition. The energy changes from room to room. The rules and expectations change from teacher to teacher. The lighting in Ms. Stewart’s classroom was low and warm. The fluorescent lights were turned off and there were table lamps and many different seating options available. Without instruction to do so, each child took a seat, put head down on folded arms, closed eyes, quietly breathed.
After a minute, they formed a square, with the “VIP’s” for the day leading the conversation. They spoke softly about what had gone well in the previous class: who had done a good job following directions, who had treated someone else kindly. “What other compliments are there?” asked Ms. Stewart, and several children described specific behaviors they had seen in their classmates that impressed them.
She invited me to come back some time at the end of the day. If the children collect and organize their things in time, they are allowed to spend 5 minutes quietly breathing and getting ready to make the transition to after school care or the bus home. They consistently do their best to get things in order so that they can take this time for themselves, she says, and bus drivers, parents, and after school program teachers seem to appreciate that it helps them to make that transition more successfully.
Next, I had heard that I needed to connect with Ms. Joyner and her first grade class to see how she had set up her classroom, so I found her and introduced myself. She had no assistant, but a volunteer was settled on a blanket outside her door, working one on one with a child on his reading. Again, the fluorescent overhead lights were off, and there were areas where the children could work together. There was also a little desk in the back where they could choose to be alone if needed. My favorite space was the sensory corner near her desk where there were yoga cards, calming strategy cards, and a book about an angry octupus that learns how to calm down after getting all worked up and spraying black ink everywhere. The book comes with a bottle containing a toy octopus and tiny shells which can be shaken up, then held as the observer watches everything settle slowly to the bottom.
As I spoke with Ms. Joyner, a child approached and obviously had something to say. She waited politely, but due to a medical issue, she was having trouble getting out the words when it was her turn to speak. I watched as Ms. Joyner knelt down and took the child’s hands. “Inhale,” she said, softly. “Exhale….”
They breathed together.
Then the words began to come.
“I.” Inhale. Exhale.
“Need.” Inhale. Exhale.
“A.” Inhale. Exhale.
“Book.” Inhale. Exhale.
Breathing in the classroom. It works for teachers. It works for overachievers. It works for underachievers. It works for everybody in between. (And if it doesn’t work, the side effects are minimal).