Guest Blogger: Lesley Ravenscroft, Central Regional Coordinator for the Thrive Approach
“When you breathe in, you inspire; when you don’t breathe, you expire.” (Apocryphal answer to a biology exam question).
Breathing is natural, right? Our body does it largely without our conscious awareness. We become aware of it during some situations. I often find myself non-consciously holding my breath during underwater scenes in movies; I nearly died during ‘Finding Dory’!
Moreover, inhabiting perception and being able to recognise our bodily sensations are a first base for the physicality of emotional regulation. It is even more important to teach this when we are working with traumatised children who may, of necessity, have had to de-sensitise themselves from feelings due to toxic stress. They may be less sensitive to the social engagement of others and less able to tolerate and integrate strong feelings such as fear.
We would conceptualise fear as an instinctive response to threats to survival. For mammals, this includes separation from a care-giver as our survival depends on the Adult–Child relationship. Our senses pick up sensory cues, then our amygdala scans the incoming sensory information and, if we have come to associate those cues with threat, the amygdala triggers the fight/flight or freeze responses. In the hyper-aroused flight response, we experience a racing heart, sweating, sick feeling, deeper breathing. This is mediated by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. In the hypo-aroused freeze response, we experienced foggy thinking or confusion, numbness, dissociation, shallow breathing, slow heart-beat. This is mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system. It involves the release of opioids and acetyl-choline.
We cannot underestimate the importance of breathing – particularly a long out-breath – for calming and regulating these systems. This is because the Vagus nerve acts like a brake on the heart every time we breath out. This means that the longer the out-breath, the more active the brake and the slower our heart-beat. Controlled breathing can override the fight, flight, or freeze response set off by the amygdala and enable mindful behaviour.
Breathing Buddies (aka Teddy Bear Belly Breathing) can help small people calm their nervous system and have giggles with a Transition Object in school, or it is even a great way of calming before reading a story at bedtime.
In a school, children are invited to bring a favourite teddy/stuffie (or I have even seen a favourite fire truck!) into school. They can play with it and snuggle it and then lie down comfortably on their backs with the teddy on their tummy, near their naval. Offer cushions and pillows for them to find a comfy position with arms and legs placed outstretched. The idea is to make them aware of their breathing, so ask them to breathe in so that their buddy goes up as you count to three and down for the count of three, giving their buddy an ‘up and down’ ride. Ask them to notice how their tummy feels with their buddy on it at different parts of the cycle. “Feel how your tummy is pushing on the bear.” The point is to repeat the breathing rhythm and to do this to regulate any child who is dysregulated by separation or the thought of the school day ahead. They can pretend that their teddy is real and that they are rocking it to sleep. Play along by saying things like, “I can hear a bear snoring; I think you have sent it to sleep!”
Once regulated, the teddies may accompany the children to class or even stay around a special teddy bears’ tea party table to keep them safe, though as Transition Objects, the child needs easy access. Breathing Buddies can be repeated for any transition and before home time too. Many children are not too sure of time and building this into routines can provide very clear signposts to the passage of the day.
Other types of regulated breathing could be introduced by blowing bubbles or by blowing on cuts and grazes, all the while fostering a longer out-breath to act as a regulator and slow the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
Ultimately, if the children are used to doing mindful breathing as part of their daily routine, they can be prompted to use it during a crisis as part of self-regulation. Breathing “…as if they were giving teddy a ride…” is great for steadying and grounding the alarmed mind. Of course, mindful strategies must be held within a safe and responsive relationship to be truly successful, so enjoy those relationships with the small people and their Breathing Buddies.
About the Author: Lesley has worked in teaching for thirty years, starting with 4-7 year-olds and, most recently spent 19 years as a SENCO in a mainstream secondary school. She wishes she had known about the Thrive Approach earlier. She can be contacted on Lesley.Ravenscroft@thriveapproach.com
Find out about other breathing strategies at Mindfulness in the Classroom- Breathing or in Part 1 of the book on Breathing by Tammie Prince, 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Mindfulness in the Classroom published by Bloomsbury.