Teaching Children How to Calm Down

Teaching Children How to Calm Down

I just starting reading a wonderful book called The Mindful Child (see link below) in which the author describes a clever technique she used to help her own children calm down: she grabbed a snow globe from the shelf, shook it, and had the crying children watch the snow fall as they held one hand on their bellies and breathed in and out. After the snow fell, she shook it a couple more times until they could talk calmly about what had happened that got them so upset. What a powerful, concrete way to help children physically calm their bodies!

Teaching children how to calm down is an important strategy for your classroom’s peace, as well as being an incredibly helpful life skill. When we get upset, our sympathetic nervous system does all sorts of wonderful things that help us use the fight or flight response (raise blood pressure, increase breathing rate, push energy to our muscles, etc). Unfortunately, this can be activated too often and become hard to shut down. We need to be able to activate our parasympathetic nervous system which calms down these physical responses in our bodies. One of the easiest and most effective strategies is simply controlled BREATHING!

Here are a few other ideas besides watching a snow globe for helping children practice controlled breathing until they can do it whenever they need to:

  • Belly Breathing: Have children sit cross-legged on the floor, or on a chair with both feet on the floor. Have them place a hand on their belly around their belly button. Ask them to breathe slowly and feel their hand move. This may take some practice for children (and adults) who are not used to breathing deeply using their diaphragm. Just watching their hand move in and out as they breathe can be calming.
  • Flower and Candle: Pretend to slowly smell a flower (inhale) and then slowly blow out a candle (exhale). Repeat this a few times. Be sure to emphasize the breathing S-L-O-W-L-Y so the children don’t hyperventilate!
  • Color Breathing: Encourage the children to close their eyes (but don’t force them if this in uncomfortable). Have them imagine a beautiful color. For a lovely language arts tie-in, you can have the children describe their colors. Next tell the children, “Pretend to breathe in your color, very slowly. Let’s start. B r e a t h e I n.…Imagine your color is going into your chest and down into your belly. Breathe out. Breath in slowly and imagine your color is going into your legs, all the way down to your toes. Breathe out. Breathe in slowly and imagine your color is going into your arms – all the way out to your fingers. Your color is all over your body and it feels so calm and relaxing. Breathe in slowly and pretend your whole body is glowing with color. Now you can slowly open your eyes and take your beautiful color with you the rest of the day.”  
  • 3 In and 3 Out. Get the children in a relaxed position, then have them close their eyes and breathe in as you count “1”. Then, without breathing out, have them breathe in a bit deeper as you count to “2”, then once more have them fully fill their lungs as you count “3”. The exhale works the same way. You say, “okay, 1 – now exhale a little bit,” Next you say, “2, blow out a little more,” and then, “3, let out the rest of your breath.” This works best if you model this first a few times and have them do it with you before starting to close their eyes. This is a challenging skill, but can help children learn to breathe deeply and to control their breath better, which will also help with self-regulation.

It’s important to teach children these breathing strategies BEFORE they need to use them. Practice on a daily basis, if possible, and when children begin to get upset, cue them to use their breathing techniques. Before long you should see that children will calm down more quickly and be able to problem-solve better. In future posts, I’ll share other types of calming techniques besides breathing. In the meantime, let me know how this works for you!