ONE BELL, FIVE BREATHS

In my last post, I proposed a collection of ideas for incorporating mindfulness into the school day. To begin at the beginning, here’s one about breath.

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All the kindergarten teachers I know seem to have bells or meditation chimes to summon students to attention, and it strikes me that these could be appropriate for any age group. (Having sat through some faculty meetings, where order was called vocally, I think a bell would have been much more effective!)

A particular kindergarten teacher of my acquaintance often follows the ringing of her meditation chime with directions given in a library-quiet voice—a strategy for engaging more active listening. The pure tone and near-whisper strike a peaceful chord that seems to benefit everyone. But there may be still more opportunity in those resonant moments. What if every bell were the signal to take five good, deep breaths and then listen to instructions?

An online course in trauma-focused therapy (through the Medical University of South Carolina) takes what I feel is an excellent approach to teaching deep breathing to kids. Children are taught to lay one hand on their chests (in the manner of the Pledge of Allegiance) and the other hand on their bellies so that the pinky lies above their bellybuttons. They are asked to keep the chest still while swelling and deflating the belly.

I find this technique remarkably calming. Having one hand over my heart and one on my abdomen seems to complete a circuit of comfort. I think we are so much more aware of the touch of others—like a hand on a shoulder—that we often don’t realize how powerful the effect of our own can be. I haven’t yet had time to look this up, but if there isn’t research on this already, I hope that there will be. An “intra” variation on the fascinating subject of interpersonal neurobiology.

A natural question here might be, “Why five breaths, and not three?” Three often feels like a magic number, but my inclination is that while three good breaths can connect us to the value of deep breathing, three can also be done expediently, whereas five breaths seem to require a genuine slowing down, which serves to ground the experience. All this is hypothetical on my part…

There is abundant room for variation in the mindful-bell concept, allowing for developmental differences and energetic needs. I have less experience with older kids at this point, for example, and those savvier about preteens and teens might well approach the breathing differently.

My instinct is that with younger kids, such an activity can be part of rapport-building, while with older kids, some rapport might need to come first and through other means? And that with younger kids, the breathing prompt could be signaled as needed, while with older kids, it might need to be more formally a part of beginnings and endings?

Closed eyes might enhance the practice, if the classroom atmosphere supports that. Standing in a circle facing out, away from others, might help as well. A significant aspect of mindfulness is being truly grounded in one’s own reality, and in group situations, that might require some structured support to deal with self-consciousness, comparisons, and other distractions.

Again, there is room here to experiment. Creativity has an important role to play in mindfulness activities, especially with younger kids. I would only encourage attentiveness to whether a particular creative idea truly supports the desired outcome. If there’s a metaphor involved, is it apt? I recognize the visual appeal of the prompt to children to “smell flowers and blow out candles,” which Jenna mentioned in our interview and which is commonly taught, but I don’t use it because I feel some concern that the direction to smell flowers encourages a fairly shallow form of upper-chest breathing. When I smell things, the action doesn’t tend to reach all the way to my belly, and depth of breath impacts its value.

In closing, thinking about proposing a bell-prompt reminded me of classical conditioning, and I wondered whether more independent-minded thinkers might object to the Pavlovian notion of that. It seems to me that informal conditioning occurs in our lives all the time, however, and that peaceful feelings and enhanced self-regulation are gifts we can give to children that will not only allow for, but also encourage, greater freedom and autonomy.

 

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P.S. It seems there are computer programs and applications that can be programmed to ring a bell periodically. For those who have lots of computer work to do, that might be a nice tool for remembering to take breaks, rest the eyes, and breathe.

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