The work of teachers and administrators is not rocket science—It’s more difficult. Students need many skills to achieve learning, including creativity and innovation, empathy, and patience. Considering the huge responsibilities that educators bear, it’s not surprising that stress is a constant companion and adversary. Noticing how we breathe is one small way to manage the potential effects of stress.
Stress in schools has many sources—external mandates, curriculum expectations, dissatisfied stakeholders, and the necessity to make learning magic happen. Stress can motivate us to do our best work, or devour our confidence from within—keeping us from doing what we know is best for those we are charged with developing into the next generation of citizens.
Medical researchers have shown that when stress is mishandled or ignored, the risks can increase for many health conditions, including “obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma.”
Practicing deep mindful breathing can help us deal with stressful situations like being stuck in traffic, being late for a difficult meeting with parents or our boss, or facing a challenging class. Studies support approaches to mindful breathing, and taking time for restful breathing can help us maintain the calm needed for clear thinking.
Focusing on breathing offers a way to manage situations involving others who are stressed, including learners, colleagues, and parents. When people are agitated, their fight-or-flight response may be triggered, which can escalate a situation. Noticing our breath and consciously practicing deep breathing can help us stay grounded and not succumb to the chaotic or negative energy of others, so we can avoid making a tense situation worse. Mindful breathing allows us to stay focused on the issues, and help others to a place of safety and real conversation.
Develop Your Breathing Muscles
Mindful breathing takes practice. According to many sources, including researchers at Johns Hopkins University, people normally take 12 to 16 breaths per minute. That’s 720 to 960 breaths per hour—or 17,280 to 23,040 per day. Those ranges are for a person at rest and not in a state of stress. We tend to take breathing for granted, so it’s no wonder that when we’re asked to focus on breathing, we may struggle.
Noticing your breathing can help you maintain calm in stressful situations, but success takes ongoing practice. You can take a yoga or meditation class, or simply practice for five minutes three to seven times a week.
Diaphragmatic breathing—inhaling deeply to fill the lungs with air—causes the lungs to press down on the diaphragm, which pushes the belly out. After inhaling, exhale slowly, releasing the breath. Notice how the belly flattens and the air rises and expels from your nose or mouth. Diaphragmatic breathing has positive health benefits, as indicated by studies from Trinity College, Dublin, and Beijing Normal University. I’ve created a YouTube playlist that collects nine videos you can watch to explore further.
Practice Listening Through Breathing
Have you ever shared something important at a meeting, and had the next person speak over you or immediately after you stop speaking? Those moments can make you feel like what you said was not heard nor valued—even if that was not the intention. You can’t stop others from doing that to you, but you can avoid doing it yourself, by practicing pausing before speaking—simply take one or two breaths.
You can also set a rule or norm for discussions in classrooms and stakeholder meetings: Each person must take a breath before speaking after someone else has said something. Taking a breath creates a pause in the conversation. It gives everyone a moment to digest what was just said. It signals to the last speaker that her ideas are being considered.
Practice this breathing norm with students during protocols like Socratic seminar, debates, and other discussion experiences.
Take a Breath Before Acting
When a student disrupts a class by expressing anger or frustration, our instinct is to act immediately, before the situation gets worse. Instead, take one or two breaths, using the time to survey the situation and the environment. Those precious seconds could provide critical information. What emotion is the student showing? What is being said? Are the people around him showing shock, fear, or humor? What is the person’s history?
You can process much of this information in the space of two breaths, and that moment can help you maintain your calm to determine the best courses of action for that individual and that situation.
Breath: The Gift That Keeps Giving
Imagine that you’re running a 100-yard sprint at top speed and immediately on finishing you must make important decisions. Do you think those will be your best decisions?
Teaching and leading can be stressful. Many people—students, their parents, and other stakeholders—demand the educator’s attention. The stress can wear down anyone and lead to outbursts of anger or frustration that can make issues worse, by escalating something minor into actions that cannot be taken back.
Pause a moment and take one or two diaphragmatic breaths. This simple action is a gift to yourself and to the people you’re supporting.