Short Breaks Help Students—and Teachers—Find Their Calm

Simple, quick exercises improve mindfulness, self-regulation, and well-being, for both students and teachers.

October 11, 2021
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The pandemic has been challenging for teachers and students, and while we’ve shown a growth mindset and amazing resilience, continuing to navigate through these uncertain times can cause both mental and physical fatigue.

Tapping into what I call PAUSE—for Practice Awareness and Understanding Self Exercises—can create calm in the classroom and life amid the chaos. By practicing mental wellness exercises as a class, you and your students can benefit with improved mental and physical health, coping skills, and a positive outlook. Making small changes can mean more success as we rewire our brains and develop new habits.

How Teachers Can Find Calm Moments for Themselves

Stress can spread quickly in a workplace or classroom, so it’s important to carve out peaceful moments throughout the day. Begin your day by sitting up in bed and taking a few deep breaths. Place one hand on your heart; be aware and grateful for its beat. Put the other hand on your belly and take a full, deep breath in through your nose. Slowly exhale through your mouth. Notice the rise and fall of your body. Feel the warm air travel over your lips. Be aware of your body relaxing as you add a personal and positive mantra.

Around noon, create a calming moment as you repeat this process by yourself. Close your door to avoid distractions. If possible, play some soft music, dim the lights, and focus on your inhale and exhale. Take some time to be mindful and grateful. While this pause can be just for you, if you eat with your students, share this experience with them.

Practice your breathing again at the end of the day when your head finally hits the pillow. This time, imagine any negative thoughts, fear, or doubts being carried away as you exhale slowly. On the inhales, visualize a smile, a laugh, or a positive moment from your day. Show yourself understanding, patience, and compassion.

Calm Moments for Students

Check-ins and connections: Check-ins are important all day long, but especially as students enter class. Greeting each student gives us a chance to get a quick read on their well-being and helps them feel safe and welcomed. Mornings are the perfect time for a One Word share. Before you begin this activity, instruct students how they’ll choose their word. Ideas can include identifying one emotion, color, or movie character.

Begin by leading your class in a minute of breathing, modeling each inhale and exhale. During the second minute, direct your class to scan their bodies from the top of their head to the bottom of their feet: Giving verbal cues, ask your students to relax their eyes, mouth, and neck. Continue slowly as you bring focus to their arms, hands, back, legs, and feet. Taking deep breaths and scanning our body develops self-awareness. The third minute is the time for students to select their word they’d like to share. Allowing students to share their one word and discuss the deeper meaning of each other’s word grows listening skills, social awareness, and empathy.

Through group practice, we mentor an independent coping tool for students to calm their body and express how they’re feeling in a moment of frustration, worry, or anger. This three-minute activity is worth the investment and will build our emotion vocabulary, as well as stronger connections and relationships.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness is simply being present, but it’s not simply done. Our ability to be in the moment requires opportunities to pause and slow down together and individually. Time and tools are important here. A small area set aside to reset with dimmed lighting, music, and cozy seating can serve as a retreat. This inviting space can give students and teachers a chance to pause in groups or alone and can include coloring or handling sensory sand. Depending on space and student needs, be sure to predetermine when and how to make this space available.

Sharing experiences together such as mindful eating, enjoying quiet walks, and using our imagination through visual stories will enrich each day as we appreciate what we taste, hear, see, feel, and smell.

Breath breaks: When you anticipate chaos approaching, give yourself and your students the time to pause and breathe. Breathing calms the mind. Practicing deep breaths equips us to use breath in a response to stress and experience self-regulation. Breath cards, small cards with imprinted breathing exercise suggestions, allow for focus and movement as we direct students to trace their finger around a shape, add sounds like a bee’s buzz, or move their arms during their inhale and exhale.

Apps and videos such as Calm offer students a great way to participate. Children’s literature provides interactive and engaging breathing exercises as a class or read quietly. My Magic Breath and Alphabreaths are two breath break favorites. Props, such as pinwheels, feathers, or bubbles, offer a fun way to see our breath at work.

Movement: Exercise is a science-supported path to better health using our body-mind connection. In addition to the physical benefits, movement triggers a chemical release in our body that can have a positive effect on the brain that calms us and helps us to think clearly and feel happier. One size doesn’t fit all, so it’s important to keep it personal when you’re alone. Be sure you choose activities you enjoy and allow your students different experiences, as well. Yoga and stretching can be done in the classroom; walking, running, and playing are perfect when getting outside.

Nature: Growing research in neuroscience shows both physical and mental health benefits from experiencing nature, both in person and virtually. Through ecotherapy, we’re less anxious, and our focus and mood improve. Being in nature can also help our immune system. Walking while observing colors or sounds, sitting under a tree, and looking for four-leafed clovers are perfect nature pauses. Even just looking out the window or viewing nature pictures or videos can give us a sense of awe and beauty that can transform us.

A powerful PAUSE gives us time and space to practice self-awareness and understand ourselves. These exercises can grow our students’ mindfulness, self-regulation, and overall health. As teachers and students participate in the experiences, they enhance their own well-being while building a contagiously calm learning environment.

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