Eyes Open Moment: Just Breathe

Eyes Open Moment: Just Breathe

Stay with me / Let's just breathe, croons Eddie Vedder in his dense, gravelly voice. Seems a simple directive, and one that predates the recent awareness in the Western world,  that taking deep breaths can reliably calm our nervous system. Breathing helps us stay in the moment, stay in touch with ourselves, and others, through times of heightened emotion. 

My teaching experience has led me to see that academic content can only be one part of our instructional focus. In the last few years it’s become more widely accepted in some places (and widely argued in others) that a classroom also needs to be bolstered with social and emotional learning (SEL) in order for students to succeed. The wellbeing of our intellectual brain is linked to the wellbeing of our emotional brain. 

A study funded by the Wallace Foundation from July 2021defines SEL as “the process through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, and related skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values that help direct their thoughts, feelings, and actions in ways that enable them to succeed in school, work, and life.” (The Easel Lab @ The Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2021) A closer look at different organizations and programs reveals a wide-range of skills that SEL encompasses - emotional regulation, conflict resolution, prosocial behaviors  - all of them indisputably necessary to our life and work in a community. 

As an adult, I continually work on developing this social emotional sensibility, recognizing my individual needs, and looking to learn skills from mentors in person and text. I consider attention to my own SEL skills akin to social grease. They are strategies which make my movement in the world a little smoother. If I’m going to help young learners tune into their bodies, I need to practice tuning into mine. 

Across the years I’ve become increasingly aware of my emotions. Thinking about where they reside in my body and developing my vocabulary for naming how I feel. This is the first step in being able to regulate. Just like my students, I can become flooded with my own feelings. (Especially during this transitional time into the new school year. Excitement mixed with a healthy dose of nervousness. ) When I become aware of the fullness of emotions expanding in my throat, it’s an indication to check in and take care of myself before I move on. 

I close my eyes. I take three deep breaths. In through my nose, until I can feel the space in my belly get tight as my diaphragm expands, then out through my mouth, until the space has deflated completely. Sometimes I imagine a place I feel grounded-grass under my bare feet-to bring stability. 

Breathing helps me pause. 

When I return to the present, I am able to move forward with more clarity. These breaths allow my emotion to settle in my body, to find a landing spot and give my head the space to think through a reaction in a more mindful way. Biologically I know that this deep breathing allows my sympathetic nervous system, that fight-or-flight part of my brain, to be swathed in oxygen which turns down the static of uncomfortable feelings in the moment. It’s like a warm weighted blanket for my brain. 

I practice this same breathing with my students. We practice on a regular basis, outside of those moments of heightened emotion, so that our muscle memory can kick in and access this skill when we most need it. (I find after lunch a great time for us all to tune into our breath.) I use a range of images to help visualize this process. My two favorites are a bubble expanding or breathing around the edges of a square (inhale up the left side, hold across the top, exhale down the right side, hold across the bottom). With every age of student I explain the science behind the breath. There is empowerment in knowing how your body works. 

If you are looking to get started, you can find some accessible information at Mindful Breathing Practice - Greater Good in Action.  (If you don’t know The Greater Good Science Center out of Berkeley, CA, it’s a fantastic, informative resource. Their own description - “Science-based ways to lead a meaningful life.”) 

My best advice, get started in your practice right now. Close your eyes. Rest your arms on your legs. Just breathe. 

What practices from your own life can you share with your students to help them strengthen their emotional regulation?