Education, self-awareness and coping skills are all crucial to our development. And not only are they important, some would argue they are also fundamental to academic and eventually, occupational success.
The academic and personal worlds of students are deeply intertwined. If a student has a tumultuous home life, it is likely to impact their performance in school while conversely, if a student has poor grades, it is likely to impact how they feel about themselves.
During a students' formative years, they are developing and refining social skills alongside academics, while facing a unique set of generational challenges.
Students today are developing in a fast-paced, technology rich, over-stimulated and high-pressured world. They are constantly being inundated with information, images and ideals regarding what they are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to behave. On top of that, there is an elevated sense of academic pressure, as the education system continues to be strapped with high-stakes testing that can start as early as elementary school.
Students now more than ever, need to develop a place within that is grounded in a sense of calm, ease and self-support. Yoga and mindfulness practices can be a vehicle for which students can develop this steady internal anchor.
These practices can support a students' cognitive, psychological and physical functioning. They are utilized as a means to regulate emotions, reduce stress, enhance attention and focus, and positively impact self-esteem.
Mindfulness helps us pay attention to the present moment, while accepting thoughts, emotions, or external situations as they arise. As a school counselor who has worked at the elementary, middle and high school levels, mindfulness practices and forms of yoga have been integral to supporting students both emotionally and academically. It is my job to help students navigate personal, social and academic issues, and empower them with strategies they can easily utilize on their own.
I have found that mindfulness tools have been especially powerful in lessening the emotional reactivity to the many environmental and personal stressors that students face on a regular basis. Students are afforded the space and time to respond from a place of ease, rather than react from a place of impulsivity and distress.
Here are four simple, yet highly effective mindfulness practices that you can integrate into your child's life right at home or even at school:
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing
When a student is experiencing anxiety, anger, or stress, alternate nostril breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as a state of relaxation. This deactivates the fight-or-flight response that is often experienced when in a state of overpowering anxiety, anger, or stress.
You can explain this to your child or student in a developmentally appropriate way so that they can understand what is happening on a physiological level.
- Using the same hand, begin by capping the right nostril with the thumb.
- Inhale for a count of four seconds through the left nostril, and at the top of the inhale, pause, cap the right nostril with the pinky finger and exhale through the right nostril for a count of six seconds.
- Pause briefly after exhaling, before inhaling back through the right nostril — continuing the cycle.
- Advise the student to pay attention to the smooth quality of their breath.
I find that a visual can also help ground the student — you might instruct students (especially the younger ones) to picture their breath cycling through their nostrils like a stream of light.
2. Three-Part Breath
When the student is experiencing shallow breathing set on by a panic attack or uncontrollable crying, the three-part breath is less salient than alternate nostril breathing, so the student can utilize it in the classroom without drawing attention to him or herself.
This type of breathing also deactivates the fight-or-flight response, while deepening the breath, expanding the lung capacity and calming the body.
- Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart.
- Begin by filling the belly with the inhale, then send the breath upward to the ribcage and finally the heart/chest area.
- Each area should expand as the breath travels upward.
- When exhaling, the breath travels downward (imagine emptying the chest, ribcage and then the belly).
I often advise the students to imagine the breath traveling up and down the body like an expansive wave, focusing on expanding of each area with the breath.
3. Body Scan
To increase body awareness in the present moment, a body scan paired with movement can help relieve tension. Most of us are not aware of the tension that builds up in certain areas in our bodies, until the accumulation of that results in chronic pain.
Students, like many adults, are sitting at their desks for extended periods of time. They're looking at computer screens, or hunched over looking at their phones for a large portion of the day. Scanning the body from head-to-toe and taking notice of each body part with a gentle awareness, can help attune a student to the needs of their body throughout the day.
Students are able to consciously relieve built up tension with simple movements and a body scan, as well as notice when stress is arising and how it may be affecting their bodies. For example, when many students are stressed they lock their jaws or tense their shoulders and neck. When a student is anxious, tightness forms in this upper quadrant and their breathing becomes contracted and shallow. Scanning the body calms the mind and anchors the student in the present moment.
You can begin from the ground up, advising students to first notice their feet, grounding them firmly into the floor.
Gradually instruct them to work their awareness up the body, especially attending to areas that we tend to lock or tighten throughout the day. Such areas include the knees, pelvis, hips, belly, chest, shoulders, elbows and hands, neck, jaw and face.
To aid as a visual, I will encourage students to picture breathing space into these different parts of their body, envisioning light traveling through their body with this new awareness. You can also invite them to feel a sense of softness or release in each area they scan. This scan can be paired with slow, mindful movements, like gentle shoulder and neck rolls, basic stretches, deepened breath and even spinal twists.
4. Affirmations & Mantras
An affirmation paired with mindful breath can invite a calmer mental and emotional state for the student. This will center their mind on a desired feeling or quality, attune them to their breath and ultimately give them a sense of control over their mental and emotional state. Mantras are ideal for alleviating stress, anxiety and self-criticism.
- Instruct the student to mentally say the following as they breathe: "Inhaling, I practice letting go. Exhaling, I practice letting go."
- Invite the student to feel this "letting go" within their body as well. This can be done for as long as needed.
- For older/more advanced students, ask them to say: "Inhaling — I am aware of my mind's thoughts, fears and criticism. Exhaling, I let go of my mind's thoughts, fears and criticisms." This helps students create space and disengage from a busy, troubled mind.
Concepts and language can be tailored to the developmental needs of the child, and can be simple and pertain to anything the student needs in that moment (i.e. "Inhaling, I feel strong and confident, Exhaling, I feel strong and confident.")
Mindfulness practices support a student's critical thinking skills and empowers them to utilize these strategies according to their own needs. If we provide children with these tools, we can help them develop an unshakeable internal anchor that is self-nourishing, highly transferrable, and as accessible as their breath.
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