Breathing is something natural for all of us, it happens even if we are not aware of it happening. And the way we breathe changes from childhood to adulthood. If you observe a baby breathing, you would see the rise and fall of their belly with each inhale and exhale. In fact, babies and children naturally breathe deeper. However, this will change without us knowing it as we get older - and not for the better.
Think of your own breathing now as an adult. You may notice that it is your chest which rises and falls: when we grow our breath becomes shorter and shallower. This negatively affects us physically and mentally, and it takes a lot of exercise and effort to revert back to our deeper belly breathing. We would need to re-learn how to breathe again and make a conscious effort to transform this into a new habit.
But if we teach children to consciously breathe deeper, if we instil this habit from a young age, they will hold a tool they can easily use all life long, preventing negative consequences. Children are, in fact, quick learners and more adaptable to change than adults, this is why it is important to teach them this practice.
Deep breathing is the foundation of many types of mindful meditation. According to research, mindful meditation can change the structure of the brain. In fact, the brain works thanks to the oxygen supply it receives, using 20% of the whole body’s oxygen supply. It needs a lot of oxygen to function properly. When the brain does not receive the right amount of oxygen, we may feel cloudy or on the edge. This is where correct, deep breathing comes in. When you take a deep breath, your brain is properly oxygenated and there is a parasympathetic nervous system reaction that causes a drop in heart rate and blood pressure. According to research, training of slow and deep breathing is the most effective method to attenuate excessive acute stress response (Everly and Lating 2013). Importantly, the autonomic nervous system is hugely impacted by the process of respiration, for instance diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the right vagus nerve facilitating full relaxation (Harvey 1978, Jerath et al. 2006). Furthermore, prolonged expiratory phase can lead to a physiological calm state associated with cognitive improvement in a manner of increased self-control and failing of obsessive thoughts (Austin 2006, Everly and Lating 2013).
Most adults have lost the ability to breathe deeply and slowly through their belly. We teach children how to breathe in order to allow them to create effortless habits which provides them the ability to give their brain and body what they need.
Research has shown that teaching children breathwork through mindful meditation brings many advantages to their physical and mental health, as well as their academic performance at school and their social and emotional development.
In fact, children who learn mindful meditation and breathwork develop a stronger resilience to face life’s stressors and the ability to self-regulate when they experience intense emotions. Self-regulation means learning to pause between a stressor and a reaction. This way children learn to acknowledge and recognise their emotions before acting on them; they also learn how to defuse themselves when stress arises. Children with ADHD and other impulse control issues can particularly benefit from this.
The introduction to mindful meditation has shown a positive impact also on academic performance and attendance. Different studies show improvement for children during high stakes testing by improving working memory and decreasing anxiety. It has also shown increased attendance, less disruptive behaviour, better grades and generally happier and more compassionate children.
There are countless benefits to practice mindful breathing with children:
• Increased concentration, attention span and memory
• Enhanced academic achievement and grades
• Increased self confidence
• Reduced anxiety and better stress management
• Increased resilience and ability to self-regulate
• Better mood and general happiness
• Fostering improved physical health
Arguably, the biggest benefit would be providing children with an effortless, long lasting, automatic and readily available tool which can facilitate these benefits for them now, and for the rest of their life.