I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent or teacher say, “He just needs to learn to calm down, control his temper, not talk back, stop yelling, or not hit his sister when he gets mad.” In other words, he just needs to learn self-control. Expecting kids to just learn self-control is like expecting them to just learn math, but actually even harder because the part of the brain that learns math is developed, but the part of the brain that would help them calm down, the prefrontal cortex, doesn’t completely mature until the early twenties.
I learned this the hard way as a behavior interventionist at an inner-city charter school. I would be called to “deal with” these little Tasmanian devils who were destroying an entire classroom, and anything that stood in their way. I realized when kids had gotten to this point, there was no just calming down, or just taking or a breath, or just controlling their temper. They had lost it, and there was nothing I could do at that point except make sure they were safe from harming themselves and others. After the Tasmanian tantrum was over, the student always felt bad, knew exactly what they had done wrong, and could easily explain to me what they should do next time. I realized it wasn’t that they didn’t know that having a crazy melt-down, destroying the classroom, and cussing out their teacher wasn’t the best way to deal with their anger; it was that they didn’t know how to stop themselves once they started to escalate. If I didn’t teach these students the skills they needed to calm themselves, then they were as ill-equipped as a student would be on a math test if they weren’t previously taught the material. I finally understood that it was my job to teach them how to calm down, just like it was their math teacher’s job to teach them to add.
Teaching children basic breathing techniques through mindfulness is a great way for them to practice a calming strategy for when their frustration level begins to escalate. In Meena Srinivasan’s book Teach Breathe Learn, she describes the breath as an “anchor” that can be used to calm yourself and reduce stress (p. 96). “Observing the breath,” she continues, “is one of the easiest, simplest ways to start practicing mindfulness, and it can be done anytime, and anywhere because your breath is always with you.” (p. 32). I have been working with a former third-grade student of mine doing mindfulness breathing to help abate his temper, and increase his self-control abilities. I asked him what he thinks other students would think of him if they were trying to make him mad, and he just sat there without reacting to them at all. He responded, “they would think I had some special super-power, or something.” He doesn’t know how right he is. The goal is not to have children become emotionless blobs, but to be able to work skillfully with strong emotions. Equipping children with the skill of breathing allows them to maintain (or regain) their self-control, then decide how to express themselves with a calm, productive approach.
However, (and this is important) mindful breathing must be consistently practiced when the mind is calm. According to Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test. Mastering Self-Control, emotional arousal and stress increase when your hot system (or the part of the brain called the amygdala) is activated, and unless you have incorporated a plan into the hot system, it is unlikely to be activated when you need to most. I am a huge Indiana college basketball fan, so I always describe it to my students like this, “it’s just like playing basketball… if you haven’t practiced that three-point shot over and over again, then when the pressure is on at the end of the game to make that buzzer-beater shot, chances are you’re going to miss it. If you don’t practice your breathing when there’s no pressure, or when you’re calm, then you probably won’t be able to access it when you’re mad, and need it most.”
Click here for FREE mindfulness breathing exercises written specifically for children to get them started on their path to self-control, or super-powers… I’ll leave it up to you how you want to pitch it to your child.