Children and Adults Alike: Keep Calm and Just Breathe

Now I lay me down to sleep … and in my head are a list of things left undone. As the dark surrounds me and the night sounds envelop the room, I am left with my thoughts of what is to come and what piles of unfinished business both personal and school-related await me. I can stare at the ceiling for hours, or so it seems. In that darkness, my mind can wander through a myriad of topics – some very stressful and some just very odd.

I wonder, then, what those moments before sleep are like for my daughters. I know my youngest would prefer I sit with her until sleep overcomes her. When I do, random topics cross her mind, so I assume she has concerns that worry her like I do. Last night I was asked, “Since I was born in Texas, does that mean I am a cowgirl?” That’s a question that was hard to ignore. Such questions cut into the 10-11 hours that I know she needs for sleep. With this article in my mind, I suggested that she think of things she enjoyed like swimming, chocolate ice cream, playing with our dog and she added, “cotton candy, too.” While her mind was filled with happy thoughts, I told her to breathe big deep breaths that I could see. Minutes later she was asleep and I was left with questions.

On one hand, I know she is manipulating the final moments before bed and buying extra time. On the other hand, when I consider all the things I have taught both of my daughters over the last decade, I know I have never taught them the skills to calm themselves. Goodness knows I have said, “calm down” more times than I can count. What do their young brains process when I make that command?

At school, we talk about the skills children need to be resilient. There is a body of research that says teaching children the ABCs of Attention, Balance and Compassion is imperative to resiliency with a general sense of calmness being a positive byproduct. Part of that happens through community service and creating awareness of others’ needs. It also happens through empathy developed in role-playing in the classroom. Embracing imperfections and learning from mistakes are integral to that curriculum, too. All of this seems pretty straightforward.

When mindfulness gets added into the mix, the list begins with teaching students to be aware of their breathing. A simple, automatic physical response is key to a child’s ability to face the day.

I have to admit I was doubtful when I heard about these ABCs being taught in school. There is so much we ask of teachers, were we really going to include breathing and its accompanying ideas of Attention, Balance and Compassion? The friend that shared the idea asked me one simple question, “Do you ever feel like you’re being shot out of a cannon as you leave for school in the morning?” Yes, every day. In response, he suggested, “No matter what you do to get out of the door, stop just before you leave, and take a deep breath.” I followed his advice. It stopped the madness -at least for a moment. If it can work in the midst of that chaos, maybe there is something to it.

Is teaching a child to calm down really that simple? Just breathe? I’m still not convinced, but if a knee-jerk reaction to focus on a deep breath (or two) helps to pacify a child’s worry, subside a volatile situation or soothe an agitated child, then I plan to try it.

Maybe it will help Ella and me fall asleep at night.

Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 5 and 9.