Teaching Self-Care for Middle & High School: Breathing

This lesson has young people explore how we can use breathing to care for ourselves during times of stress – and reflect on how that works for different people. 

To the Teacher:
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to play out and schools remain closed, we're hearing from teachers and students alike that the long-term reality of the situation is sinking in.

This new Covid world is lasting longer than most of us had anticipated. The changes and losses so far have been hard to handle, overwhelming at times. And, as is too often the case, they’ve been disproportionately devastating for poor families and families of color.  And now the uncertainty around when this will all be over, how we will transition out of it, and what will be on the other end, is starting to dawn, and wear, on people. It’s uncomfortable and brings with it further anxiety, stress and exhaustion.

Young people are absorbing all this, including the changing moods of the adults in their lives, as family members are forced to do hazardous work, are laid off, face illness or death. Some are also struggling with new responsibilities, uncertainty, isolation, and grief. 

Self care for us, the adults, is key so we can stay strong and healthy ourselves to support our children at this time.  Self-care may also be one of the most important things we can teach young people at a time like this.  In this part four of our series of lessons and activities for the corona age, we’ll focus on self-care practices for all of our K-12 students, from the youngest to the oldest.  

About Self Care With Students

In the process of engaging young people in social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindful awareness practice, we naturally begin to teach them about self-care. One of the core competencies of SEL is “self awareness.” With increased self-awareness, students can begin developing practices and skills that they can employ to take care of themselves. This can include learning how to center themselves, stay grounded and present, calm themselves down, gain insight and perspective, and decide on possible next steps to meet their needs – all while recognizing and respecting the needs of others.

Rather than telling young people what to do and how to do it, our goal should be to support students in cultivating the awareness, skills and practices, that they find useful. They need to be able to make their own choices in the moment about how to handle themselves and the situation at hand – whether we, as adults, are around or not.  Building on the activities already shared in our Covid series (especially those around recognizing and naming feelings and then managing those feelings, a.k.a “naming to tame our feelings”) the activities below support young people in developing the capacity for self-care. 

Before we continue, you might consider the tree of contemplative practices created by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Consider the multiple branches as ways to practice different kinds of self (and community) care and healing. 

Think about your own practices. What has worked for you? How did you come to that practice? Now think about your students, their life experiences, their personalities, and who they are in the world. What might work for them? Have you asked? Have you given them opportunities to try different ways, to share practices that have worked for them perhaps? 

Consider this series on self-care as a joint exploration with your students so that you can all learn together.


Introducing Students to the Breath

Simple breathing exercises can help students transition from one space into another, from one activity into the next, especially when they need to focus their attention.  Exercises that help students breathe more intentionally can also help them regulate their feelings. Breathing of this kind can help kids deal with their stresses, frustrations, fears and concerns.  It can help to ground them and be more present in the moment.  

Consider talking young people through the process of why taking some deep breaths, in through the nose, and out through the mouth, can be useful. 

First off:  Fight Flight Freeze – Anxiety Explained for Teens is a useful video to explain our “fight, flight or freeze” response.  

If you can’t or don’t want to use the video, you can elicit and explain yourself what happens in the brain when we experience stress, using some of the following language:

There is a part of the brain called the amygdala.  It is always on the look out to make sure we are safe.  When the amygdala notices something scary, stressful or worrisome, it sets off alarm bells.  When this happens, our bodies respond with what we call the “fight, flight or freeze” or “stress” response.  Sometimes this response helps to keep us safe, but other times it just makes it hard for us to think straight. 

Think about a peaceful place or something that makes you feel peaceful.  Try to go there in your mind.  Think about what you see there. What colors and shapes do you see?  What sounds do you hear?  Are there other people?  Who?  Check in with yourself.  How does your body feel?  It’s likely to feel calm and relaxed.  Check your heart rate?  It’s likely to be slow and steady.  What about your breathing?  It too is likely to be slow and steady.

Now think about the last time you surprised, startled someone, maybe you got startled yourself.  How did they react?  How did you?  Some people react by leaning in.  They might look angry.  This is what we call a fight response.  Others might turn or back away.  This is the flight response. Still others may just stand there speechless and shocked. This we call the freeze response. 

These are not voluntary responses.  They are automatic responses to the amygdala setting off our brain’s alarm system, in response to threats or perceived threats.  When this happens our heart rate goes up, we might get flushed, with sweaty palms, while our breathing speeds up and gets more shallow.  This is how our body gets ready for “fight, flight or freeze.”  We all have this response, so that we can keep ourselves safe in threatening situations (or situations that the brain perceives as threatening), though most people have one reaction more often than others.  

One of the ways to counteract “fight, flight or freeze,” is to take a few deep breaths in through the nose, and back out through the mouth.  This may take practice for some of us because, since early childhood, many have lost the practice of breathing deeply in through the nose.  We may instead have learned to use shallow breathing from the chest and breathe mostly through our mouths.  

The kind of breathing from the primary breathing muscle called the diaphragm, is also known as belly, or abdominal, breathing.  Some of today’s breathing exercises will help us work up to that, in the hope that with practice, we’ll get better at it so that it will be more accessible when stress or anxiety kick in.

Note to the Teacher (Chronic Stress and Trauma):  

Deep belly breathing is a soothing practice for many, but not for all.  Students living with chronic stress or PTSD may have developed coping mechanisms that have stopped them from breathing (and feeling) too deeply.  Telling them to breathe deeply, especially for longer periods of time, can be triggering, disorienting, and anxiety provoking, the opposite of the relaxation we’re going for.  Keep this in mind when introducing breathing exercises to your students.  

For people who live with chronic stress or PTSD, having what is known as an internal anchor when practicing any kind of mindful awareness can be problematic.  It is hard to go inside a body, that is holding much hurt and anxiety.  It can be overwhelming.

For this reason several of the breathing activities below use touch and visuals, in addition to the breath. This allows students to use, what we call an external anchor, a place to focus their attention that is not inside, where the hurt and anxiety reside.  Moreover, the breathing activities below are short, no more than a few minutes, so as not to push students too far or too deep all at once.

Just remember, for some people deep breathing takes time, because they first need to feel safe in their own bodies.  So don’t push students to breathe too deep, too soon. 

And while we’re on the topic, never tell students what or how to do any kind of mindful awareness practice. Always use invitational language and provide options, e.g. don’t tell students to close their eyes.  If you think it might be beneficial for the activity, consider some of the following language instead:  “I invite you to close your eyes …”  “You can close your eyes …”  “Maybe close your eyes …” “or you can find a spot on the rug or wall in front of you to look at.”  It is important for young people to find their own way, go at their own pace, and be in charge of their own practice.


Take Five or Five Finger Breathing

Five Finger Breathing brings several of the senses together at the same time.  You watch and feel your fingers, while you’re also paying attention to your breath.  This requires multisensory and it multi locational awareness – you’re feeling two of your fingers, one on each hand, as well as your breath.  This takes a lot of brain capacity, easily crowding out any worry thoughts you might be having.  As you do this for a minute or two, you also calm your physiology, so that if (when) those worry thoughts come back they won’t take hold in the same way because they won’t have the same emotional charge as before.

Talk students through the Five Finger Breathing method, by inviting them to stretch their hand out like a star.  Show them how, by holding up your own hand in this way, palm facing the screen.  Have the pointer finger of your other hand ready to trace your thumb and fingers up and down.  Start by placing the pointer finger at the bottom of your thumb.  Invite students to do the same. And as you ask them to breathe in through their nose, have them slowly slide their pointer finger up their thumb, following your lead.  Then as they breathe out through their mouth, have them slide their pointer finger down the thumb on the other side, again following your lead.  Breathing back in through their nose, show them how to slide their pointer finger up their other pointer finger, and as they breathe back out through their mouth, have them slide their finger down that same pointer finger.  Keep going until you’ve traced every finger.  Consider going back again to the thumb for a slightly longer activity.

Ask students at the end:

  • What was that like for them?
  • How did they feel at the start? How do they feel now?
  • Would they like to do another cycle, or two?

And if you’d prefer to have a video guide you and your students, in this process, variations are:

A slightly different variation of Take Five can be found on the Mindfulness Without Borders website, as an audio both English and Spanish at


Different Shapes to Help Us Breath

Triangle breathing is a simple breathing technique that can help reduce stress and improve our moods. Imagine a triangle or if your students do better with a visual, one can be found here or at Coping Skills for Kids.  Start at the bottom left of the triangle.  Breathe in through your nose for three counts, as you trace up the side of the triangle in your mind’s eye, or with your pointer finger in the air in front of you. Hold the breath for three counts, as you trace down the other side of triangle.  And breathe out through your mouth, for three counts as you go along the bottom of the triangle back to the starting point.  

Continue the breathing and tracing, another 4 or 5 times to start with.  Consider having students print or draw their own triangle they think they’d do better with a hard copy to trace.

Videos to consider using for triangle breathing are listed below:

Star Breathing is a variation of triangle breathing but rather than starting anew with the triangle after each breath, you can keep going.  Consider using a star breathing image as your guide.  Another image can be found at Coping Skills for Kids or you can have your students draw their own.   

In your mind’s eye start with any (breathe in) side of the star.  Maybe imagine using your finger to trace the star, if you think that would help.  As you breathe in through your nose for three counts, trace up the (breathe in) side of the star to the point. Hold the breath for three counts on the point. Then breathe out through your mouth for three counts as you trace down the (breathe out) side. Going up to the next point of the star, breathing in through your nose, for three counts. Hold the breath for three counts.  And trace back down the other side of the point for three counts as you breathe out through your mouth. Continue this process until you get back to where you started.  

Box or square breathing is another simple breathing technique that can help reduce stress and improve our moods. It slows down the breath a bit further as we move to a four count with two pauses.   

Box breathing invites us to inhale to a count of four, holding the breath for four counts, exhaling to a count of four, and again holding it for four counts. The count can be faster or slower depending on what works for your students. Repeat the process 4 to 5 times to start with as you familiarize students with this form of breathing. As you introduce box or square breathing more regularly, and it becomes a practice, you can slow down the count, or work up to a 5 or 6 count box breath.

You can invite young people to close their eyes, as you talk them through the practice, or have them rest their gaze on the floor, wall or screen in front of them. You can also have them trace an imaginary box with their pointer finger or the outline of a window in their room. Some kids may find it helpful to trace the physical edges of an item (like a picture frame, small box, a book, a post-it, or their computer monitor).  Tracing a square on the screen or piece of paper can also help.  Invite students to print out a square breathing image at Coping Skills for Kids or they can draw their own, to trace on paper during the breathing exercise.

Videos to consider using for box breathing are listed below:

If students find it hard to breathe in, out, or hold their breath, for a full four seconds, consider the following videos that use a slightly faster count, in different places, to get started. Don’t feel you need to use the full length of the longer videos right from the start.  Longer breathing sessions may be something to work up to as you practice triangle, star, box or any other breathing that resonates with your students:


Breathing with Imagery and Sound

Having practiced some of the other breathing exercises, with your students over time, you might try the following guided breathing meditations as you  work with students towards slowing and deepening their breath. Invite students to keep their eyes open if they like to focus on the clouds, river or waves. 

The videos below use imagery and sound as focal points

And if guided meditation doesn’t work with you students, maybe simply sitting with some soothing video imagery and sound for a few minutes will help them relax and slow down their breath.  Try the following videos for however long makes sense for your students:


Have students check in with themselves at the end of any of these breathing activities by asking:

  • What was that like for you?
  • How did you feel before?  How do you feel now?


  • Out of the various practices, we’ve tried together, which worked for you?
  • Which would you be interested in trying again/more of?