Teaching Self-Care for Pre-K-5: 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 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 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 mindfully 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, explain 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 lookout 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 “fight, flight, or freeze.” Sometimes this response can help keep us safe, but other times it just makes it hard for us to think straight. 

Fight, Flight, Freeze – A Guide to Anxiety for Kids is a useful video to explain what happens in the brain when we experience anxiety or stress and our “fight flight or freeze” response is triggered.

You can also try to explain the “fight, flight or freeze” response yourself, especially for some of your youngest students, using some of the following language:

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 or 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 things we choose to do. They are automatic responses to the amygdala setting off our brain’s alarm system. When this happens, our heart beats more quickly, we might get flushed, with sweaty hands and start breathing more quickly. We all have “fight, flight or freeze” responses, 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. This may take practice for some of us because, since we were very little, 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 deeper breathing is known as “belly breathing.” Some of today’s breathing exercises will help us work up to belly breathing. If we practice, we may get better at it, so that we can use it to help us when stress or anxiety kick in.

Note to the teacher about deep breathing for students with high chronic stress:  

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. It can be overwhelming to go inside a body that is holding too much hurt and anxiety.  For these students, being asked to breathe deeply, especially for longer periods of time, can be triggering, disorienting, or anxiety-provoking – the opposite of the relaxation we’re going for. Be aware of this possibility when introducing breathing exercises to your students, and be sure to take it slow and observe students’ reactions.

The breathing activities we provide below are short, no more than a few minutes, so as not to push students too far or too deep all at once.  In addition, several of the breathing activities 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. 

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. 

On a similar note: Never tell students what kind of mindful awareness practice they should adopt or be rigid about how the practices are done. Always use invitational language and provide options. For example, if you think having students close their eyes for an activity might be helpful, don’t tell them to close their eyes. Instead, you might say, “I invite you to close your eyes,” or “You can close your eyes,” or “Maybe close your eyes,” or  “If you like, you can instead rest your gaze on the rug or wall in front of you.” It is important for people, young and old, to find their own way, go at their own pace, and to be in charge of their own practice.


Take Five or Five-Finger Breathing

Talk students through the Five Finger Breathing method.  

  • First invite them to stretch their hand out like a star. Show them how by holding up your hand in this way, palm facing the screen. 
  • Have the pointer finger of your other hand ready to trace your 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 invite them to breathe in through their nose, have them slowly slide their pointer finger up their thumb, as you do the same.  
  • Then as they breathe out through their mouth, have them slide their pointer finger down the thumb on the other side, as you do the same.  
  • Breathing back in through their nose, show them how to slide their pointer finger up the opposite pointer finger, and as they breathe back out through their mouth, down that same pointer finger.  
  • Keep going until you’re done tracing every finger, including the thumb.  

Ask students at the end:

  • How did that make you feel?
  • Would you like to do another cycle or two?

If you’d prefer to have a video guide you and your students in this process, consider these:

A slightly different audio version of Take Five can be found on the Mindfulness Without Borders website. This activity, and other guided meditations (audio only, in both English and Spanish) can also be found on the site. 


Box Breathing or Square Breathing

Box breathing is a powerful relaxation technique that can help us to return our breathing to its normal rhythm. It is a way of resetting the breath and can help people deal with stressful situations.  

The practice involves inhaling 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 activity is called box or four-square breathing because the four steps can be visualized as the four sides of a box.)  The count can be faster or slower depending on where your students are at. 

Repeat the process 4 to 5 times to start with as you familiarize students with this form of breathing. As you introduce box breathing more often and it becomes a practice, you can slow down the count, or work up to a 5 or 6 count box breathing.

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 have them trace an imaginary box with their pointer finger in the air in front of them or use the outline of a window in their room.  Some kids might find the physical edges of an item (like a  picture frame, small box, a book, a post-it, or the computer monitor) easier to trace.  A square on the screen in front of them might help, as well.  Of course, students can also print out a square breathing image at Coping Skills for Kids or draw their own to trace on paper during the breathing exercise.


show a video to follow on their screens.

If this resonates with young people, consider triangle, star, and figure eight breathing as well.  Images for students to trace can be found for free at Coping Skills for Kids.


Bubble Breathing

Another way to practice breathing that can help us slow down and calm ourselves is the “bubble blowing” or “bubble breathing” technique.

If possible, have your students show up to “class” with soap solution and a bubble wand. (If that’s not possible, or some students don’t have these items, you can blow imaginary bubbles using an imaginary wand and soap solution.) 

Practice blowing bubbles together, as a way to learn to breathe well. Explain that this kind of breathing can help us to manage our stresses and anxiety.  

As students dip their wand into the solution, invite them to breathe in slowly through their nose, then lift the wand up to their mouths and blow out slowly and continuously through the hole in the wand to create bubbles. Have students practice like this for a minute or so, using these slow, calming breaths.

Next, even if everyone has wands and soap solution, practice “blowing bubbles” without these tools. Talk students through this practice yourself or use one of the breathing apps/videos, below.

To talk students through:

  • Explain that we can imagine blowing bubbles like this any time we’re feeling stressed, worried, scared, or anxious.  
  • Start by taking a deep breath in through your nose, then slowly out through your mouth, pursing your lips, as you imagine blowing bubbles, lots of pretty bubbles.  
  • Remember, we have to do this slowly because we don’t want your bubbles to pop. 
  • So take a deep, slow breath in through your nose, maybe hold it for a second as you pretend to lift the wand to your mouth, then slowly breathe out through your mouth, imagining the bubbles you’re creating.  
  • Continue this practice for a minute or so.

Videos and apps to consider using for this practice: