A quick way to boost student wellbeing? Deep breathing

Teaching students simple deep breathing can relieve stress and help their sleep and immunity, writes James Worland

James Worland

How deep breathing can boost student wellbeing

What if I told you there was an instant stress reliever available for all students that requires no equipment and that can take effect in less than five minutes? Would you believe me? Well, it’s true – and it’s called deep breathing.

Deep breathing, sometimes known as mindful breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, is a relaxation technique that has been around for centuries with its origins tracing back to ancient Buddhist and Hindu meditation practices. 

There are a number of differing deep breathing methods, but, in a nutshell, deep breathing involves focusing on your breath and engaging your diaphragm and intercostal muscles to take in more oxygen than a usual breath.

Teacher wellbeing: The power of deep breathing

Most commonly incorporated throughout yoga, tai chi and modern meditation practices, it is only recently that it has been thought about in relation to education. This is somewhat surprising as there are numerous benefits that can help students (and teachers) in adopting this practice:

Short-term benefits 

Increased calm: with more oxygen in your bloodstream, your heart rate slows down, giving a natural, calming sensation

Decreased stress: when you have a lower heart rate and oxygen-rich blood, your brain releases less cortisol, which is a stress-causing hormone.

Feeling happier: deep breathing triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” chemicals. 

Long-term benefits 

Better sleep: the ability to calm your body effectively means falling asleep can be more efficient (deep breathing is a common treatment for insomnia) 

Improved immunity: fully oxygenated blood allows nutrients and vitamins to be absorbed more efficiently, resulting in a cleaner, stronger immune system.

Imagine that – calmer, happier, less-stressed students who sleep better and have better immune systems. Too good to be true? Absolutely not! 

So how can you incorporate deep breathing into your school? It’s easier than you may think.  

1. Get staff buy-in first 

Like all new initiatives, staff buy-in is key to long-term success and sustainability. Run a session or two with some teachers before introducing it to students to give it momentum amongst staff and to give you confidence.

An Inset day, morning briefing or as part of the now-common "Wellbeing Wednesday" initiative are perfect times to launch this.

Anyone can lead a session having spent a short amount of time reading and trialling some techniques beforehand.

I was hooked after a single, 10-minute session at a staff team-building day five years ago and haven’t looked back since. 

2. The student roll-out

When first discovering deep breathing techniques, the time of day and location is important. A quiet location with minimal external distractions will allow students to focus on themselves.

The morning is preferred  – perhaps using morning tutor time or an assembly slot would work for you. 

It will take a couple of sessions before you capture the students, but stay patient. The positive feedback will be more prevalent every time you conduct a session.

Once competency is developed, the location and timing become less important. Students will be able to block out what is around them.  

3. Trust that the sceptics will come around

Of course, there will be sceptical students (and probably staff) but don’t let this discourage you. Even the most resistant students will feel something when they give it a chance and hear the positive feedback coming from their friends.

I’ll never forget the subtle thumbs up and nod of approval I got at the end of one of the sessions I was leading from a particularly hard-nosed Year 10 boy.

They’ll all come around, just give it a little time. 

It will only take a few short sessions for your students to learn the basics and, once they have, it is easy for them to draw on these techniques whenever they begin to feel overwhelmed or stressed. Stress relief is only a few deep breaths away! 

On average, we take 20,000 breaths per day. To feel the positive effects associated with deep breathing, you just need to focus on just a few of these. Give your students the chance to try it and see where it takes them.

James Worland is head of secondary at The International School @ ParkCity Hanoi (ISPH)

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