A surprisingly simple breathing technique for teachers can help students do better in school

Expensive public policies could help raise achievement in schools, but so might calmer teachers.

A forthcoming study has found that giving teachers simple breathing techniques to calm themselves down and regain focus led to improvements in student behaviour and academic performance.

And one of the biggest takeaways: Just three deep breaths might do the trick.

“We know that when teachers are aware of their increased stress in a particular moment, that awareness allows them to intentionally respond to that stress by taking small measures to de-escalate it,” said study leader Patricia Jennings, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, in a press statement.

Jennings is one of three co-founders of the program Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators, or CARE. The program relies on the techniques of mindfulness — controlled breathing, physical and emotional awareness — to help teachers de-stress.

For the last nine years, Jennings has brought CARE to teacher retreats in upstate New York. Now she and her team are also bringing the program straight into schools, and the results are already promising for student achievement.

When teachers are less stressed out, Jenning’s research has found, they create classroom environments in which kids cooperate more, yell less, and perform better in subjects like maths and reading. All this without any direct student intervention.

For the latest study, Jennings and her team recruited 224 teachers from 36 New York public elementary schools to participate in five, six-hour-long CARE sessions. The sessions taught teachers how to identify specific emotions and stay aware of how their physical behaviours — clenched jaws, slouching posture — might affect their stress levels. They also learned to practice empathy and compassion.

“When teachers can reduce stress, they can choose how best to respond to their class or an individual student,” Jennings said in the statement.

The biggest takeaway from the CARE training, Jennings says, is to take three deep breaths. That small moment of calm may be enough to bring teachers back to the present, newly focused. Beyond that, Jennings says the best advice for teachers is to create daily habits centered around deep breathing and other CARE strategies.

Not all research supports the sweeping benefits of mindfulness training. Some psychologists have found that meditation produces physical changes in the brains of people with depression and anxiety, but not for the majority of frazzled professionals.

For most people, any perceived benefit could simply be a placebo, with no actual physical changes taking place. Even so, mindfulness is one case where the placebo is essentially equal to the real thing. If teachers feel better and that translates to student success, then the breathing techniques worked.

And if those techniques lead to higher achievement — as they have in a few dozen schools so far — then that’s all that matters.

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