Bring Focus & Calm to Kids Classes with this Simple Trick

0-breathing buddies focus in martial arts.jpgI have been helping out with our new Ready-Set-Kiai classes for 3-5 year-olds since September, taking on the role of crowd control while the two instructors focus on teaching the skills and running the class. At first, the experience was overwhelming, even with a smaller class of 8 students. It took a little time for the students to get used to the structure of the class. Even now, they are familiar with the structure of the class, so it runs more smoothly than it did at the beginning, but we still have to take measures to help keep the children focused on the tasks at hand throughout the duration of the 45-minute class.

I recently read a book called Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, by Daniel Goleman (available on and
). In one chapter, he describes Breathing Buddies, part of the Inner Resilience Program. This practice was adopted at a Harlem elementary school near a massive low-income housing compound, and is credited for keeping a class of 22 grade 2 children with “special needs”, from ADD to autism, relaxed and focused. When this ritual is performed, the class’s teacher says the kids don’t act out. The one day they didn’t do it due to a glitch in the schedule the teacher described them as being like a different class. “They couldn’t sit still; they were all over the place,” explained Miss Emily, the children’s teacher. Below is a video of author Daniel Goleman talking about Breathing Buddies.

I decided to introduce my own version of the Breathing Buddies exercise to the Ready-Set-Kiai class, modified slightly to make it a little shorter for the younger children with shorter attention spans. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Before class begins, have the students spread out and find their own space to lie down on the mats. To make sure they have their own space, I instruct them to move their arms up and down/in and out like they’re making snow angels.
  2. Tell the children to put their hands on their bellies and close their eyes.
  3. Have the children breathe in and fill their bellies like a balloon, then breathe out and lower their bellies down. Repeat this for a 3-count (*I use 3 to keep the exercise shorter for the younger kids, but you could do a 5-count, as described in the book, for older kids. The original exercise has children doing this with a stuffed animal on their bellies, but I didn’t have any available when I ran the exercise, so we went without.)
  4. Keeping their eyes shut, tell the children to squeeze their hands closed as tight as they can, breathing in, then relax them, breathing out. Repeat this once. (*For older children, you can squeeze the left hand once then the right hand once. I kept it simpler, doing both twice to remove the question as to which hand is left and which is right.)
  5. Instruct the children to squeeze their eyes closed as tight as they can, breathing in, the relaxing them as they breathe out. Repeat this once.
  6. Tell the children to slowly open their eyes, then tell them to “Sit up and feel relaxed.” (*I added on to this, telling them, “Let’s all do our best today and use our dojo eyes, our dojo ears, and our dojo brains,” reinforcing the overall messaging we use throughout the class.)

To my surprise, the children took to this exercise well, staying calm and focused throughout it. Each student did their best to follow the instructions, and the start of the class was much more calm and focused than usual. It didn’t necessarily stay that way the whole time, but I believe that this practice serves as a great base for learning mindfulness of breathing, which has proven benefits for sustaining attention and for the circuitry that calms us down. The combination of calm and concentration creates an optimal inner state for focus and learning, helping students to get the most out of their 45-minute martial arts class.

After the success of the Breathing Buddies exercise in my trial run, I have decided to continue the practice in future classes, so we can continue to build on the skill.

Do you teach a children’s class? What techniques do you use to encourage calmer more focused learning? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments (1)

One thought on “Bring Focus & Calm to Kids Classes with this Simple Trick

  1. What interests me most about this article, given that I don’t teach children nor have a desire to, is that simple relaxation exercises are apparantly quite effective in managing kids with certain issues. This means they don’t have to be drugged with mind-altering and potentially damaging chemicals which are so popular these days: relatin for ADHD (hard to see why this would be a real illness instead of just a part of the normal variation among children in terms of energy, willfulness etcetera), anti-anxiety medication… I’ve even read some children are given antipsychotics while not even exhibiting symptoms of psychosis: it’s a brave new world indeed.

    Teaching children does seem to be much harder than teaching adults, just keeping them in line will probably be difficult enough. This is also not limited to sports or after school activities: my niece is studying to be a physiotherapist and she says only a minority of her fellow students will graduate with a speciality in treating children.

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