I recently had a transformational experience in a classroom where a child became very upset because he did not get another turn to do something or share something (everyone had one turn, and he wanted a second turn). It was the end of the day and he was tired, so he could not regulate his disappointment and began to have a full-fledged tantrum. The teacher and I tried to handle it by affirming that we could see he was upset and that was really hard, and rationally explaining that he had already had a turn, and we needed to move on. But there is no reasoning with a four year old once the “reptilian brain” has taken over. The teacher was moving to take the child out of the room, but I suggested that we all take three deep breaths with the child, and see if he was able to calm down and keep going with music. I looked right at him and said, “We are going to help you calm down with our three deep breaths and by sending you our love. If it doesn’t help, then we have to keep doing our music and your teacher can take you outside to calm down.” Then, I looked at the class and explained again what we were doing, I counted to three and had the whole class take three deep breaths for/with the child. In the first two breaths, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to work, but by the third breath, he was quietly whimpering, and I moved on without any further attention. He was participating again within seconds.
I tried the same technique two weeks later when another child was having a similar disappointment and it worked again! I’ve tried asking the upset child to take deep breaths, but involving the whole class is new for me. We know that deep breaths help dramatically to calm down the fight/flight response, but something about everyone taking those breaths together and the whole room calming themselves down seems to give an extra level of support, without drawing so much undue attention to the child. It kind of shifts the attention away from the upset and the child who is upset, to the collective activity of calming breaths.
Taking three deep breaths together when someone is upset is a really beautiful way to help calm the upset child and to help the other kids in the class to develop empathy. It communicates to the disappointed child that their community can help them when they are upset, and it shows the rest of the class that they can help their friends just by extending breath and support to them.