T’ai Chi-Helping primary school children to combat exam stress


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Hi, my name is Paul White, some readers may have seen me on the BBC News recently or in the Sunday Telegraph talking about how T’ai Chi can help primary school pupils combat exam stress. Since 2004 I’ve won a National Youth Sport Trust award for my work with young individuals; I’ve been a keynote speaker at wellbeing events and have been invited to talk on BBC News and Radio numerous times.

In 2004 I developed a whole-body exercise including relaxation and mindfulness using T’ai Chi as its core, specifically aimed at school pupils. This FUN -based T’ai Chi system has been a big success in schools around the UK and it’s my great pleasure to be asked to write a blog on the subject.

T’ai Chi is an ancient system that enhances health and wellbeing through slow deliberate movements and breath. It is often known as an exercise system that older people take up.

In 2004, The Snapdragon T’ai Chi System was launched in schools with the sole purpose of giving children an alternative exercise to core curriculum sports and, more importantly, a way of learning how to relax and why it is so important.

I’ve been asked to pass on some hints and tips that hopefully teachers, pupils and parents will be able to use to help combat exam stress.

The most important thing of all is to BREATHE - The very word ‘chi’ translates into ‘breath.’

For human existence ‘air’ is vital:  a breath of air contains approximately 16% oxygen, the very thing our bodies crave and need. In a well oxygenated environment, nothing toxic can exist (think a river flowing naturally with crystal clear water) the body is healthy and performs as it should.  If oxygen levels are reduced the opposite occurs (think a small still pond with stagnant water.)

So ‘BREATHE’

In my BBC News interview, I talked about how important relaxation is for pupils in exams. Personally, I was so terrified of exams that my results were affected by the stress that exams caused me.

The key to attaining full potential is RELAXATION; it’s not easy but it can be learned and achieved. If a child is so stressed and anxious due to the exam they are unlikely to be able to achieve their best.

All children can benefit from learning proper breathing and relaxation techniques and for children with SEND it is a highly achievable technique that is calming, will build confidence and offer a path forward.

As part of my weekly teachings I teach at Ashgate Croft School this is an Area Special School in Chesterfield, I’ve taught there for a number of years and the pupils and staff love it.

Try this exercise with your children:

Breathing Exercise 1

Remember to breathe slowly, this keeps the air in the lungs longer meaning your lungs have more time to take in that vital oxygen.

Lie down on the floor on your back, legs uncrossed just straight forward and your arms by your side

Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of 10 seconds, then breathe out for 10 seconds via your mouth. (The lips should be nearly closed, think of blowing through a mini straw. Remember SLOW is the key.) This is one cycle.

This will calm anyone down very quickly, aim for 3 breathing cycles per minute.

This exercise can be adapted:

A wheelchair user: Ensure their back is against the back of a chair, they are seated straight and looking forward.

Standing:  Place feet shoulder width apart and relax the shoulders again looking forward. An arm movement can be added to the standing exercise as follows:

Have both arms by your side. As you breath in, slowly lift your arms up, think of your fingers as paint brushes painting up a fence with the backs of your fingers, then as you paint back down with the fronts, breathe out on the way down.

How does this exercise calm you down?

Your heart reacts to situations such as stress, anxiety, unhappiness and exercise to name a few. As your heart beat quickens it forces blood faster around your body, this is the ‘fight or flight’ reaction - nature’s way of preparing you to react very quickly, the whole body is on edge, you don’t think properly and your decision processes get worse.

Oxygen calms the heart; deliberate slow breaths will reduce the heart- rate so the blood isn’t being pumped around your body as quickly. As you start to calm down you feel re-energised and are likely to make better decisions.

There are many different breathing exercises but the above is a very good start.

Below are a few questions posed by Speech Link Multimedia:

Q, Are there benefits specifically for children who have SLCN?

A  Relaxation and the subsequent feelings of confidence allow a clearer pathway of thought. Often pupils feel anxious when they are unable to articulate their feelings in words. Correct breathing techniques help enormously as breath calms the heart which in turn settles the brain. Sometimes pupils feel anger through sheer frustration, and this can result in verbal and possible physical conflict. A simple set of breathing techniques can really help diffuse the anger and frustration that the pupil is experiencing.

Q, Do you need to adjust the way you lead a session in order for children with SLCN to understand/follow – perhaps for children with attention disorders or who are slow in processing information?

A  With regards to pupils who have attention disorders I find that T’ai chi really sparks the interest of children and they enjoy the feeling of freedom they experience while learning some breathing techniques.  Sometimes this can take several sessions for them to learn, but gradually it will have an impact. In scientific studies in America deep concentrated breathing can have an impact for up to two hours afterwards.

 

Q, Ideally is this something that the teacher and parents should carry out every day with the children? Would it be suited to assembly time?  What time of day is best? Would you advocate a class session before an exam?

A, I’d suggest first thing in the morning would be an ideal time to do the breathing techniques as school life for staff and pupils can be hectic first thing. I’d suggest getting everyone in class, registers done then - breathing techniques. This for me works better than an assembly where all pupils would be present, the smaller the groups of children the more effective the session will be.

This could be repeated after each break in the day, a 10 minute down time is a great thing to have in place and staff and pupils adapt to this quickly as it’s a fantastic way to calm and centre the mind. I would suggest a minimum of two sessions per day ideally first thing in the morning and first thing after lunch.

In the lead up to exams ensure the breathing techniques are in place several weeks before the first exam so the children are familiar with the process and confident in using the techniques.  Carry out the breathing activities before each exam to reduce anxiety and help the children to feel calm and focussed and able to deliver their best.

Learning how to relax properly has a huge positive impact on pupils and staff.  A school I taught at in Chesterfield attributed an 11% increase in their SATs results to the breathing techniques followed by the pupils we taught!

We can survive without food for months and without water for days, but we can’t survive without air for more than a few minutes - yet breathing properly is rarely taught and understood!

If you have any further questions, please email me at: www.snapdragontaichi@mac.com

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