Scéalta – The Early Childhood Ireland Blog

< Back to Blog

Controlled Breathing: The 90 Second Rule


Tuesday 09 April 2019

Childhood Anxiety, Controlled Breathing and the ‘Ninety Second Rule’

Child mental health is a growing concern for parents and educators in Ireland. Research shows increasing numbers of our children are experiencing mental health challenges. By the age of thirteen, one in three are experiencing some form of difficulty (Kelleher et al, 2012). To put this in perspective, for any family with three children it is likely that one will present with mental health issues before they are a teenager, with anxiety being one of the most prevalent issues reported (Cannon et al, 2013).

Practices at ECCE level have the potential to both support children in difficulty and prevent issues from developing as early as possible in children’s lives. We know that we develop our emotional capabilities throughout childhood, so let’s look at one research informed way preschool practitioners can support children to cope when they are feeling stressed, worried, or anxious.

Firstly, it is important that educators understand what is happening inside a child’s body when they experience anxiety.

Anxiety is our internal alarm system and is designed to help us survive danger. The amygdala is the area of the brain linked to fear responses and responsible for detecting danger. It receives information from our senses and prepares us to fight or flight, responding to any perceived threat. When this happens, we experience a series of hormonal changes and physiological responses. This causes breathing to become shallow, the heart rate to increase, and the digestive system to shut down as the body gets ready to respond to threat. However, the amygdala cannot tell the difference between real and perceived threat, which means that for some children these responses become overactive, and they can spend a lot of time trapped in this fight or flight state.

As educators we are aware that the prefrontal cortex, at the front of the brain, is needed for higher level thinking. It is responsible for self-regulation, it helps us to work things out, bringing control and order. When we are stressed or anxious, the amygdala stops information reaching the prefrontal cortex. So, when children are stressed or anxious they shift from social or learning brain to survival brain, which makes it harder for them to think clearly, respond calmly, and communicate (Shanker, 2016).

However, we can support our children by teaching them techniques to counter this stress response. The 90 Second Rule is a term coined by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor in her book ‘My Stroke of Insight’ (Bolte Taylor, 2006) to explain the lifespan of negative emotions. She advises that when we react to something in our environment, this sets off a 90 second chemical process during which we cannot control these reactions. However, following this 90 second period these chemicals are flushed out of our bodies. This is very important when we consider the role of the amygdala and our children’s anxiety, as after that 90 second delay, we are in a position to influence how we respond to the fight or flight instinct. If our children practice controlled breathing, these deep, controlled breaths can slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and calm the fight or flight response set off by the amygdala.

‘Breathing Buddies’ are a very effective way for young children to practice controlled breathing. Children lie comfortably and place their breathing buddy (a little stuffed toy) on their stomach, they then focus on the breathing buddy moving up and down as they slowly inhale and exhale. This type of ‘belly breathing’ helps to calm the fight or flight response set off by the amygdala. Inhale for a count of three, hold for a count of three, exhale for a count of three, wait for a count of three, and repeat the process. This is a very effective technique that ECCE practitioners can use to help children send messages back to the amygdala that all is well.

Although there is no magic wand to wave away our children’s anxiety, awareness of the 90 Second Rule and controlled breathing is very important in terms of our ability to respond to stress. The provision of simple interventions such as controlled breathing exercises have the capacity to shape the emotional well-being of our children, helping them to deal with emotional struggles, and in doing so, improve their educational chances.


Bolte Taylor J (2006) My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. New York: Penguin Press.

Cannon M, Coughlan H, Clarke M, Harley M & Kelleher I (2013) The Mental Health of Young People in Ireland: a report of the Psychiatric Epidemiology Research across the Lifespan (PERL) Group Dublin: Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Kelleher I, Connor D, Clarke M, Devlin, N, Harley M & Cannon M. (2012). Prevalence of psychotic symptoms in childhood and adolescence: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population-based studies. Psychological Medicine, 9, 1-7.

Shanker, S (2016). Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (And You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life. Canada: Viking.


Dr Mary O'Kane is a Lecturer in Psychology and Early Childhood Studies with the Open University. Her research interests include childhood transitions; self esteem and well-being, and the value of play. She runs a monthly parenting slot on Ireland AM discussing a broad range of parenting and childhood issues, and is a regular contributor to the Alison Curtis Show on Today FM. She gives public talks on a range of topics related to child well-being, parenting, and education, details of which can be found on her Facebook Page: Dr Mary O’Kane Early Years.

0 comments Comments

Leave a Reply

Please Log In to comment:

Brain(1) Vietnam(1) outdoor space(3) Learning Stories(7) Sweets(1) Masterclass(2) Scéalta Blog(76) Cork(1) Academics(1) Love(2) SPICE Framework(1) NCCA(2) Scents(1) baby room(1) Drawing(2) San Miniato(4) Magda Gerber(1) educarer(1) Educator Award - Leader in Practice(1) Special Needs Assistants(1) Maria Montessori(1) Family(1) Exit interview(1) Limerick(1) Mo Scéal(1) National Holiday(1) Socioemotional development(1) journey(1) educating(1) Anxiety(2) Deirdre Rogers(1) UD(1) National Awards 2018(2) Inspirational(2) Children's Rights(1) Workplace well-being(1) Engineers Week(2) Gardening(1) Learning Story(1) Partnership with Families Innovation Award(1) First 5 strategy(1) Tuscan Approach(2) Positivity(1) Graduate(1) transitions(9) Meet the Members(1) San Minia(1) Traffic Lights(1) Art(6) Wendy Lee(2) Learning journals(1) science(3) Belonging(3) Glitter(2) Siolta blog(2) Workplace Relations(3) Self Help Skills(1) Early Years(1) Administrative Burden(1) Childhood(1) Window(1) Book Club(2) Fabric(1) Nuturing interactions(1) Settling in(1) Mark Twain(1) books(4) Recycling(2) Irish Childhood Bereavement Network(1) Arts(1) Shapes(1) Thinking(1) Affordability(1) National Bereaved Children's Awareness Week(1) Interactions(1) Pobal sector profile(1) Reggio(1) Design(1) emotions(2) RIE philosphy(1) Social Skills(1) Ceremony(1) UNCRC(1) Family wall(1) relationships(11) Emergent Curriculum(1) Exploring and Thinking(1) Builders(1) role playing(1) Afghanistan(1) Performance Management(1) Nonverbal(1) Trade union(1) ECEC(1) Music(3) Jillian van Turnhout(1) Leargas(1) Mindfulness(2) Teamwork(1) food(1) EECERA 2016(1) Investment(1) Department of Children and Youth Affairs(2) grandchild(1) Fantasy play(1) ERASMUS+(3) St. Patrick's Day(1) Supernanny(1) Trick or treat(1) Cork Institute of Technology(1) PIP(1) Twitter(1) Photographs(1) Painting(1) listening(1) Facebook(1) refugees(1) Our Little Seed(1) worries(1) Frustrations(1) INTO(1) Ariana Pucci(1) Vertical grouping(1) Learning Story Awards(1) Storytelling(2) Names(1) Technology(2) early childhood educator(1) Educator - Leader in Practice Award(1) Role play(1) Childcare Barometer 2018(1) play(29) Maynooth(1) learning(15) Breathing(2) Learning Stories Award(3) MA(1) development(8) University(1) Maths Week Ireland(1) Party(1) Pobal(1) risk assessment(1) Story(1) Research Conference 2019(1) social media(1) Mixed age groups(2) Grief(1) Visitors(1) Empathy(1) Magnavacchi(1) risky play(2) Children(1) Community involvement(1) Motor neuron disease(1) play stories(1) outdoor play(6) Graduation(1) Halloween(2) communication(4) Easter(1) Xbox(1) Patterns(1) Kilkenny(1) ReCreate(2) Research Seminar(1) Together Old and Young Programme(1) interacting(2) parents(5) Qualifications(1) Care routines(1) Creative(1) Light table(1) Aistear(101) education(2) risk(2) Potential(1) Kids Own(1) experience(1) Snack Time(1) Wrapping paper(1) Inspired Practice Award(5) science week(2) Smiles(1) Growing up Outdoors(1) Interests(1) Bereavement(1) community(4) babies(5) Exercise(1) curiosity(3) Communications(1) Queues(1) stories(2) Policy and Implementation Panel(1) Child mental health(1) supportive environments(1) Mathematicians(1) Dance(1) Self-regulation(1) outdoors(3) Winter(1) Change(1) IGL(1) Irish(1) Wilenski(1) Meal time(1) Early Learning and Care Centres(1) National Council for Curriculum and Assessment(1) Budget 2019(2) Capable(1) National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education(1) CPD(1) Toby Bears Camping Trip(1) Budget 2018(1) Cognitive development(1) Mount Everest(1) Celebrate(1) respect(4) Environment(1) animals(2) STEM(2) Aistear Siolta Practice Guide(1) AIM(2) Sport(1) documentation(2) UN Sustainable Development Goals(1) Mud kitchens(1) Event Guide(1) Performing(1) Giraffe(2) AsIAm(1) Decisions(1) Stress(2) Quality(3) Identity(4) National Pyjama Day(1) Online(1) Laughter(1) Care-giving routines(1) ears(1) Training(2) Inter-generational(1) Death(1) Health(1) LINC Award for Leadership in Inclusion(1) Workforce(1) Upcycling(1) conversations(1) UN(1) Playschool(1) scéalta(25) Thanks(1) Spiders(1) Maths Week(1) Games(1) TOY Programme(1) Penguins(1) Syria(1) Behaviour(3) Seas Suas(1) Through the looking glass(1) preschool(2) overhear(1) meals(3) Little Buddies(1) Maths(4) mushrooms(1) Awards(2) Montessori & Early Childhood Professionals Ireland(1) CIT(1) Maynooth University(1) Routines(1) Síolta QAP(1) research(5) Biting(1) Minister Katherine Zappone(1) Policy(2) Trade Unions(1) Employee(1) Montessori(2) Identity and Belonging(3) Celebrations(4) maternity health(1) Inter-generational learning(1) Kerry(1) feisty(1) Margy Whalley(1) Mental Health(3) budget(1) Minister for Children and Youth Affairs(1) Wonder(1) Rising to the Challenge(2) Jenga(1) Relaxation(1) under 3's(3) eating(1) Early Learning and Care(1) Sculptures(1) Childcare(2) Consent(1) Thank you(1) Well-Being(6) listen(1) environments(1) Blocks(1) dublin(2) Norway(2) Advocacy(1) Prexit(1) Time(1) College(1) Funding(1) Japan(1) planning(1) Eritrea(1) Síolta Quality Assurance programme(1) Mealtimes(1) Primary School(2) Orla Kenny(1) National Awards 2019(1) Recycle(1) Italy(1) Early Childhood Ireland National Awards(1) Map(1) Time Out(1) Running(1) dining(1) Annual Conference 2019(1) Annual Conference 2017(2) Dr. Emer Ring(1) Growing up in Ireland(3) Snakes(1) General Data Protection Regulation(1) pets(1) reading(4) Self-Esteem(1) christmas(8) Traditions(2) Early Childhood Ireland’s National Early Childhood Research Conference 2019(1) NAEYC(1) dogs(1) Exploring(1) Children's Research Network(1) Educators(1) ECCE(6) Awards 2018(3) Early Childhood Care and Education(1) Loss(1) Favouritism(1) Inclusion(3) Gratitude(1) Buddy Bench(1) Arithmetic(1) Visual Impairment(1) Mayo(1) Communicating(1) Flowers(1) linc(1) Malaguzzi(1) Diversity(1) Weather(1) Vivian Gussin Paley(1) Competent(1) Sustainability(3) Arlene Forster(1) Line-ups(1) Imagination(3) Dr Mary O'Kane(1) Awards 2019(1) Shoes(1) Wesco(1) Treasure Chest(1) Maternity Leave(1) toddlers(3) Degree(1) emotional environment(1) Reggio Emilia(1) Leprechauns(1) GDPR(1) Exclusion(1) EM Standing(1) Valerie Gaynor(1) Sequins(1) Treasure(1) friendships(1) Touch(1) Albert Einstein(1) Certificate(1) Irish Early Years Research & Practice Seminar 2018(1) Magic(1) The Lullaby Book(1) Culture(2) Buddies(1) trust(2) United Nations(1) Pen green(1) Frosty the Snowman(1) early years research(1) Adoption(1) Universal Design(2) Aldo Fortunati(4) Appreciation(1) Yoga(1) Playdough(1) Nutrition(1) Snacks(1) Academic Skills(1) curriculum(5) DCYA(4) Professionalisation(4) Sustainable(1) Santa(2) dining experiences(1) Feeding(1) Valentine's Day(3) story time(1) Christmas Creativity(2) Lego(2) First 5(1) bonds(1) Síolta(96) Impact(1) Equality & Inclusion Guidelines Training(1) Confident(1) Titles(1) Challenges(1) Mantra(1) Reggio Children Network(1) Trigonometry(1) blog(28) Laugh(1) Engineering(2) Plastic(1) memories(1) Autism(3) Decision Making(1) Independence(1) Educator of the Year Award(3) Plants(1) ICBN(1) The Jelly King(1) Sociodramatic play(1) Obesity(1) Early Years Educators(1) MECPI(1) Engineering Ireland(1) Home Corner(1) routine(2) Creativity(4) Oireachtas(1) Craft(1) Iraq(1) Access and Inclusion Model(2) Rituals(1)


Site maintained and developed by Cloud Nine