Yoga: A Means to Develop Skills to Help Children Help Themselves
Adults use yoga to enhance mindfulness, reduce stress and overall well-being. But, using yoga in classrooms is a relatively new phenomenon. As Lisa Flynn highlighted in a recent elephant journal article, some schools have the mistaken idea that bringing yoga into the classroom is a religious endeavor and that may cause resistance.
For other schools, perhaps they just don’t see how yoga and schools can be a terrific match.
When we asked a group of kindergarten students at a school in an urban area what they knew about yoga, one student responded, “That’s what rich white ladies do” and another closed his eyes, put his hands in dhyana mudra and started to hum. Their schema for yoga was limited and incomplete.
In this essay, we argue that using yoga in classrooms can be an effective tool for children and teachers. And, if that wasn’t good enough all on it’s own—it’s free.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports, “approximately four million adolescents have been victims of a serious physical assault and nine million have witnessed serious violence during their lifetimes,” (National Institute of Justice, 1997). In another study (Weithorn & Behrman, 1999) we learn that three to 10 million children witness domestic violence every year.
These are the same children who are expected to show up at school every day ready to read, solve math problems, sit still and be good listeners.
As adults, we recognize how an overly stressed and busy mind can get in the way of our ability to listen to others or remember anything. We forget that children also experience stress and anxiety and we often minimize the impact those feelings have on their growing minds. From a developmental perspective, it is important to consider how factors such as insecurity and anxiety can hinder the learning process.
Educational researchers like Krashen (1994) refer to the “affective filter” as a possible interference to the understanding and learning of new information. Of course, as teachers and caring adults we can’t necessarily take away all the stresses in a child’s life. What we can do is to offer them tools to help alleviate negative feelings and lower the affective filter in order to support adaptive coping and learning in classrooms.
Coping with Stress
The literature on the beneficial uses of yoga with children is often related to children with special needs. To be sure, looking closely at the utility of using yoga to support children with challenges like ADD and ADHD is important work.
However, equally important is the role of yoga as a way to support normative human development. We all encounter stressful situations and children are not immune to this. Within the last decade one of the salient stressors for school children has been the increased pressure to perform well on standardized tests.
Powell (2008) examined the impact of yoga practice on a group of elementary aged children experiencing test anxiety. She found that consistent yoga practice, which included mediation, helped them to improve not only their academic performance, but also their eye contact and self-control, while decreasing their reported aggression.
This research and others like it, show us a way to mediate the performance anxiety that children often experience in schools. Something as simple as taking a breath can make the difference in a way a child approaches a task or a test.
Additionally, many children are coming to school with more serious stressors than test anxiety. As alluded to earlier, students are experiencing and witnessing violence at alarming rates. Many students are likely to be arriving at school with symptoms related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD].
The School Survey on Crime and Safety (2003) estimates that 71% of public elementary and secondary schools experienced at least one violent incident during the 1999-2000 school year. Add that to the over 29 million children who commit an act of violence against a sibling each year (Straus and Gelles, 1988) and the estimated 896,000 children who were victims of child abuse or neglect in 2002 and teachers are left with what may seem like insurmountable obstacles for their students.
The simple yet powerful tools that yoga offers may be an effective and sustainable way to support children in our classrooms. Through program such as Yoga 4 Classrooms and others like it, teachers and students are empowered with ideas that are easily accessible to children. These breathing exercises, simple movements at your desk, and guided visualizations empower children to find ways to calm themselves or find a source of energy when necessary.
The ability to regulate one’s own behavior is a common challenge. Even as adults we are challenged to regulate our speech and avoid harsh words and gossip, regulate what we eat and practice contentment, as well as the regulation of many aspects of our lives. It is no wonder that we struggle with this as adults given the lack of support most of us have as children to learn this skill.
Children today often have very scheduled lives and don’t get much practice in self-regulation skills. Our very rigid classrooms tell children exactly what to read, how long to read, how to respond, and what the formula is for responses, etc.
Then, children get home and in lieu of free play outside with friends they have scheduled play via music lessons, sports teams and the like. Certainly, organized play is valuable and it is a privilege to have access to them. But, what is lost when organized play replaces child directed play?
The value that is lost may be children’s ability to learn to create their own rules, creatively explore activities, and—you guessed it—regulate their own behavior.
The importance of self-regulation is demonstrated in the classic study The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, where children were tested on their ability to avoid eating a marshmallow based on delayed gratification (Mischel et al., 1972).
The ability to delay gratification turns out to be a very vital attribute for one to possess, as it leads to success in multiple areas, in academics and in social relationships alike. The study showed that the children who gave in to self-gratification turned out to have behavior problems, lower SAT scores, trouble paying attention and a difficult time maintaining friendships (Mischel et al., 1972).
The students that resisted their urge to eat the marshmallow had the metacognitive ability to consciously distract themselves.
If students can put their attention elsewhere, they can understand how to control their impulses. The ability to control and direct attention onto something is an indication of character strength because it frees one to be able to think about how their choices will affect their future.
Yoga is a practice that encourages that one’s attention shifts from their fleeting thoughts onto their breath. This one reason alone supports metacognition because students are consciously letting their thoughts pass by, instead of acting on them instantly.
Finding strength in the unity of mind, body and spirit is second nature to so many of us who have embraced yoga as a tool for holistic well-being.
Yet, for many of our most vulnerable children yoga seems so culturally distant that it is not utilized in places where it can be beneficial. In this short essay, we hope to have made an argument that encourages the use of yoga with children as a way to support their ability to regulate behavior and cope adaptively with the stressors that they face.
• Carter, LS.: Weithorn LA. Behrman RE. Domestic violence and children: Analysis and Recommendations. The Future of Children. 9(3):4-20, 1999 Winter.)
• Kilpatrick, D. & Saunders B.: Washington DC: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, 1997
• Krashen, S.D. (1994): The input hypothesis and its rivals, Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages, Academic Press, London: Ellis, N, pp. 45–77
• Powell, L., Gilchrist, M. & Stapley, J. (2008): A journey of self-discovery: An intervention involving massage, yoga and relaxation for children with emotional and behavioral difficulties attending primary schools. European Journal of Special Needs Education (23)4, 403-412.
• Mischel, Walter; Ebbe B. Ebbesen, Antonette Raskoff Zeiss (1972): “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification.”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21 (2): 204–218.
• Straus, M. & Gelles, R.: How Violent are American families: estimates from the National Family Violence Resurvey and other studies. In: Hotaling G. et al., (Eds). Family Abuse and Its Consequences: New Directions in Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1988.
• Violence in U.S. Public Schools: 2000 School Survey on Crime and Safety, October 2003.
Tabitha Dell’Angelo is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Urban Education Master’s Program at The College of New Jersey. Her research interests include social justice in education, cultural identity development, stress tolerance and coping strategies for teachers. She is interested in using improvisational acting techniques to support teacher development and using yoga with children to help support self-regulation and learning readiness. She holds a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches courses in Child and Adolescent Development, Urban Education, Cultural Foundations, and Teacher Research.
Editor: Edith Lazenby
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