A tribute to Autism Awareness Month: All children have special needs.
As we come to the end of Autism awareness month, I am very aware of all the information and advice that has been swirling around the children’s yoga world talking about how to support students on the spectrum. There has been some really wonderful sharing happening, but I want to take a moment to remind us as a community of how important it is to embrace every child as an individual. See the soul and not the story, as Seane Corn often says.
In my work with many different children, I have seen how easy it can be to start thinking “this kid has such and such disorder so I’m going to do this with him” or “I can’t do that with this child since she has a developmental delay”. We do, of course, have to be aware of the challenges our students face, and adjust our plans and our expectations accordingly, but often I think we can fall into a trap of habitually teaching to the disorder. This limits our creativity and our ability to show the child all that is possible.
In my teaching I always try to remember that all children have special needs, not just the one’s whose needs are most visible. Children’s challenges, whether they are physical, mental or emotional, are part of what make them who they are, but they are not the only part. Just as adults struggle with all sorts of things, but don’t want those struggles to define how they are treated and what people think of them, children are much more then their struggles. If in our teaching, we allow ourselves to become distracted from the child by the challenge, then we run the risk of contributing to that child’s inability to appreciate him or herself as an amazing and unique individual.
Whether a child has cerebral palsy, or is on the autism spectrum, or is struggling with her parent’s divorce, or is having a hard time controlling his anger, or is just overwhelmed with the pressure and expectations of high achieving parents, our job is the same. We work to make sure all children learn to see and appreciate the part of themselves that has nothing to do with the things that are hard; we work to make sure every child is aware of their potential.
Our primary goal is to help children live their lives with joy, secure in the knowledge that the world holds great wonders for them and that they have great gifts to share with the world.
Keeping this in mind, here are some guidelines to be aware of in your work with all of our very special children.
1. See the Soul, Not the Story
Seek to understand the challenges that your students face, but pay even more attention to who they are as individuals. What do they enjoy and care about, how do they feel about themselves, what are their hopes and goals and wishes. Be the person who shows a child that they are much much more than their challenge.
2. Make Sure that Your Students Experience More Successes Then Failures
As teachers we work to inspire confidence in our students, but often we focus so much on challenging them that we forget how important it is to nurture their spirits. Some studies have shown that learned helplessness, where children feel that it is impossible for them to succeed so they stop trying, can appear in children as young as four years old!
It is our job to make sure that all of our kids, regardless of their challenges, have the opportunity to experience many more successes then failures. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t challenge your students and teach them to work towards a difficult goal, but if you know you are about to work on something that might be frustrating make sure to bracket that experience with activities that you know the child can feel good about.
3. Find the Appropriate Balance of Structure, Predictability and Creativity
All children, and people in general, need a certain degree of structure and predictability in their lives order to feel safe, and it is impossible to relax and engage in an experience if you don’t feel have that sense of safety. For many children life is not very predictable, and if you imagine the life of any child it’s easy to see that they have very little control over their own day to day experiences. All of the mental preparation that adults make each day to help them navigate the world is denied to a child who has very little control and sometimes very little knowledge of what is coming next.
The inability to prepare for even the immediate future creates anxiety in children to varying degrees. Many factors can have an impact on how much predictability a child craves – big things such as traumatic experiences or developmental delays, but even smaller things such as how much sleep they have gotten the night before. It is up to you to get to know your students and provide them with an experience that combines the structure that helps them relax with the creativity that inspires their imagination.
My suggestion is that when you begin to work with a new child or children, start with a high degree of predictability – tell them what is planned, how long activities are going to last, and use a lot of repetition – and slowly increase the amount of new material and more fluid time as the kids get to know you and you get to know them.
4. Create Classes that Take Multiple intelligences Into Account
As you plan a children’s yoga class, it is so important to remember that every child has a different way of learning best, and by creating a multi-sensory learning experience that explores things from different perspectives we have the best chance of engaging all of our students. Which intelligences are dominant in a particular child will affect the way that he or she processes the information that you are conveying.
If one or more students “just doesn’t get it “ when you think you are being clear, try to address what you are teaching in a different way. Even in what seems like a simple asana, some students may need you to explain the pose verbally, others may need a demonstration, some may not want to participate unless they know why they are doing the pose and some will only remember the pose if there is a song or chant that goes with it.
In each session work to introduce activities through both language and visual supports. Allow children to make their own decisions about whether to try things right away, or hold back and observe for a while. Give kids opportunities to discuss what they are learning, work together to support and encourage each other, and even give them some quiet time to work things out themselves. A student who appears to be uncooperative may just not be engaged or informed by the method you are using to communicate. Try to bring aspects of each intelligence to your teaching and you will keep more of your students happy and participating.
5. Allow Learning to be Child Directed
Teachers often create amazing lesson plans, but if the kids are not engaging with the activities you’ve prepared, they are not going to be learning anything from them. We must always be ready to allow our classes to be guided by the unpredictable needs of our students.
I like to think of a lesson plan as a straight, well paved and well marked road. Then think of an actual children’s yoga class as a journey on some sort of exciting and well equipped off road vehicle. You can expect that every class will veer off the road, often for very good reasons, and as a teacher you can make sure that the off road experience is safe, engaging and educational. Then gently steer the class back towards the central theme of your lesson plan.
6. Remember That a Good Result Is Not Necessarily the One You Had in Mind
When it comes to children, be aware that the depth of their creativity and imagination will almost always outshine your own. When we begin an activity or a conversation with a kid we often have a particular outcome in mind. We measure success, both for the child and for ourselves as teachers, against how close we come to this outcome.
But what happens so often is that the child’s mind isn’t working the same way yours is, and if you allow that child to have some creative freedom and some mental space, if you respect the child and truly listen, the outcome you get may be one that you had never even considered. Be prepared to have an open mind and heart. Let go of your preconceptions, and remember that a good result is not necessarily the one you were planning.
Sometimes as yoga teachers we get so invested in the practice that we want to share all of it with everyone. This love of yoga is wonderful, but as a children’s yoga teacher I always want to remind myself that the child is more important than the yoga.
This may seem obvious, but it is easy to get caught up in teaching the poses and practices with such enthusiasm that we don’t recognize or respond to a child who is not connecting. We may go forward with our plan, assuming that they will get it eventually or thinking that as soon as they see x, y and z they will love it as much as we do. It is important to take a step back and remember that we didn’t receive the benefits of our practice all at once.
Sharing yoga in small, manageable pieces that connect to the students’ lives in developmentally appropriate ways is the best path forward. Some days that may mean there is a lot more talking then doing happening, and I encourage you to be ok with that.
8. Love Trumps Everything
Children will often not remember what you say or do, but they will always remember how you make them feel.
This is some variation of something somebody once said, and it is perfectly true. Write it at the top of every lesson plan. Say it in your head as you’re walking to class. Remind yourself of it when you get frustrated or confused or stop having fun in your classes.
Happy teaching. Keep on spreading the joy.
Jennifer Cohen Harper is the founder and director of Little Flower Yoga. Based in NY, Little Flower serves over 500 children a week with school based yoga programs, and trains teachers from all over the world to engage and inspire children with yoga and mindfulness practices. Jennifer leads the well respected Little Flower Yoga Teacher Training for Children program, is a faculty member at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, and frequently collaborates with other organizations to bring yoga for children to places as diverse as tent cities in Port-au-Prince and FAO Schwarz in Manhattan. Children love Jenn’s willingness to engage in mutual silliness, while also appreciating the genuine respect that she has for her students of all ages. Learn more about Jennifer and LFY at www.littlefloweryoga.com.