The Benefits of Yoga in a Special Needs School Setting
With a deep breath, I welcomed the new year 2018. Before noon on that day, I received a text message from the principal of one of the schools that I work in my position as a school based occupational therapist. He and I have had many conversations over the years. Those conversations have included various research and writing project that we work on and share an interest. We have also discussed our personal extracurricular activities. He was aware that I have been a student of yoga for over 40 years. Resulting from our conversations, the school has implemented a number of Tier one interventions which have served to set a positive tone to the beginning of each school day and has added a certain cohesiveness to the school community.
The school is special in that we have had a number of self-contained special education classes. These classes are comprised of students with myriad cognitive and emotional needs that require education in a small class with an even smaller ratio of adult educators to students.
The class that was on the mind of the principal as 2018 was just beginning was a class of third through fifth graders who have emotional as well as cognitive differences that make participation in academic pursuits a challenge.
He requested that I develop a yoga session for this class, so that the students have the experience to begin each day with a calm, quiet and empowered experience. And so I did. I have worked with children with special needs longer than I have been doing yoga. I know that repetition of instruction, as well as my own sense of what I intend to teach are of primary importance when interacting with challenged students. In occupational therapy we call this sense of intention and modeling of behavior “therapeutic use of self”.
The teacher and classroom aides were encouraged to participated. I begged and borrowed a dozen mats before school began for the new semester.
I set the mats out on the stage of the school. The stage was chosen for the session as it was a place that was smaller than a classroom and the lights could be adjusted. These sessions have become a few precious moments of silence and peace that the students and staff experience perhaps during the day. I do not permit the other staff in the room to touch or correct the students. I lead by example, providing as few as possible directions. I trust that each student is doing their best.
The primary lessons the yoga sessions impart are:
- Each participant is exactly in a place they need to be at the moment
- The only person they need to be concerned with is themselves
- They only need to breathe and do the best they could do with the positions
- They are perfect just the way they are
- They have everything they need inside to do and be the best they can be
- Persistence will help them to achieve their own personal goals
- Stillness and silence are wonderful tools they can use in any situation
Each session lasts 15-20 minutes. The postures begin with standing, strength and balance. We then progress to seated, core strengthening and coordination. Each session ends with seated then supine positions to promote stretching and calm. The lights are dimmed and we end with a quiet meditation lasting five minutes or more.
The students roll up their individual mats and place them in the designated space at the end of each session. They are often silent as they roll their mats. They each say, “Namaste”, which I have explained means that the goodness in me sees the goodness in each of them.
The teacher reports that her class is quieter and more cohesive than prior to the implementation of the yoga program. She also shared that her class is frequently argumentative and often complains about participation in new or different activities. She has not heard any complaints about yoga. She has noticed a sense of calm and an increase in the student’s willingness to participate and attend to instruction.
The teacher commented that the daily yoga session is likely the only opportunity her students have to experience stillness and silence in their otherwise noisy and chaotic lives.