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Classroom Activities: Use Yoga to Stretch Your Students

James Paterson

Yoga is an increasingly popular way to improve learning.

Jaynette Rittman surprised a lot of people with big the improvement in grades and behavior at the inner city elementary school in Des Moines, Iowa, where she had been principal for two years.

But what might be even more surprising is one of the classroom activities that she says played a key role in the turnaround. She makes certain students stretch more than their young brains. Twice a day they do yoga.

Rittman introduced yoga to the students at Edmunds Elementary as one of the classroom activities in an EC3 (Edmunds Culture, Climate, Content) program, part of which involved asking students to “Stop, think and make a good choice.”

She and other school leaders realized students were following the EC3 guidance and stopping themselves at difficult moments, but they didn’t have a strategy to pause and think through their action. She recalls that sometimes her students would still hit each other or speak inappropriately.

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Rittman decided that yoga and mindfulness would help, including teaching students how to take a deep breath (there are several options for the type of “Go-to” breath each student uses) and give themselves time to relax and consider their actions. “It was time to think outside the box,” she says.

After implementing the yoga program, she found referrals dropped by two-thirds, and test scores at the school, historically the worst in the district, jumped up 18 percent.

“And just as importantly, the overall climate and culture in the building is better for learning – and you can feel that,” Rittman says. “You can feel it as soon as you walk in the building.”

Rittman also asked that all teachers receive the training, and the whole school practices yoga or assists students during their yoga breaks first thing in the morning and after lunch. She worked with Yoga for Classrooms, a New Hampshire-based program that provides tools and training for educators.

Where’s the Proof?

Articles in Forbes and Newsweek have highlighted school yoga programs where benefits have been seem by educators, and Lisa Flynn, founder and director Yoga For Classrooms, points to supporting research. An article by Marlynn Wei, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and author of the new “Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga,” reviews a variety of data showing its benefits. They include:

For the Body:

●      Assists neuromuscular development.

●      Develops strength and flexibility.

●      Increases balance, body awareness, and coordination.

●      Improves posture, alignment, and core strength.

●      Reduces chance of injury.

●      Improves digestion and circulation.

●      Strengthens the immune system.

●      Relaxes the body, promotes better sleep.

For the Brain:

●      Calms and clears the mind.

●      Relieves tension and stress.

●      Increases concentration, focus, and attention.

●      Stimulates auditory processing, and responsiveness.

●      Expands imagination, creativity, and self-expression.

●      Improves discipline and ability to be less reactive.

●      Builds confidence and self-esteem.

“School-based yoga programs can offer a cost-effective, evidence-based solution for many of the behavioral and academic challenges faced by schools,” says Flynn, noting that research also has shown it also improves social skills and school climate.   

She says that Rittman's efforts were particularly effective because she involved the entire staff.  "She was very clear she did not want a Band-Aid approach. She wanted to affect the culture and really change the school."

It’s Spreading

That success with yoga has been duplicated in several schools (one survey recently found that more than 1000 schools nationwide were being introduced to yoga), including a number in Iowa.

Teachers at Mid-Prairie West Elementary in Wellman have been using these practices and “Challenge to Change” program has this year put yoga instruction and practice in four eastern Iowa schools.

At Alexander Elementary School in Iowa City, where one-third of the students are ESL and 75 percent get free and reduce price meals, Principal Christine Gibson and school leaders wanted to address the students’ emotional well-being.

“A lot of our students have a lot of barriers to learning and that come out in physical aggression, anger, disrespect,” she told a state publication that covers the topic. “We knew we had lots of trauma, and we needed to learn as much as we could.”

Yoga instruction material is available to teachers at the school, but they can approach it the way they prefer. One who has been trained in yoga instruction teaches the students a new pose every Monday.

Gibson reports that suspensions dropped by 30 percent and she describes several students who have benefited, including one who was “Very impulsive and quick to anger.”

“He eats it up,” she reported. “He is one of the yoga leaders in class and he is taking it in classes outside of school,” she says.

In other areas, Baltimore’s Holistic Life Foundation brings yoga to schools and California’s Mindful Schools has provided training in 48 states. Several New York City schools have implemented a Department of Education initiative, Move-to-Improve, which encourages yoga and stretching. 

Getting Started

Educators who have begun offering yoga in schools say that it may be best to start small.

Mayuri Gonzalez is the school yoga project manager at Little Flower Yoga in New York City, which serves more than 3500 students in the area with programs during school and through extracurricular activities. She says some schools introduce the program through a PE class or once a week to the whole school. Some also have one teacher begin in a class then spread the program to others, while others schools have a handful of teachers who become “Ambassadors” and try a program, assess it, then bring it to the entire school.

She and other experts, however, also recommend initially working with an organization like hers that is familiar with how to implement effective programming.

She specifically suggests that where the program has been fully adopted in all classes, teachers establish regular routines for yoga for just two-to-five minutes for each class period.

“Alternately, teachers can approach yoga as a transition activity, by noticing when the children are tired, unfocused, fidgety, or need a break, and reach for these activities as a way to re-engage students, help them feel better, and get ready to learn,” she says.

Montebello Elementary School in Suffren, N.Y., north of New York City, got a grant to implement an eight-week program working with Little Flower Yoga.

"Students and teachers looked forward to ‘Yoga days’ and noticed a significant difference in themselves following each class. Students said they felt calmer and more focused,” says Principal Teresa Ivy.

Gonzalez, too, says the results will be evident quickly.

“Short breaks with movement like this can make a huge impact on classroom culture and climate, and student engagement. Daily repetition helps children integrate these practices and use them as tools in day-to-day life for a long time.”