Yoga for Special Needs Children
When parents think about exercise and development for their children, they may not initially think about yoga, relegating it as an activity for adults. Instead, team sports, gymnastics or karate classes are more likely to come to mind.
However, yoga can be very beneficial for all children, whether they have special needs or not. Like more traditional exercises, yoga promotes a healthy, active lifestyle and will help keep your child from becoming overweight – a serious problem that faces many children in the United States.
Yoga has other benefits as well, like improved posture, which is good for all children. Along with the physical benefits of yoga, it can also help your child develop mentally.
Benefits of Yoga for Special Needs Children
Children with developmental disorders like Autism, Down syndrome and Cerebral Palsy can benefit from doing yoga regularly. Children with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and ADHD can also benefit from participating in yoga classes.
Yoga Promotes Body Awareness
For children with disorders that affect their physical growth, yoga can help to promote body awareness. For many children, this can be a difficult issue, and more traditional athletic activities may be unsafe. Instead, low-impact exercises like yoga are preferred.
Yoga classes for children can even start at a young age, and many believe that even infants and toddlers can benefit from the body awareness that yoga can provide.
Yoga Improves Concentration
Children with attention deficit disorder, ADHD and other learning disabilities can also benefit from the improved concentration that regularly participating in yoga can bring.
While it may take some time for you to see signs of improved concentration, all doctors agree that exercise is important for children with learning disabilities.
In its simplest form, yoga is just exercise however, the breathing techniques and poses may help improve concentration more than other activities.
Teaching Yoga to Children with Special Needs
If you’re interested in teaching yoga to your special needs child, there are a few different ways that you can do it. Many parents mix techniques, especially if they have a busy schedule.
When you first start doing yoga with your child, taking a class designed specifically for children with special needs and parents can be beneficial.
There are also classes designed specifically for children with special needs that don’t involve the parents to the same extent.
Finding a class in your area shouldn’t be too difficult. Believe it or not, yoga for special needs children is pretty popular because of its myriad benefits.
After taking some classes and learning the basics, you may want to start doing yoga at home with your child in addition to taking a class once per week.
Once you know the basic poses, all you really need is a yoga mat and a room where you don’t have a lot of distractions. Many parents simply choose to move some furniture out of the way in the living room or family room.
Basic Physical Exercise
Every growing child needs to get exercise whether they have special needs or not. Exercise is essential for maintaining overall health.
While certain activities like swimming or low-impact aerobics can also benefit certain children, yoga doesn’t pose the same risks as those activities.
Yoga is also an activity that you can do anywhere with your child, unlike swimming or low-impact aerobics. All you need is a yoga mat and a basic understanding of poses and techniques.
Can All Special Needs Children Do Yoga?
Before you enroll your child in yoga classes, there are some things you may need to consider.
While most children can benefit from yoga, children with certain conditions like Cerebral Palsy may have to move at a slower pace, and the more strenuous parts of yoga may be off limits.
Take some time to talk with your child’s instructor about their condition before they start taking classes so the instructor will be aware of things your child may have a difficult time doing.
Yoga can be incredibly beneficial for children and adults, whether they have special needs or not. Getting your child involved in yoga classes early may be able to significantly help them throughout their lives.
You should also talk with your child’s doctor before they begin any sort of exercise routine. Yoga is a low-impact exercise that most children and adults can do, but it’s always best to get your child’s doctor’s approval first.
How to Teach Kids Yoga
Children are overwhelmed. More than ever in my 15 years as an educator I observe our children being affected by anxiety, depression, and a host of other issues that impact learning and the ability to develop skills such as self-regulation. Yoga is an evidence-based tool to provide children with the skills to self-regulate. I see it working everyday in a variety of settings. In teaching kids yoga, I have found there are 3 vital elements needed to teach yoga to kids: a teaching philosophy, my own yoga practice, and the understanding of child development.
Genshai: Help Kids See Their Greatness
In Aspire by Kevin Hall, I fell in love with the word Genshai. It’s an ancient Hindi word meaning “never to treat others, or yourself, in a way to make them feel small.” It’s more than that, though, it’s helping people see their greatness. How does this philosophy apply to leading children’s yoga?
Amy Defillipi, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, suggests that five positive impacts have the same affect as one negative experience on the brain. So let’s imagine a child’s day. He rides the school bus with a friend. He does well on a spelling test. He plays at recess with others. He gets called on to share in circle time. All of these events can be easily forgotten if on the bus home, no one wants to sit with him. How can we prepare the child to savor the positive experiences and allow them to sink in? How can we aim to develop children’s positive self-talk? To help the children recognize their greatness, we need to see good in ourselves.
Mind Your Self-Talk
I believe it’s a teacher’s responsibility to be kind to him/herself when working with children. Below the age of seven, children mimic what we say and do. That being the case, a teacher’s behaviors ought to be model behavior. We all make mistakes, and we all struggle. But with increased negative thoughts and words come increased instances of depression and anxiety. Is it possible for us to become so mindful of our self-talk that it would be consistent with seeing our greatness?
Challenge: Practice Genshai Toward Yourself
- Practice saying, “I love you just as you are,” as you look yourself in the mirror every day
- When something unexpected happens, pause to notice the quality of your thoughts and words. What are your thoughts and words? Once you take a deep breath or two, invite yourself to try again. Kindly respond to yourself the way you would to your childhood self. What changes?
- Write down of all the accomplishments you manage throughout the day such as exercising, making it to work, and being kind. Then when something unexpected happens, you can more easily see the big picture of all that you accomplish. Phew! Tailspin averted
- Compliment yourself for your accomplishments. If you start to talk down about yourself, stop! Refer back to number 2
It’s important to see all people as whole beings right now. Seeing children as flawed does not honor their greatness. Children should feel safe to make mistakes and exhibit a wide range of behaviors in your presence without our judgment or belittlement. In a kids yoga setting, participation will look different for all children. Be prepared to welcome a range of participation and behavior. Here are a few tips that I offer in my teacher training.
Challenge: Practice Genshai With Children
Create Clear Behavior Expectations
Small children need to know how you want them to behave. Knowing allows them to feel confident and increases the likelihood of participation. To set expectations; try simply repeating the same statements as you start class each time. If you make a practice of reminding kids that, “In yoga, we sit criss-cross apple sauce on our yoga mats”, and during class a child gets off his or her mat, you can simply ask, “where do our bodies belong during yoga class?” Question asking jogs the memory and helps bring the child back with kind inquiry. He or she will think, “Oh yea, we sit on our yoga mats,” and not, “I am bad because I left my mat.” The latter of the two thoughts can be the unintended result of a teacher getting mad when children make normal mistakes. Remember that children are dealing with constant distractors such as bodily sensations, sounds from inside or outside the classroom, seeing toys, etcetera, and therefore distraction is to be expected. Children should not be reprimanded for their mind (or body) wandering, but kindly redirected to the proper behaviors that have been clearly set. The goal of yoga and mindfulness after all, isn’t to never become distracted; it’s to return from distraction to attention with kind curiosity.
Accept Different Forms of Participation
Some children observe and listen rather than “do” yoga, especially toddlers. Some children won’t be confident or comfortable enough to practice yoga in front of other people. Forcing participation is damaging to children. Instead, verbally accept other forms of participation. For example, “some of our friends are working hard watching and listening while others are trying out the poses. Thanks for participating in your own way.” It can be tempting to emphasize ‘good yoga poses.’ Try to refrain from focusing on the physical form, but the energy and effort involved.
If a Child is Not Participating Physically, Check-In
You may hear, “Yoga is weird.” Or “Yoga is just for girls.” Acknowledge that child’s trepidations. “I thought yoga seemed weird a first, too. Now I find breathing and yoga poses calming and empowering. Do you ever want to feel more powerful?” I have seen relating to kids on this level help them relax more into learning.
Develop and Maintain Your Practice
I recommend that teachers have a regular yoga practice so they are comfortable doing yoga. You will be a better teacher if you have your own experience and know how practices feel for you and how they shift your energy. For example, you may not know that forward folds are calming until you try them and your experience may differ. Create a regular home practice, which can be as simple as adding one pose or sequence and a breath to your morning routine. I challenge you to begin a regular yoga practice. Consider sun salutations before work, or belly breathing to calm down on the commute.
Differentiate Your Practice
I have seen many skilled yogis and yoga teachers flounder in a kids yoga setting. That’s because kids yoga is different than adult yoga. That is why it’s important to study with a kids yoga expert so you learn to sequence engaging age-appropriate classes. In my Flow and Grow Kids Yoga teacher training, we encourage graduates to shadow other teachers and co-teach when they are starting out. When preparing to teach, select a few activities and rehearse them to ensure you use simple and clear language. Rehearse a few activities per week and you will have built up a repertoire of curriculum.
Understand Early Childhood development
(Infancy to Seven) According to Flower Yoga founder Tara Rachel Jones, author of It’s Time for Yoga, in early childhood, children experience the world as a one big sense organ. That means their entire body receives input from the world around them like a porous sponge. Finger-play is a tool for toddlers and preschoolers to experience a mind-body connection. The use of the fingers, toes, and skin is important because they contain neural-receptors. Tara Rachel contends, “A Finger-play is a gateway for the developing child that interconnects Head, Heart and Hands. Head: through rhythmic and imaginative language; Heart and Hands: it creates a 3 dimensional gesture that guides the articulation of the hand as a gentle helper of the heart. Furthermore, from a yogic perspective, Finger-plays are wonderful and age-appropriate precursor to a future Mudra practice (meditative hand postures that relate to positive thinking).”
Speak slowly. Class should be 15-45 minutes. Create a familiar ritual such as ringing a chime. Include breathing activities. Be sure to ask the kids what they know about yoga and let them know what it means to you. Include a finger-play to start an imaginative journey that also includes rhythm, repetition, animals, nature, transportation, and emotions. End the yoga exploration by gradually slowing down. Ease each child into relaxation for one to three minutes. When wrapping up, ask what they enjoyed. Thank them for participating.
Yoga for Kids: Fun Finger Practice
A fun yoga practice for the kiddos to help stimulate learning. Practice this anywhere!
The Shy Turtle
Yoga Practice for Kids by Lara Hochieser
Do this finger-play several times slowly. It can be done facing one child, in a circle with a group, or with partners in a group. And remember to thank your partner or group when done!
- Say: “When turtle is feeling shy”
- Do: Hold the right fist at chest height with the turtlehead (thumb) pointing toward your center, slowly wiggling your thumb
- Say: “she/he hides in his/her shell”
- Do: Slowly open the fist one finger at a time, tuck the thumb in and close the fist the same way you opened it. Then put your hand in your lap
- Repeat the finger-play with your left hand and say “When I am feeling shy I hide in my shell”
- Say: “Come out turtle”
- Do: Bring the right fist back out with the turtle’s head out
- Repeat for the left hand
- Option to Connect deeper: Replace “turtle” with the children’s name, giving each person a turn
- Add turtle pose asana: After repeating the finger-play several times, consider adding turtle asana. Explain “Put your feet together. Wiggle your heart forward and put your head down.” While they do this, repeat, “When turtle’s feeling shy she hides in her shell.” “Come out turtle,” and sit up tall again
- Add breathing: While the children are “in their shells” ask them to take 3 slow deep breaths in and out the nose. You can count aloud for them or alternatively breathe audibly
- Memory: Ask the child what to say to help turtle come out of her shell
- Move: Turtle “walk” by scooting on the bum. Move forward and back doing turtle pose
- Imagine: Ask kids questions. At this age there is no understanding of rhetorical questions. So when you ask a question, they will shout out their answers!
- Optional questions: What color is the inside of turtle’s shell? How does turtle get to school in the morning?
- Create empathy: Ask questions to stimulate emotional literacy. Ask only one or two questions, as more can be overwhelming. “What are times it feels good to be in your shell? How do you know when to come out? Ask turtle to be your friend. What would you say?
My greatest sources of inspiration are the children and my teachers. The best teachers remain students. To learn kids yoga, will you sit in the seat of student?