At first thought, teaching yoga to a high-risk school population might seem as incongruous as recruiting the chess team for Sumo wrestling.
Pre-K students practice
And while neither may sound like a good match, the principal of Jefferson Elementary School in Berwyn, Illinois, is crediting a school-wide yoga program for improving school climate, test scores and student behavior.
"I'm not the Wicked Witch of the West anymore," joked Jefferson principal Violet Tantillo, who described her student body as high-poverty and high-achieving. Since the yoga program began three years ago, discipline referrals have dropped dramatically, giving Tantillo more time to work with students and teachers for reasons other than meting out punishment.
Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, and combines different poses, breathing techniques and sometimes meditation to improve flexibility and reduce stress. Before yoga took hold at Jefferson, Tantillo, who is the sole administrator at the pre-K-to-grade 5 school, had long lines of students outside her office door almost every day after lunch. Many students were referred because of squabbles of the 'he pushed me, she looked at me' variety. (The school does not have formal recess; some teachers find time to go outside for about eight minutes of play.) Either Tantillo or the classroom teachers had to sort out the daily disputes. "I was tired of just being a punisher," Tantillo said. "While the teachers were handling the problems, they were losing instructional time," she told Education World.
The program at Jefferson began as voluntary for teachers, with professional development for staff members who wanted to participate. Students started doing yoga for 8 to 10 minutes a day after lunch. After one year, according to Tantillo, the number of discipline referrals, which are notes she sends home to parents, dropped from 254 to 200, and test scores increased as well. "I said it was not optional any more," she said. "Now even the pre-K students practice yoga, and it is part of the school's wellness program."
Typically, students return from lunch or recess, teachers dim the lights, and the class spends 8 to 10 minutes practicing yoga. Teachers are encouraged to teach students one yoga pose per week. Since the school-wide yoga program started, discipline referrals have continued to drop -- Tantillo wrote only 132 this past school year -- and the climate of the school is much calmer. She often joins classes for their afternoon yoga. "We dont have chronic kids [those who are discipline problems] any more," she said. "It has made a huge difference in the culture of the school."
"Students who see a classmate struggling for control sometimes say, 'Take a yoga breath,' or 'Do a tree,' referring to a yoga position. We now have a very peaceful, calming environment, all from eight to ten minutes a day."
For the first time on a parent survey after the 2008-2009 school year, about 20 parents listed yoga as a strength of the school, she added.
Yoga came to Jefferson via another educator -- Carla Tantillo, Violet Tantillo's daughter. A former high school teacher, Carla Tantillo introduced yoga to inner-city students when she was the curriculum director for a contract high school in Chicago. Carla Tantillo was earning her certification as a yoga instructor and decided to teach yoga to the students and some of the teachers. While initially some students were skeptical, the program became popular. "Yoga is not competitive, and it's not judged," she said in explaining some of its appeal.
After Carla Tantillo left the contract school and was eating lunch with her mother one day, Violet Tantillo showed her an article about a school using yoga and suggested her daughter consider teaching yoga in schools. Carla wrote the curriculum during a summer and was able to sign up eight schools by 2006-2007. "Initially, I was doing it for free," she said. "Then some principals said they would pay for it with grants because it was helping teachers and students."
Carla Tantillo went on to start Mindful Practices, and she and her staff work with teachers and students -- including those at her mother's school -- to use yoga for behavior management and relaxation. The company has worked with more than 60 schools, and many teachers have benefited from learning yoga. "Teachers realize how their own stresses affect their performance," said Carla Tantillo. "Teachers are more sensitive and compassionate with their students because they are more sensitive and compassionate with themselves."
Carla Tantillo also discourages teachers in the schools in which she works from using candy or small toys to reward students for good behavior, saying using yoga to control behavior has more long-term applications. In some schools, teachers reward students by letting them pick the day's yoga pose. They can use yoga to reflect on their behavior, she explained.
Her mother agrees. "I don't do prizes," Violet Tantillo said. "I don't have a point system for rewards. I don't have time for it. I much prefer yoga to handing out rewards. This way the strategy is embedded in their being. If a teacher says to them, 'Calm down and take a breath,' they know what to do. When they are older, when a car cuts them off while they are driving, maybe instead of screaming out the window, they will remember to breathe."
While parents of some students at schools that teach yoga have objected to it, saying it is a religious-based practice, Violet Tantillo said only one parent asked that her child not participate. That student quietly reads while other students do yoga. When that issue has come up in other schools, Carla Tantillo said, she finds it is best to learn exactly what parents' concerns are. In one school, changing the name from yoga to a Hornet Minute, naming it after the school mascot, made parents more comfortable.
Yoga has proven so popular at Jefferson that the school started an afterschool program -- hip-hop yoga -- that combines hip-hop dance moves with yoga positions set to music. Students from Jefferson saw some high-school students performing hip-hop yoga, and a fifth-grade boy asked a high school student why he did it. He replied that it kept him off the streets and away from gangs.
Yoga proved so popular at Jefferson
So when Jefferson students begged for their own program, Violet Tantillo agreed to start one for fourth and fifth graders -- but stipulated that to participate in hip-hop yoga, students had to sign up for the afterschool A+ Math and Accelerated Reader programs. So many students registered for hip-hop yoga that the school had to add sections of Accelerated Reader and A+ Math. The students are doing so well in the program that some have been invited to perform at events such as the Taste of Chicago. Some students family members traveled from Honduras to see the performance.
Students also are active as yoga ambassadors. Some kids are teaching yoga to their parents, and third graders taught yoga poses to members of the board of education. Yoga instructors also teach parents yoga positions at school wellness nights.
Violet Tantillo said she would not hesitate to recommend a yoga program to other schools, because of the minimal investment and what she hopes will be stress management strategies children can use for the rest of their lives. "We don't have to buy prizes or banners," she said. And as an adult, if someone cuts you off on the road and you want to get angry, no one is going to be there to give you a prize if you don't.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2009, 2015 Education World
Originally published 09/28/2009
Last update 06/09/2015