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We’ve long known getting students to move during the school days may help them focus and behave better, but research is also showing that a very deliberate type of physical activity might have some of the best benefits for them and their teachers – yoga.

A new study from Tulane suggests it reduces student stress and that joins other research reporting it has benefits ranging from improved performance in class and on tests, and more helps students have more control over problems with attention, inappropriate behavior and conflict. By practicing it with the class or on their own teachers would de-stress too, experts say.

“It may seem impractical in some ways, but it actually can benefit a teacher a great deal,” says Joanne Spence, a Pittsburgh-based yoga instructor and former social worker who founded Yoga In Schools, a non-profit that has worked with about 20,000 children. Spence is one of the country’s leading advocates for introducing yoga to more students.

In the Tulane study, some third-graders who suffered from anxiety received yoga and mindfulness intervention for eight weeks and other didn’t. Students in the yoga/mindfulness group, which had 10 sessions of Yoga Ed. for 40 minutes before school began, scored significantly better on scales measuring their anxiety.

"The intervention improved psychosocial and emotional quality of life scores for students, as compared to their peers who received standard care," says study author Alessandra Bazzano, a Tulane professor.

Past research have had similar results. One study found students improved executive function skills after learning mindful awareness concepts, and other research found that yoga helped kids improve their ability to self-regulate over a one-year study period. Other researchers have found that a mindfulness training helped boys with ADHD.

Beyond that, Spence says the break and the practice can help teachers relax. She says because teachers are in high-stress jobs, learning and practicing yoga personally can energize their teaching, improve their physical health and reduce anxiety dramatically.

Des Moines, IA, schools were concerned about low performance and high suspension rates, so Jaynette Rittman, a new principal at Edmunds Elementary, developed an “EC3” program (Edmunds Culture, Climate and Content), which included a “stop and think and make a good choice” component to reduce reactive behavior.  It includes brief yoga sessions for students twice a day.

In two years, Edmunds, a poorly performing, inner-city school with a high poverty rate where English language learners made up more than 60 percent of the student population, increased test scores by 20 percent and cut office referrals from 1,000 per year to about 300 in 2016 –  and Rittman says yoga played a key role.

“I think the biggest benefit is the student’s ability to self regulate their emotions and respond in an appropriate way,” she says. “We have provided them with the tools they need to notice, identify and react appropriately when they become angry, upset, worried or stressed, and know how to handle themselves. That is critical.”

Another administrator, Cindy Zurchin, now an education consultant after 30 years in the Pittsburgh area as a teacher, principal and superintendent, has promoted yoga instruction in her schools at all levels and says while it is thought of as something primarily elementary schools would implement, she found it particularly helpful for older students where stress is even higher.

Advocates say yoga should be built into the classroom or whole-school routine. At Rittman’s school students practiced at the start of the day and after recess.

“Two of easiest ways to build yoga and mindfulness into the day are through transitions and classroom routines,” says Mayuri Gonzalez, director of Little Flower Yoga, a program that works with about 3,500 students in the New York City area.

She says a teacher could schedule 2-5 minutes within each class period to get the kids moving or approach it “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 reengage students, help them feel better, and get ready to learn”.

Short, regular breaks for as little as two to five minutes can make a huge impact on classroom culture and climate, and student engagement” she says. “Daily repetition helps children integrate these practices and use them as tools in day to day life.”

What are the benefits?

Here are some potential benefits of yoga for students included in a detailed list developed by Lisa Flynn, founder of Yoga4Kids. The recommendations are based on supporting research and an article on yoga research by Marlynn Wei, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and author of the new Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.

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

 

Written by Jim Paterson

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