When teachers need to teach social-emotional skills at school or caregivers want to enhance these skills at home, they often look to blogs, YouTube, books or a pre-developed curriculum for guidance. But for areas with high instances of poverty, these resources may not be accessible, leading parents and educators to tools that require little to no materials beyond the physical body. For some, the multifaceted tool of yoga fills this need.
Barriers to Social-Emotional Learning
Sierra is a fourth-grade student in St. Louis County. She has a diagnosis of Oculocutaneous Albinism, which impacts the pigment of her skin and hair and how well she is able to see. While her differences have been embraced by her family and teachers, her peers do not naturally understand the outward differences presented by her condition.
Sierra has struggled to cultivate language for how her disability impacts her own social-emotional development and how it impacts her experiences at school. This struggle has been a barrier to Sierra’s ability to create positive relationships with her classmates.
“Sierra has struggled with bullying at almost every school she has attended since Kindergarten,” says her mother. “She just has a hard time with other kids. They don’t understand why she looks so different.”
Yoga to Support Inclusion
Sierra was first exposed to yoga six years ago when her Special Education Teacher, Julie Johnson, began doing yoga shapes and breathing exercises to help her establish a feeling of calm. The hope was that these practices would help her engage more with the present moment and optimize her readiness for learning.
Sierra was so responsive to yoga that she began receiving services from a designated yoga teacher, Natasha Baebler, who worked with Sierra on developing social-emotional awareness as a way of addressing bullying at school.
Julie and Natasha found that it was one thing to teach social-emotional skills one-on-one and another thing entirely for Sierra to use these new skills in potentially stressful situations with her peers.
During her yoga lessons, Sierra needed the direct involvement of her classroom teacher and peers, who were also struggling to understand Sierra’s experiences as a person living with a disability, so that she could practice implementing her new skills in an environment containing scaffolded supports.
By including peers in yoga lessons, Sierra and Natasha were able to teach Sierra’s classmates how to support Sierra on a social-emotional level. Having an understanding of Sierra’s condition helped her classmates understand and embrace her differences. This helped them be an ally for Sierra in school and the wider community.
Small-Group Yoga Instruction
Teaching Sierra’s peers how to be an ally for her in the classroom required small group intervention outside the classroom. Natasha and Julie took Sierra and one or two peers to a separate space where direct instruction and exploratory learning were used in yoga-based activities that required teamwork and collaboration.
The small group yoga setting gave Sierra an opportunity to discuss her experiences as a person with visual disabilities. Hearing information directly from Sierra and being able to ask her questions helped her peers learn more about her experience with Oculocutaneous Albinism. These groups also offered Sierra’s peers an opportunity to practice empathy and build language around their own social-emotional experiences.
Tools and Tips for Using Yoga to Build Social-Emotional Awareness in Kids
1. Use yoga games that require turn-taking to encourage active listening. Have students practice paraphrasing or repeating what the other says to foster understanding and clarification.
2. Teach Mudras (specific hand positions) to draw attention to detail. Then, draw parallels between these details and situational or environmental details. Ask the students to come up with scenarios from their own lives.
3. Create prompts for use in mindfulness journals to explore creativity and appreciation of the everyday small things. This is also a great place to teach the skill of reflection on day-to-day experiences.
4. Encourage exploration of how they may have handled something differently or how they wish something had been handled differently by someone else. Once they have explored this in a journal, a student may feel more ready to verbalize this information.
5. Teach a small handful of yoga poses that can be done individually or in pairs to teach how the same thing can look different in different bodies or enhance social space awareness. Use representative visuals, even if you and the student must create these visuals together. A child is more engaged if they see themself in the activity. Representation of skin tone, physical ability, and gender matter to kids.
6. Language matters. Use direct, clear, concise, descriptive language to introduce any activity, topic, or skill set. Choose your words carefully mirroring a child’s word choice where appropriate. Ask the child which of the two terms they prefer, and let them know they can change their mind and request a different term at any point. This gives a child social autonomy in how they are discussed.
The opportunities are endless and only limited by your creativity. Any games, activities, or classroom lessons can be modified to include yoga poses, mudras, mindfulness statements, and personal facts that help frame a student’s experience and create an opportunity for multi-modal learning and social-emotional growth.
Authors: Julie Johnson, M.Ed ATS, RYT. Special Education Teacher, Social-Emotional Inclusion Specialist, and Natasha Baebler, MAT, E-RYT Accessible Yoga Ambassador, Social-Emotional Inclusion Specialist
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