The ancient art of yoga is a ‘union’ of the mind, body and spirit. Yoga can improve self-awareness, focus, deepen relaxation and build inner strength. It can also “help balance the production of neurotransmitters in the brain and reduce stress levels” (Yogi Times).
With regular practice, mastering the art of conscious breathing, inclusive movement and focusing on postures, yoga and movement can be beneficial for all children. For more information on the history and benefits of practising yoga and mindfulness with children, see my blog: ‘Yoga for Little Ones’.
Yoga is often used to support children and adults on the autistic spectrum (ASD) and with Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As a spectrum condition, autism presents a range of conditions affecting a person’s social interaction, communication skills, body awareness, coordination and behaviour. The National Autistic Society describes autism as a “lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.” Whereas, ADHD is a condition affecting a person’s ability to control their impulses, focus, follow instructions and/or pay close attention for periods of time. It is not uncommon for children to have multiple or dual diagnoses, so children with ASD, are very often diagnosed with ADHD and vice versa.
Inspired by the holistic and transformational impact yoga can have on children, I wanted to find ways to improve my practice with children with special needs and further integrate mindfulness, yoga and inclusive movement into my sessions. When I found the professional course Yoga & Inclusive Movement Therapy for Autism, ADHD and Learning Disabilities, I instantly knew I had to sign up!
Delivered from a state of the art studio on Harley Street, London the course was led by Cathy Underwood, Senior Yoga & Movement Therapist; Mikaela Shalders, Paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT); and Timea Viragh, SENCO Teacher. I was drawn to this course because not only did it feature teachings from an experienced special needs yoga therapist, but was backed up with theory from a sensory integration specialist and a behaviour management strategist. It was an informative and inspiring weekend of learning new concepts, sharing ideas, and finding new ways to mindfully support and establish better connections with others.
So what did the course entail?
On the first day, we were greeted with a warm welcome in true yoga form. Students were guided through a gentle meditation with a singing bowl to settle into the space. We then joined together in a circle to introduce ourselves. It was great to meet such a diverse range of yogis, including learning support workers, parents, yoga teachers, class teachers, teaching assistants and carers – all with a vested interest in using yoga and inclusive movement to support others.
The course leaders set the scene for the weekend by informing us of what to expect, whilst referring to the visual timetable as our checklist schedule for each day. Visual timetables are often used with children and adults with special needs to provide clear, reassuring structures and set expectations.
Exploring the Senses
The first session proceeded with Occupational Therapist Mikaela’s insights on early development milestones for 2 to 3 years-olds. By this age, children tend to have developed basic skills to play, learn, speak and respond to situations. With autism being described as one of the fastest growing developmental disorders and ADHD widely factored in, many children are unable to access these ‘solid milestones’ and require additional support to function independently. Mikaela spoke of the importance of early intervention to assess children’s levels of functioning, and meeting children at their current levels, to develop their skills towards achieving these milestones. By empowering children towards functional independence, it can help support their communication, social cognition, body awareness, self-care skills and much more.
We also explored the pyramid of learning development and looked at how a child’s ability to learn is impacted on by the eight senses. For instance, a neurotypical person in a yoga class may hear a sound through their ears, rely on the brain to filter and process this, then internally give meaning to this sound. Lastly, this given ‘meaning’ enables the child to respond and/or continue learning yoga. However, if a child has sensory processing needs he/she may require support to filter, moderate and respond to the sound because they may find it overwhelming. This child may be supported with noise reduction headphones to help balance their auditory sensory processing needs.
Mikaela went on to present a range of sensory toys for us to play with and provide feedback on – this was great fun. The session concluded with discussions on other strategies to support children, including breathing activities, emotional regulation, movement breaks, sound therapy, child directed “floor time”, scheduled sensory diets and yoga!
Cathy led us though engaging activities to help children explore personal space and body awareness. She asked us to partner up and place ourselves in various seated and standing positions to see how it feels when our partner encroaches on our personal space. As adults with a certain degree of body awareness, we unknowingly set personal space boundaries in relation to other people and objects in our surroundings. This session enabled us to mindfully gain the perspective of children who may not have body awareness or feel sensitive to their personal space. This may result in them unknowingly crossing personal space boundaries, or if another person unexpectedly gets too close, it could trigger anxieties and other behaviours.
Cathy also talked us through the importance of children connecting to their breath. Whilst breathing is the life force energy that keeps us alive, focusing on the breath can help us feel calm, let go of stress and be in the present moment. Conscious breathing is particularly beneficial for children with ADHD to help them focus. The highlight for me was when we were handed a blow ball pipe and challenged to use the breath to see who in the class could keep the ball up in the air the longest. This was a fun activity which can easily be used to teach kids the importance of conscious breathing.
Other highlights from Cathy’s session involved the model/mirror/pose yoga sequence, fun salutations and the use of Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) during yoga sessions. PECS and yoga visuals can be used to create sequenced NOW/NEXT/THEN visual timetables or as a choosing board to promote independence, reassure children and establish consistent routines, particularly during transitions.
One thing that struck me was Cathy’s comment that “everything is learned behaviour and stored in the body” so by learning to move the body, children can release pent up energy and gain a state of flow. With this in mind, it was great to use our bodies to experiment with sound; tap into our own energy to feel the music; use subtle and exaggerated bodily movements to improvise; and sing along to songs with Makaton signing.
Behaviour for Learning
All children, need to feel safe, understood and be given clear boundaries to understand learning expectations. Many children with special needs experience anxiety, frustration and confusion during academic sessions and transitions, which can result in unexpected behaviours, that teachers need to be mindful of and prepared for.
In her session, Timea walked us through various behaviour management strategies to explore ways to help children better access yoga and movement therapy sessions. We revisited the pyramid of learning development to recognise that when good behaviour strategies are in place, it has the potential to increase a child’s ability to learn.
Some of the key behaviour strategies included building rapport; giving clear instructions; creating distraction techniques; using visuals like reward charts and behaviour checklists; being prepared; and if required, pausing for 5-8 seconds to wait for children to respond. Timea went on to demonstrate a positive handling scenario and how to communicate with a child displaying more challenging behaviours.
We closed this session with a mindful listening activity and a calming meditation with the singing bowl. Again, these are great tools to support children during challenging times and to simply to help them relax.
The weekend concluded with the students and teachers forming a heartfelt closing circle. As we went around the circle to share our reflections and give our insights on how we plan to use these tools in our daily routines, it felt inspiring and therapeutic to have experienced such a unique, grounded and supportive project.
Thanks to this course, many children and vulnerable adults with special needs will be able to access inclusive yoga therapy and movement strategies, which is incredible.
Miss H ♥
Photo credits by Cathy Underwood (apart from cover photo).
Click here for more information on inclusive yoga and movement therapy courses.