How "Chair Yoga" supports SEL

Eanes ISD in Austin, TX, where I am a behavior support teacher, is committed to preparing and inspiring all students for life-long success. We focus on the whole student, including social-emotional learning, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, stress-management and leadership, to name a few. Teaching these skills creates successful students and successful people.

Research shows that when we experience stress, our brain’s ability to think logically goes “off line” because our bodies are wired to treat stress like a threat. You can imagine how this affects a student’s performance in school. Which is why this school year, we are teaching yoga to help our teachers and students learn how to manage stress and be more mindful in everything they do.

Yoga is often associated with asanas or movements, but yoga is a way of life—the movements are just a small piece. This means we aren’t necessarily doing downward-facing dog or the feathered peacock poses. I use yoga and its philosophy of using the breath to teach cool-down, stress-management, and test-taking strategies that take students as little as five minutes and can be done right in their chairs. Implementing these strategies adds a social-emotional learning aspect to any lesson, whether in a classroom or via videoconference.

Everyone can do yoga

I recently conducted an in-school chair yoga session with a group of teachers. These sessions usually last 30 minutes. For those who couldn’t attend, I did a virtual session so they could tune in wherever they were located.

I told the teachers in this session, "If you can breathe, you can do yoga." I went through a series of breathing exercises, asking them to envision the stressors leaving their bodies. I had them picture their “happy place,” and send positive thoughts to others in their lives. During the session I asked my students to sit up straight and bring their shoulders back to open up/create space in their chests. We also carry a lot of stress in our hands, so we did wrist circles and gave ourselves a hand massage.

After the session, every person in the room felt “lighter” and extremely motivated to accomplish their goals of the day. If teachers take a few minutes to do these exercises with their students, they can save hours of off-task behavior in the long run.

Mindful stretching

In-person sessions can work in any regular classroom. My study skills class does mindful stretching every day for five minutes. I have it built into my class routine in between transitions. You might try it:

  • After the daily warm-up;
  • Before students are about to sit for direct instruction;
  • Before students start independent work; or
  • At the start of class.

Breathing and stretching activities are especially useful before a test, when having students take five to seven deep breaths can make an enormous difference. Also, research shows it can take the average brain up to 10 minutes to be able to learn after a transition, so stretching or breathing after a transition is a great way to help students focus.

My study skills classroom has 30 desks, so we make the most of the space available. I have the students stand next to their desk and pretend they are getting out of bed for the first time. They stretch on both sides. Any time you cross your body’s midline, you are making your left and right brain work harder than normal and together.

The students I work with have a variety of disabilities; I will often ask them immediately after breathing or stretching how they feel, and they almost always say things like, “better,” “more calm,” or “less racing thoughts, now I can concentrate.” I am working on putting together a formal reflection process where students compare how they feel before and after.

Parent response has been positive—in fact, most want me to do more outside of the classroom. Some people think that yoga is associated with religion, so I often use the terms “mindful breathing” and “mindful stretching” to avoid this.

Mindfulness starts with you

Creating a mindful and non-stressful setting starts with the teachers. Not only do we have to manage the pressures of personalized learning, lesson-planning, teaching to the standards, grading and more, but we also have lives outside of work. If the teacher is in control and models the behavior of managing stress regardless of what’s thrown in front of them, students will pick up on those strategies and it will have a trickle-down effect.

As teachers, we always striving to learn and refine our skills. Yoga and mindful breathing are just more tools in our box of tricks that can help us manage students and ourselves more successfully.

Amy Hartmann Garner, M.Ed is a behavior support teacher and a registered yoga teacher at Eanes ISD in Austin, TX. Follow her on Twitter: @amyhgarner.

 

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