|Breakfast in Bed, Mary Cassatt, 1897, Oil on canvas|
As teachers of Kids’ Yoga, we love the idea of harmony and inclusion, don’t we? And yet, if we are deeply honest, we can have a little fear in our hearts when it comes to including kids with disabilities or special needs in our Kids’ Yoga classes. Like most of our fears, this is rooted in the unknown or lack of control. However, with the right attitude and a few adjustments, kids with disabilities can be as much a part of your group as anyone.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Kids with disabilities or special needs are kids first.This means they are more like other kids than they are different from them. They will (most likely) like to play, sing, make friends, have fun. When we see the commonalities, they outshine the differences.
Keep an open line of communication. Kids with disabilities, their parents, and caregivers (i.e. teachers, assistants, 1:1 workers) are great resources. Ask a lot of questions. Find out what strategies support this child in their life off the mat and look for ways to include those same things in the yoga class. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re new to working with a certain condition or need. Be curious and open to learning.
Remember that every child is unique. Just because you’ve worked with other kids with the same diagnosis, whether its autism, Down syndrome or something else, doesn’t mean you know everything you need to know about this child. Sometimes we have stereotypes about certain kinds of disabilities (e.g., kids with Down syndrome are always happy) that may stop us from getting to know each kid as an individual. We try not to make judgments about people along race or gender lines...let’s do the same for dis/ability. There’s a saying in the disability community that goes like this: if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met One person with autism. :)
Be persistent. If one method doesn’t reach a child, continue to use your creativity until you can connect with your student. Some kids will benefit from being taught auditorily, some will benefit from visual demonstration, some will need physical help to learn, i.e. being guided into a pose with assistance. (Always obtain the child’s permission/consent for physical assistance.) Most of us learn with a combination of styles.
Watch how non-disabled peers interact with the child with special needs. Sometimes, our students are our best teachers. Observe what makes your student laugh, engage, and listen, as well as withdraw or disengage.
Avoid deciding what your student with a disability can and can’t do. Give them the same directives you give other kids, then provide additional support as needed. Maybe a student with cerebral palsy will need an assistant to help them spread their arms wide in Warrior 2. Maybe a child with autism will benefit from looking at a picture of someone doing the pose.
Invest in your own learning. There is so much good stuff out there on how to work with kids with disabilities and special needs in yoga. Pioneers like Sonya Sumar (Yoga for the Special Child) and Louise Goldberg (Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs) are great thought/practice leaders. Shawnee Thornton Hardy has an amazing prop kit and helpful book (Asanas for Autism and Special Needs). Organizations like Mind Body Solutions(Matthew Sanford) and Accessible Yoga (Jivana Heyman) are doing important work to make the yoga mat more inclusive. As you learn, you become part of the movement to make Kids' Yoga inclusive for all kids.
Remember, it’s always yoga practice, never yoga perfect. Some days we will feel awesome about the way we teach our kids. Other days, it will feel like a swing and a miss. This is normal to feel when teaching kids with disabilities, too. Sometimes you’ll try something and it isn’t quite right. But don’t give up! Trust your training, trust your intuition, trust your heart for all kids, and trust that the connection IS there. We belong to each other, and yoga reminds us this is true.
Sarah Henderson, E-RYT 200, has been teaching yoga since 2010 and Kids' Yoga since 2011. She is a graduate of the Accessible Yoga Training, Matthew Sanford’s Mind Body Solutions Opening Yoga Instructor Program, and Yoga for All with Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes. She teaches yoga to people in Kindergarten and assisted living centers and every age in between. Her life changed at age 4, when her baby sister was born with Down syndrome. For 20+ years, she worked with children and adults with disabilities and their families in support and resource coordination roles. Teaching yoga seemed like a career change until one day when she found herself sharing yoga with a group of developmentally disabled teens and young adults. Her passions merged and she began to study and teach adaptive and accessible yoga. She is passionate about making yoga available for people with all abilities and mentors other yoga teachers to empower all students, no matter their unique needs.
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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