Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Teaching Yoga to Children With Special Needs

by Cheryl Albright
The term “special needs” covers a wide range of physical, neurological, and mental/behavioral health conditions. Some examples include developmental disabilities (autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome), neurological impairments (traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease), and mental/behavioral health conditions (chemical addiction, oppositional defiant disorder, childhood trauma). According to the World Health Organization, over 1 billion people worldwide have a disability and, of course, many of those are children.

Unfortunately, these children are being stressed to the max every day in our school systems. For example, children are asked to sit much longer than in the past. And some states in the US have taken away any specialized diplomas so children with special needs are expected to take the same tests as typical peers. Finally, children with special needs are often the victims of bullying.

Why not give these kids a great coping tool? Yoga is an amazing tool or treatment modality for children with special needs because although it starts as therapy for these children yoga turns into a social activity and a way to fully be involved in their communities, as the children can take classes with their peers or family members. Many therapists, such as occupational and physical therapists, are now using yoga in their treatments for individuals with special needs. Licensed mental health professionals are using “mindfulness” techniques (which typically include breathing and meditation) in their practices.

Parents of these children are reporting amazing benefits from yoga-based therapy for their children including better sleep patterns, decreased anxiety, improved ability to relax and self soothe, improved digestion, decreased meltdowns or tantrums, improved self-confidence, increased strength and endurance, improved coordination, and the list goes on.

When teaching yoga to children with special needs, I’ve found that many limbs and yoga practices are useful. I teach them in the following order:

Mantras. Singing or chanting mantras keeps kids engaged and calm. Because many children with special needs have difficulty with coordination and motor planning combining singing with movement can help improve these two skills. So we also add combine hand movements, which can be anything as simple as clapping or crossing at the midline, with the singing for increased “imitation skills.”

Breath Practices. Breathing exercises or pranayama help calm the mind and stimulate the Rest and Digest response. And, according to research by Dr. Sundar Balasubramanian, breath practices also increase saliva, which contains molecules that decrease inflammation and increase neuro growth factor proteins that promote new nerve growth.

Physical Postures. 
The physical postures strengthen muscles, increase flexibility, and improve balance.

Because not all children are ready for traditional poses, we often need to help them work towards them. So, we break the poses down in ways to prepare them for the full pose. For example, we will start with teaching them to stand on one foot to move toward Tree pose. Or, if the child is non-ambulatory, we will have them do a pose in a supine position. We also teach eye exercises that are performed in some lineages to help promote skills need for reading and writing.

Meditation. Meditation and guided relaxation help calm the body and the mind. What is mediation? Sitting or any comfortable position, with a single point focus, for a period of time. Isn’t that what we ask our children to do every day at school. So, if they could focus on the teacher and remain still, they can learn.

Affirmations.The last and perhaps most important tool is giving these children a positive affirmation stated at the end of a session. It may be the only positive thing they here all day. Children with special needs are often reminded that they are not able to do the same activities as their peers. So just a simple reminder that they are peace, love, and light can make their day.

I, myself, have been teaching Yoga for The Special Child® for 9 years. I have found this method to be more effective at helping children with special needs than traditional occupational therapy methods. And I strongly feel that yoga for children with special needs should be included in the therapy vocabulary just as occupational, speech, or physical therapy is now.

Cheryl Albright, the creator of Soul To Soul Yoga, grew up with an older brother with autism and an aunt with Down syndrome. She began working with children with special needs through Rotary Camp Onsewaya at the age of 14. Cheryl has now been an occupational therapist for 15 years and has been teaching Yoga for the Special Child® for 9 years. In 2014, Cheryl completed her Registered Yoga Teacher training. And in 2017, she completed advanced training in adapting Hatha Yoga with those diagnosed with scleroderma and became a Certified Yoga Therapist. Cheryl is also an Accessible Yoga Ambassador. Recently, Cheryl began providing continuing education on yoga in therapy settings in the state of Florida.

For more information about Cheryl’s programs, visit soultosoulyogasrq.comEmail Cheryl, or follow her on Facebook Instagram Twitter LinkedIn

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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