Monday, January 7, 2019

Interview with Nicola Harvey on Mindfulness as a Calming Strategy for Children with Special Needs

Accessible Yoga Blog: What is the age range of the children you work with, and do the children have chronic conditions other than autism spectrum conditions?

Nicola: The ages range from 5 -11, but sometimes I have early teens join in the sessions. The needs differ per child. Some have Autistic Spectrum Condition, Fragile X, Down Syndrome, Cognitive Developmental Delay, or a similar condition. Everyone is welcome!

Accessible Yoga BlogDo you instruct them in their schools or some other place?

Nicola: I carry out sessions in schools and within community settings like church halls and playgroups.

Accessible Yoga Blog: What made you choose to teach children with special needs?

Nicola: I decided to work with children with special educational needs because I have a passion for children’s mental health, their emotional wellbeing, and making a real difference in their lives. I have always been drawn to special educational needs and although this area of teaching can be challenging at times, it can also be incredibly rewarding when you see children achieve their goals and grow in confidence.

Whilst working as a special needs classroom teacher, I found that many children experienced difficulties expressing their emotions and would often have melt-downs. Also, due to funding cuts within the education system a lot of children with special needs, particularly from deprived backgrounds, would not have access to regular therapeutic interventions. I felt frustrated at the impact this had on children’s mental and emotional wellbeing so I decided to explore other teaching methods with therapeutic benefits, which is how I found out about mindfulness and yoga.

Accessible Yoga Blog: Can you share with our readers some details of what you teach the children, and how it helps the young yogis?

Nicola: I use the STAR model in all of my sessions; STAR stands for Stop, Take a Breath, And, Relax. This is a strategy which can be used to ground and centre children, bring them into the present moment, and guide them to become calm. It is a simple process where children initially pause (Stop) for a few moments to take a step back and process what is going on within them, particularly if they are in a heightened emotional state. Next, I guide children to mindfully breathe (Take a breath) which gradually calms them down and allows them to feel connected to the present moment.
After this I use a self-regulation strategy (And) like going for a mindful walk, practicing yoga, or listening to music to direct their thoughts, feelings and behaviour towards a supportive calming strategy. Lastly, I use positive strategies to help children relax (Relax) and let go, by guiding them through a meditation or another appropriate relaxing activity. This process is very fluid which means we have the STAR structure but the way it’s delivered can change depending on children’s emotions, the day’s events, and what I feel would work best for the group.

Within our sessions we use sensory toys, music and yoga games. We also explore stories, emotional regulation, body language, and dance. The structure and methods support children by giving them the tools to learn how to develop their own calming strategies and gradually learn how to approach life in a balanced and mindful way. There is no right or wrong – it’s all about exploration and allowing the children to grow and learn at their own pace in a safe environment.

Accessible Yoga Blog: Can you tell us about a particular experience you’ve had while teaching mindfulness to a child (or group) that was especially meaningful to you?

Nicola: Every mindfulness session I teach is incredibly meaningful because I see first-hand the difference it makes to the lives of children, especially when they are going through a range of emotions. I particularly enjoyed teaching the mindfulness session during my book launch. I was able to use the STAR model, as described above, to practice some of the self-regulation tools from my book with the children and talk to parents/teachers about the calming strategies they could use at home or school. After the children’s mindfulness session, I got talking to a parent who was delighted that her 5-year-old daughter who has selective mutism, a form of complex anxiety, fully participated in the session and enjoyed the activities because it was a safe space for her to learn about mindfulness and have fun whilst doing so!

Nicola Harvey is an experienced and qualified Special Needs Educator, Therapist, and Children's Yoga Mindfulness Practitioner living in the UK. She is the author of Mindful Little Yogis: Self-Regulation Tools to Empower Kids with Special Needs to Breathe and Relax, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. To find more about Nicola, visit:

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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