This is the second of two part guest posting by Amy Timmins - Part 1 provides context and rationale of Amy’s work, while Part 2 (below) provides an example of Amy’s work in action.
Be sure to click on the video to see an example of Amy’s classroom in action.
Using Yoga and Meditation in the Middle School Classroom, by Amy Timmins
Over the course of my career as a middle school English Language Arts teacher, I have had many opportunities to watch students engage in various activities, both academic and social. In each instance, I have noticed that some students successfully complete particular tasks or navigate social situations with relative ease while other students flounder and oftentimes get stuck.
For example, when I assign an essay, I usually have several students who work steadily and quickly. The words seem to pour from their brains to their hands, through the pen, and onto the page. However, other students struggle. Some bite their nails as they stare at empty pages. The eyes of others dart around the room, nervously fixing themselves upon classmates who are actively completing their work.
Now, one could attribute these behaviors to a learning disability, ADHD, low socioeconomic status, or simply bad teaching. However, these common explanations are not appropriate in my experience. I teach in an affluent school system where a vast majority of students live far above the poverty line. Although some of my students do have learning disabilities or ADHD, most do not. In addition to that, I make sure that I scaffold the instruction, and I provide appropriate models. Most teachers in my school do that.
Yet, year after year, I ask myself the same question. What blocks students from achieving and reaching their potential even when they are supported? Sometimes, I wonder if what holds these students back is the fear of being wrong, the fear of taking a risk.
Yet, learning happens when kids go in their risk zones. They need to be willing to try something new and see what happens. So now the questions are: How does a teacher help children go from their zone of comfort to their zone of risk without dipping into danger zone? How does an educator do that when he or she is interacting with 20 to 25 different students each day? How does a teacher in a secondary education setting accomplish this when he or she may teach anywhere from 80 to 100 students?
This is a daunting task to even the most seasoned and veteran teacher. In addition to that, attempting to have control over every aspect of the learning environment that may cause stress to a student can have a negative impact on students. It has been noted that “Adults who analyze every situation in terms of what could go wrong, risk creating anxiety in some children and recklessness in others” (Lindon, 1999 p10). Because of this, it is necessary to give children the tools to know and regulate their own emotional landscape.
Having these tools is especially important in this day and age. The job market wants people who are innovators. Innovators continuously work in their risk zones. They play with boundaries. They live on the edge. They remain calm and focused when things don’t go the way they expected. They have the imagination and courage to take an idea that might have been considered a failure to others and turn it into something new. And if that doesn’t work, they try it again. And if that doesn’t work, they move on and are not burdened by the fact that their plans did not go the way they anticipated. The ability to do this requires a person to know herself and have regulation over her emotions.
I believe that one tool that can foster this self-knowledge and regulation is the use of yoga and meditation. Here are procedures I use with my students almost every class period that I teach:
1. My students enter the classroom and write down their homework. They also have short opening activities to do. Many of these openers aren’t totally necessary for the kids to have totally done.
2. Once it looks like pretty much all of the students are organized to start the class. I instruct them to stand up and push in their chairs.
3. Then we do a yoga pose together. I usually stick with one yoga pose per week. For example, last week I focused on runner’s lunge. During this time I talk about noticing where their body is and how it is positioned.
4. I give cues for them to check themselves. For example, last week I reminded them that their knee on their front bent leg needed to be directly over their ankle. Then I left it to them to readjust themselves. I usually tell them that this is a lot like what happens in our day to day life. Living life is about checking in with yourself and making adjustments as needed. It is all part of the process. Having the opportunity to notice when something is not quite right and making up your mind to change it is when growth happens.
The yoga takes about 2 minutes.
5. After the yoga, I guide the students through meditation:
Please sit down.
Place you hands on your knees, palms up.
Close your eyes.
Have your feet flat on the floor or as close to the floor as you can.
Sit up straight and tall
I then set the timer for one minute.
For the first three breaths, I instruct students to “Inhale” and “Exhale”. Then I tell them that they can go at their own pace for what is normally 30 seconds.
During this time I will also remind them if their thoughts drift to something other than their breath, they just need to gently bring their attention back to their breath.
6. At the end of the minute, I tell the students to open their eyes and then we begin the lesson as usual.
Equipping children with tools to increase their self-regulation has the potential to be a powerful way to boost learning and foster mental health. These tools will be useful to the students not only for their time in the classroom but throughout the course of their lives.
Lindon, J (1999) Too Safe for Their Own Good, National Children’s Bureau