Specialist yoga teacher, Michael Chissick, has been teaching yoga to children in primary mainstream and special schools for two decades.
Last month, during a Commons debate, Education Minister Edward Timpson said that children should be taught Buddhist meditation techniques and yoga in schools to help them “unplug from their online world”. He suggested that lessons taught as part of the PSHE curriculum could enable children “to enjoy good mental health and emotional wellbeing”.
This was nectar to Michael’s ears: “Do I think yoga should be part of the curriculum? Absolutely. That’s just what I’ve been doing for many years. I am in no doubt that Yoga, used carefully in conjunction and school routine with the input of teaching staff, can result in a livelier, more vibrant learning experience.
“Having yoga integrated into the curriculum will ensure it is taken seriously. Support staff are able to join in, ensuring pupils with SEND have the support they need to participate in my classes.”
Earlier this year, the DfE published statistics on exclusion rates in schools. Alarmingly, “pupils with identified SEND accounted for just over half of all permanent exclusions and fixed period exclusions”, the research also found that pupils with SEND were “seven times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion” in comparison to their counterparts.
Albeit a very ‘utopian’ view, could incorporating yoga into the curriculum assist in altering this statistic?
Yoga is growing in popularity in the UK as a complementary therapy for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with rising numbers of schools and parents participating in innovative programmes – which are cropping up across the country. This is a hot topic as an intervention and supplementary support for children with ASD.
In addition to benefits typically associated with yoga, such as increased strength, balance, coordination and flexibility, benefits such as increased social-emotional skills, language and communication, body-awareness, self-regulation, focus and concentration, and a reduction in anxiety, impulsive, obsessive and aggressive behaviours are also noted.
Children with ASD have very different sensory experiences from others; and these responses often cause their bodies to get stuck in a fight, flight or freeze mode – all of which can provoke anxiety.
Autism educators highlight the importance of visual learning aids. Michael has developed his programme, which consists of a highly-structured set of postures and movements and uses cue cards, in order to help children visualise the poses they are supposed to take. Through this, they are able to successfully imitate and model physical actions and postures they would not have been able to previously.
“When I am teaching I am highly structured. The children are seated in a circle of chairs. I use a visual timetable and posture cards to keep my verbal input at the minimum. Within that structure I target several layers, or elements, simultaneously; it’s like a multi-tiered cake,” Michael said.
Social skills, such as waiting, listening, speaking, helping each other, taking turns and following rules, which children with ASD tend to struggle with, are amongst the benefits of yoga, Michael explains.
Children with ASD often have difficulty with expressive and receptive communication, they may act out their emotions in unexpected or inappropriate ways. Breathing strategies can be taught to children with ASD in order to release difficult or uncomfortable emotions such as anger, frustration or anxiety in more healthy and constructive manners.
Trish Elebert, mother to Zak, a child with ASD, and a yoga instructor, believes the benefits of yoga on the mindset are invaluable: “These kids have a lot of focus on the things they cannot do. They are reminded continuously that they aren’t doing things right. A good yoga teacher is only interested in the things they can do – it builds their self-esteem.
“The practice puts them in an organised emotional state, it allows them to have better coping skills. There are so many tools they can take from yoga that they can access throughout their day when needed – such as breathing and mindfulness techniques.”
Mindfulness is said to help people recognise and overcome negative thoughts while noticing small pleasures around them. Although some regard it with scepticism, it is clear the effects that this has on children with ASD who are more able and have less complex needs.
The British Psychology Journal says: “Dozens of studies have demonstrated that mindfulness provides benefits in a range of clinical settings, from pain management and stress to depression. In recent years, researchers have begun to explore how it might be applied to teenagers and even to very young, pre-children. The results to date in this emerging field suggest that mindfulness training is both feasible and beneficial for all children across a wide range of ages and contexts”.
The benefits of yoga don’t stop with children, as parents participate they too can reap the reward. There is no denying the challenges that parents of a child with ASD face, and the toll this takes. The emotional, mental and physical burden can be overbearing for even the strongest of character, as Mrs Elebert expresses: “Every parent of every child with SEND should practice yoga. I honestly could not have coped without it.
“As a mum you feel every struggle your child has and can end up mirroring their emotions. Yoga has helped me keep my mind strong in order to help my child further. It is a much better option than Prozac!!”.
A recent review held by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield found that more than a quarter of children referred to mental health services in England last year received no help. Perhaps more shocking, is that some children included in this group had attempted suicide or lived with life-threatening conditions such as anorexia nervosa or psychosis.
The report also revealed that 28 percent of child referrals were denied treatment, mainly on the grounds that their illness was not deemed serious enough.
Many children with ASD experience mental health problems and heightened levels of anxiety. Due to difficulty with communication and a variety of other challenges, these children can be in a constant state of anxiousness.
Yoga can help some more able children with ASD how to reduce anxiety and soothe their nervous systems. The practice of mindful breathing, guided imagery and postures that calm the nervous system can support these children in developing coping skills, self-regulation skills and more effective responses to stress, both emotionally and physically. Calming their nervous systems and releasing tension in their minds and bodies supports better sleep, digestion, mood, behaviour and overall health and wellbeing.
With mental health in the UK at breaking point, could integrating yoga into the curriculum be a solution?
Michael Chissick has been teaching yoga to children in primary mainstream and special schools for two decades. He is a leading specialist in teaching yoga to children with autism and continues to train and mentor those who want to teach yoga to children in schools. Visit his website for more details.
Michael is the author of Frog’s Breathtaking Speech, Ladybird’s Remarkable Relaxation, Seahorse’s Magical Sun Sequences, and also Sitting on a Chicken – The Best Ever 52 Yoga Games to Teach in School; which is to be released in November 2016 and available now to pre-order. All books are available to purchase here at a special discount of 15% for TheSchoolBus readers! Enter code MC1 at the checkout to receive your discount!
Trish Elebert is the proud mum of Zak, she is trained in delivering yoga for children with ASD, and her plan is to carry on her son’s charity and offer one-to-one lessons to children free of charge. To help Trish in her journey, visit her gofundme page!
 Peter Dominiczak (2016) ‘Teach yoga and meditation to ‘unplug children’, says education minister’, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/07/teach-yoga-and-meditation-to-unplug-children-says-education-mini/> [Accessed: 03 October 2016]
 The DfE (2016) ‘Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions in England: 2014 to 2015’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/539704/SFR_26_2016_text.pdf> [Accessed: 04 October 2016]
 Dan Jones (2011) ‘Mindfulness in schools’, <https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-24/edition-10/mindfulness-schools> [Accessed: 04 October 2016]