Why are you drawn to teaching yoga to children with special needs?
I’ve always felt that yoga was less about the practice and more about the individual…that our practice should meet the needs of the student on the mat (or in the chair). Initially, I was drawn to yoga and teaching with this in mind. I never intended to teach yoga to children with special needs. When a child with Down Syndrome came into my life and I began to share yoga with her, other opportunities naturally came up as I shared yoga with her peers/at events etc. This was something that continued to evolve over the past decade or so. About six years ago, I realized suddenly that my favorite classes to teach were those to individuals with disabilities. I made a conscious decision at that time to focus on teaching to populations with specific needs. Yoga can make a huge difference in the lives of children with special needs. It provides opportunities for connection and a sense of accomplishment, tools for self-regulation, physical benefits and more. The benefits really depend on the needs. The amazing thing about yoga is that the practices can be tweaked to address specific goals. I continue to be drawn to this work because I have seen profound transformation in children whose families have made yoga a part of their lives… I mean big changes- kids who are literally bouncing of the walls when I first meet them, to now (after weeks or months or years of practice) calming settling onto their mats at the beginning of a class and moving through a complete practice. What can be more rewarding than knowing that someone is finally comfortable in their own skin??
Do you think it takes a certain type of person to teach yoga to children with special needs? What are some of the best qualities / characteristics these teachers possess?
I do. Compassion is a must, but that is really the easiest part. Patience is so important- both with the students, and with yourself. Depending on the children, things can get really, really messy at times. Teachers have to be able to let go of expectations and not judge the class on to what extent every student participated. There have been times when teaching, that I have thought to myself, “What in the world am I doing here? I have no idea what to try next. This class is a total bust…” At those times, it’s important to let go and be non-reactive, to be creative and to have a sense of humor. So, I would say confidence is important, but with flexibility (if that makes sense). These teachers have to be very skilled at reading a student and a group and adjusting a class, sometimes very quickly, to meet the needs of the children in front of them.
Say I am teaching a public children's yoga class and a child with special needs wants to take the class. What are some general tips for accommodating a child with special needs in a yoga class that's open to any child?
First, just say “Yes.” Allow that child to join the class, if you are at all comfortable in your own abilities. There are so many things that children with special needs are still excluded from. In yoga, we are all the same. Give it a chance, knowing that if it doesn’t work, you can be honest about that afterward. Next, learn as much as you can about the specific needs and behaviors of the child to minimize surprises. If the needs of the child are significant, and he or she might need help that you cannot provide while teaching, invite the parent or caregiver to participate in the class. Don’t worry about the experience of other children in the class being diminished. In my experience, children can be very supportive of each other. Those are the general tips. From there, what you would do to accommodate the child will, of course, vary according to needs.
What are the differences in the way you would teach a class to a child with severe autism vs. a high functioning autistic child? Am I using correct terminology for this? Can you give other examples of the differences in ways you would teach to children with different needs?
As far as terminology, think “person first language.” For example, use the words “a child with autism,” rather than “an autistic child.” Autism Spectrum Disorder presents in children in many different ways, thus the current terminology of “spectrum”. Symptoms may vary from mild, where a child might experience difficulties with social interaction or experience some anxiety, to severe, where a child may not speak or interact with others at all. Many children with ASD have sensory differences and are sensitive to certain sounds, tactile sensations or lighting. Some, with more severe symptoms, may react physically to certain situations by hitting, biting, or pulling hair (either their own or others). With such a wide range of needs within a specific diagnosis, it’s important to remember that we don’t address the diagnosis, but how it presents within a child. The same can be said for other disabilities, like Cerebral Palsy. Some children with CP may be ambulatory, others may use crutches or power wheelchairs. I believe that it’s important to know certain characteristics of specific diagnoses so a teacher knows precautions to take in a yoga class, but to teach to who you see in front of you.
What resources can we rely on to make sure that the words we use to identify different special needs in children are inclusive, kind and correct?
Of course, language changes over time, and words that were previously used to identify special needs or disabilities in children change over time. Also, what is acceptable language to some, may be offensive to others. Kathie Snow’s article on person first language is a good place to start and her website, Disability is Natural, has many other good articles and resources, as well. I also think it is important to learn about the culture of the organizations you are teaching in. What language do they use? Are the children at a particular location called, “residents”, “consumers”, “members”, “friends?” I also take cues from parents. Some parents say that their children have “special needs”, others may say “disability” and others may use the term “exceptional.” It’s hard to “make sure” that we are using correct language, but we can certainly do our research and do our best!
Do you interact with parents / caregivers of the children you teach to get a better sense of their needs? How do you go about doing this as sensitively as possible?
Absolutely. I think it is so important to have open and honest conversations about the specific needs of a child. Parents and caregivers are painfully aware of the challenges their children face. Let’s not pretend they don’t exist, but find the best ways we can to meet these kids where they are, while providing opportunities for challenge and growth. I will ask questions like: “Is he/she sensitive to sound/touch/light?” “Does he/she ever act out physically?” “Does he/she have any physical pain, digestive issues, anxiety?” These questions might come up at intake, or if I notice certain behaviors at other times. I also tell parents/caregivers what we are working on. For example, I recently told a father, “Today, I worked him really hard. We worked on picking cards one by one and following the routine that I set up. Even though he wanted to use a different card deck, I stuck to my guns and he participated. At the end of our session, he said, “I did awesome job!”
Can you offer any bits of wisdom or advice for new teachers?
If you are interested in this work, do your research and lots of self-study. Continue to learn, not only about yoga, but the disability community. Be patient with yourself and others. Embrace the diversity. Love your students for who they are.
Join Rochelle this July 17-19, 2018 in Dover, NH or September 28-30, 2018 in Bethlehem, PA for her 18-hour Yoga & Mindfulness for Children and Teens with Special Needs Teacher Training.
She will also be teaching her one-day Trauma Informed Yoga & Mindfulness for Children Workshop on July 16 and November 16, 2018 in Dover, NH and September 28 in Bethlehem, PA.
Rochelle Jewell, E-RYT, is the founder of My OmAbilities Yoga and the co-creator/author of the ChildLight Yoga for Children & Teens with Special Needs Training and manual. She is a Kripalu Certified Yoga teacher and personal trainer with more than a decade of experience sharing yoga with individuals with a variety of disabilities. Rochelle has completed the Creative Relaxation® Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs Level 2 training with Louise Goldberg and the Zensational Kids teacher training with Allison Morgan. Rochelle recently completed a fellowship with the NH LEND Program through UNH, which included 300 hours of graduate level, interdisciplinary, leadership training in developmental disabilities. She is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities…read more here.