Yoga and children with special needs does not sound like a match made in heaven. In fact, teaching yoga to children with special needs sounds daunting to me. But to Shawnee Thornton Hardy, it seems like a natural combination. It all started when Hardy was working as a preschool assistant in Boston. Hardy noticed that Austin, one of her students, struggled with regulating his emotions, communicating his needs, and interacting with his peers.
“Austin and I developed a bond. I became very dedicated and passionate about finding ways to support him and teach him social, communication, and self-regulation skills,” Hardy said. “He was my teacher and the reason why I took the path towards special education.”
While working with children with special needs, she realized yoga could help. Yoga had helped Hardy with her own anxiety and health challenges. Hardy decided to use yoga to help her students as well. The results were encouraging.
“I began to incorporate yoga poses, breathing strategies, and visualization strategies with my students and was amazed by their positive response and how taking time to breathe and connect to their bodies had a tremendous impact on their behavior, mood, and focus,” Hardy said.
Hardy started teaching yoga to children with special needs based on a hunch, but what she didn’t yet realize was that the science behind what she was doing made perfect sense. According to Scientific American, yoga activates certain areas of the brain relating to the ability to manage stress, conceptualize our selves, connect to our body, and focus–all things children with special needs struggle with.
What was instinct to Hardy proved to be life-changing for many of her students. The response she saw led Hardy to create a toolkit for teaching yoga to children with autism and special needs. Hardy’s toolkit, C.A.L.M.M. Yoga Toolkit, includes images that are easy to understand for children with special needs and simple language cues for teachers to use. The toolkit gives children a way to identify their emotions, feeling the sensations related to those emotions, and releasing these emotions in a healthy way. The toolkit also includes a set of chair yoga poses to make yoga accessible to children of all abilities.
In addition to the toolkit, things like hands-on guidance (except in certain cases of children with autism), slow transitions (their muscles will often take longer to respond to mental and physical cues), non-language based sounds (i.e. animal sounds or sound effects), and emphasizing breath awareness can be especially helpful.