Sunday, December 18, 2016

Yoga in School

Yoga in Schools

          In my four years of experience teaching in a handful of different schools with diverse ethnic and socio-economic populations, the majority of students are rajastic (energetic) and need assistance grounding their prana (calming themselves.) Most educators are quick to coin these students as "unregulated" or "lacking self-regulation". In most cases this is true. Young children, unless they are explicitly taught, have no idea how to calm themselves down and control their words and actions. The notion of being present is usually an elusive one, and many students experience anxiety anticipating "what's next" and trying to predict future events.

          My childhood was the epitome of ideal. Two parents who were happily married, two siblings, a stable home environment, an involved family unit and great support system. And yet I was anxious. I remember having night terrors often as a child. Horror movies rendered me unable to sleep properly for days. To this day, feeling scared is not an enjoyable one. I am most definitely not an adrenaline junkie. School for me was just as stable as my home life and I remember feeling safe and secure at school. I was always a good student and felt I could control my marks and what activities I was involved in. I always loved school.

          My memories as a student in elementary school however do not match the types of behaviour  I am now seeing in classrooms. Every classroom seems to have at least half a dozen "behaviour" students; ones who can't emotionally control themselves, who are "runners" that will just take off out of the classroom without warning, who need to be bribed with iPad time in order for them to do any school work, who are prone to outbursts, who have difficulty keeping their hands to themselves or who are aggressive, volatile or use profane language.

          I believe there are three major factors that are contributing to this epidemic of unregulated behaviour (prana): the overuse of technology,  the overconsumption of sugar, and the lack of mental health education in the school system.

          While technology is a great tool and has benefits, especially for students with learning disabilities, the overuse of technology has a negative effect on the nervous system. The overstimulation of the brain and sensory organs creates agitation, anxiety and a type of addiction. With their brains being accosted by images and sounds and overstimulation, the removal of said devices results in students that have low attention spans, that don't seem to know how think for themselves, be creative or to simply "be bored". It's as if their brains always need something to do. The notion of "downtime" or "quiet time" is not familiar.

          The amount of time spent on technological devices has also put a dent into the amount of time being spent outside in nature. Instead of being outdoors, immersed in the best source of prana, students are often alone, anti-social and indoors where they have access to the Wi-Fi. The internet only came around when I was in Grade 4, but even afterwards, my parents would always send us outside to play; badminton, tag with the neighbourhood kids, manhunt and basketball. Unfortunately for many busy parents, technology is seen as an easy way to keep kids quiet and engaged, with detrimental side-effects from overuse. While sticking an active child on a device may seem like an easy solution, or a quick-fix, it is really just adding fuel to the fire.

          Due to technology we live in a society where everything is quicker and things are expected instantaneously. According to a paper published by Bentley University, "The pace of ever-changing technology is setting us up for an anxiety-ridden society. In this constant state of change, without giving us a change to adapt, it negatively effects our sense of self."  Everything is now, now, now. Even as an adult, when I don't get an instant response to an email or text message, it can cause me anxiety. What are they doing? Why can't they answer? Why are they not replying? Depending on the time of day, I can also be caught compulsively checking my phone and Facebook/Instagram for notifications.

          This instant gratification response I've noticed has had a direct impact on the amount of student patience as well - many of them have none. The idea of waiting for something is a foreign notion - whether it's for a laptop to  start up, or a webpage to load, they easily get annoyed and frustrated that it takes any time at all. In addition to lack of patience, I have also noticed a lowered attention span. Unless their brains are being bombarded with flashy images or text, they disengage and lose focus. It's as though they have a psychological reliance on technological devices; a different type of dopamine (the pleasure hormone) addiction.

          In  the book "The Marshmallow Test," psychologist Walter Mischel describes a research study conducted at Stanford University in the 1960's. Young children were presented with a dilemma. They were presented with a reward (a marshmallow) that they could have right away, or they could wait for up to 20 minutes, and receive a larger reward (two marshmallows). "This idea of delayed gratification unexpectedly turned out to predict much about their older lives", states Mischel. The longer they could wait, the higher their SAT scores, the better their cognitive function in their teens, the better they coped with stress,  the better their self-worth, and the less likelihood they had issues with addiction or obesity. This research study was conducted in the 60's, long before the age of technology, and I would be interested to know the results of the average wait-time of kids today. I imagine the times would be shorter, given the age of instant gratification we live in. Short-term technology looks like a wonderful tool, but long term is it wiring the future generations for failure?

Taoist Lao Tzu is quoted as saying, " “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” I believe the overuse of technology, both at home and in the classrooms is creating a generation of anxious kids. They are always looking for what's next, and the wealth of information and images that flash before their eyes that they don't have the time to process - their brains are on overdrive. The instant gratification response technology is fostering only exacerbates the problem. More, more, more. Now, now, now. Faster, faster, faster. We have to teach them to "unplug", quite literally and figuratively. It's somewhat confusing as well, because the link to anxiety and technology has been firmly drawn in the sand, but the push in education seems to be towards using more technology, not less.

          Another major factor involving children and unregulated prana is the lack of mental health education among educators. As a teacher, it may seem surprising, given our line of work, but there is no mandatory  psychology or child development courses you have to take in order to work with students. As a result, very few educators have any background knowledge in mental health.  Most of my knowledge of mental health has stemmed from my own issues with anxiety, working with counsellors, doing yoga, and reading literature on my own.

          Because of this void of information, from an academic standpoint, as part of our training we are taught about classroom management and punitive measures  to curb unwanted behaviours. Sadly however, this does not deal with the root of the problem. In his book "Lost at School", Ross Greene talks about how students are doing the best they can, with what they know (this can also apply to adults). If students could do well, they would.

          Greene refers to how emotional regulation needs to be in place, before any academic learning can occur. This book really shifted my perspective on children and their needs. There is no way they will be able to take in any new information, if their brains are being all "monkey-minded" and running in a dozen directions at once. If a child's mind is all over the place, typically their body is too - because the mind and body are so intertwined. All behaviour has a root cause, and taking the time to understand their mental/emotional needs goes a long way to facilitating and monitoring improvement. Unfortunately this method requires a lot more legwork and time. Given the demands of educators today, there simply isn't the time to sit down and have  a one-on-one counselling session with all the students in your classroom. The "highest needs" behaviour students get the priority, and sadly many students fall through the cracks and get overlooked. Case in point - me. I was always a "good student" but because my behaviour didn't warrant any addition time, my issues with anxiety went unaddressed for years.

          As with any school subject, mindfulness needs to be taught. According to Ministry of Education documents, students are allotted 200 minutes a week of French, 300 minutes a week for Math and Literacy,100 minutes for Health and Physical Education, 100 minutes of  Music/Visual Arts and Drama and 200 minutes to be split between Science and Social Studies. I can only speak for the classrooms I've taught in, but not 1 minute was spent being mindful, doing breathing  exercises, or doing yoga. Why? Because of the time constraints. The Ontario curriculum is so packed, there is no possible way to cram it all in during the 10 months of the school year. There simply isn't additional time or consideration to factor in managing student energy. Teachers are so busy juggling the curriculum expectations and content they need to teach, prana management takes a backseat.

          Knowing what I know now, it's shocking to me that such a crucial part of the mental health puzzle has been put on the backburner and swept under the rug. Sadly, due to lack of information/knowledge very few educators are aware that implementing a yoga club, or mindfulness minutes during the school day could do wonders to prevent unwanted behaviour. Collectively in the education system, the correlation has not yet been made to positive behaviour in students and being mindful. There are some studies out there, but they have not gone mainstream.      

Most recently there was an article by the Huffington Post in mid-2016, discussing  Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Maryland, that replaced detention with meditation. Instead of sending misbehaving students to the principal's office, they would go to the Meditation Room, to do breathing exercises, do yoga and calm down. Since this strategy was implemented, detentions have gone down and attendance has increased. While not all conclusions can be based on this one case, the science of yoga, and the mind-body connection cannot be ignored. Schools should be encouraged to follow their lead.

          The current state of student mental health is dire. The combination of excessive technology, diets full of excessive sugar, and a lack of awareness from front line educators, has made the school environment a recipe for disaster. Meditation and mindfulness should be taught in all schools as an antidote to try and balance the current situation. We can try and limit the amount of technology, we can try and alter our diet, we can try to be more aware of mental health issues in children, but we can also try to bring mindfulness, meditation and yoga into schools, because it is a powerful tool to rewire the nervous system. Teaching them this means to self-care is essential. Being able to manage your mind is just as important as cramming information into it.

Books Cited
Lost at School, Ross Greene
Monkey Mind,
My Age of Anxiety
Western Body, Eastern Mind, Anodea Judith
The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control is the Engine of Success, Walter Mischel

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