For 30 minutes a day, a dozen children meditated, read, sang and bounced in a room at the Beyond Learning Center in Depew. This wasn’t your typical physical education class; it was a yoga class for kids.
Students at the school were participating in the K-2 Let’s Move Project, a study conducted by researchers at the Graduate School of Education to examine the effects of yoga on self-regulation and motor skills in K-2 children with disabilities. of development.
Yoga and mindfulness-based programs for children are known to boost body awareness, reduce anxiety and help with stress management, says co-lead researcher Catherine Cook-Cottone, professor of counseling, psychology school and education.
However, these effects are understudied in children with developmental disabilities, many of whom have difficulty with self-regulation – the ability to understand and manage behavior and responses to feelings and sensory experiences. Self-regulation can impact a student’s ability to stay in their place during class, follow their teacher’s instructions, communicate, engage in fewer impulsive actions, and not overreact. excessively to new situations.
“The concept of offering yoga to children with high needs is new. They are the most marginalized people in society,” says Cook-Cottone. “As we work towards a more tolerant and inclusive world, teaching a child to self-regulate and consciously engage in something brings them that much closer to inclusion. When you negotiate with peers and classrooms , there are so many rules about what you need to do to be included, and they often involve being self-regulated.
To carry out the study, Cook-Cottone partnered with lead researcher Vito Gigante, director of occupational therapy at the Beyond Learning Center (formerly the Cantalician Center for Learning), and Claire Cameron, associate professor of learning and teaching, to develop a new program. and assessment tool. The project was also supported by Maria Priore, a Graduate School of Education alumnus who worked on the study as a graduate assistant and was funded by The Children’s Guild.
Forty-eight students at the school were split into two groups: half would receive a yoga and mindfulness-based program three days a week, and the other half would continue regular physical education classes. The groups were divided into cohorts of 12 and separated during lessons and activities throughout the study.
Program effectiveness was measured using a revised version of the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders (HTKS) assessment developed by Cameron to assess young children’s ability to pay attention, remember rules and control their impulses. The tool, designed as a little game, is mainly used by researchers to measure the skills necessary for academic success and the skills in mathematics and literacy.
The new assessment, Head-Toes for Exceptional Learners (HT-XL), is modified for children with high needs, with additional guidance to accommodate children who are non-verbal or face barriers due underdeveloped gross motor skills.
“Before this research, there were few ways beyond observation to study self-regulation in young children with disabilities. Typically, studies done in schools are expensive and resource-intensive, so most of the work is done through surveys,” says Cameron.
“How do the children experience this learning process? How does this change their ability to notice and be self-aware and make adjustments based on what they notice? ” she says. “Now we can actually measure that.”
Students were tested on their ability to self-regulate before and after participating in the study to assess the effects of the program. Researchers conducted the HT-XL assessment, observed student behavior in the classroom, and interviewed teachers asking them to rate each student’s self-regulation skills.
The yoga and mindfulness-based program – carried out over a 10-week period – included movement and breathing exercises, relaxation, meditation games, reading and music.
“We tell children to be careful, but no one teaches them how. We tell them to calm down, but don’t tell them what that means,” Gigante says. “Yoga provides a period to move through routine and newness, and offers many opportunities for self-regulation. Children learn to pay attention to various sensory experiences, both external and internal, as well as to recognize how breathing can change the way they feel inside and interpret feedback from the environment.
Cook-Cottone adds, “Most people think of yoga as calming down. That’s right, but the goal is also to get children out of their comfort zone. We want them to learn how to handle challenges without collapsing.
The researchers note that they have been pushed out of their comfort zone by the COVID-19 pandemic and have had to adapt by incorporating virtual teaching into the curriculum. They frequently used many of the practices they taught students to relax, Cameron says.
A surprise development of the project was the creation of “Shoes on Song”, a melody set to the tune of “Wheels on the Bus” to help students transition from yoga or physical education to the classroom. Written by the research team and sung by Cook-Cottone’s daughter, Maya Cottone, the song helped children overcome difficulties putting on their shoes by forming a musical activity that describes the process. The idea for the song was conceived by Cameron, who found the music useful for his son who has Down syndrome and is the same age as the students in the study.
K-2 Let’s Move will soon publish several academic articles that detail the effectiveness of the yoga-based and mindfulness-based program and the HT-XL assessment for children with developmental disabilities.
The partnership between Cook-Cottone, Cameron and Gigante grew out of a shared interest in self-regulation and a personal passion for supporting children with high needs – Cook-Cottone’s brother also has Down syndrome , as are some Beyond Learning Center students, as well as various other diagnoses.
The data collected over the nine months between October 2021 and June 2022 will both inform researchers who also share an interest in self-regulation and expand the tools available to educators teaching students with developmental disabilities.
Although the data is still being analyzed, the researchers have already observed a marked difference among students.
Gigante recalls a student who, at the start of the program, ran around the studio during yoga and, at the end, stayed on his mat for an entire session. Cameron shares that one student who could not bend over without losing balance during the HT-XL assessment at the start of the study was able to complete the assessment upon completion.
“Everyone has within them the ability to self-regulate. We just have to provide them with the experiences,” says Gigante, adding that the skill will allow parents and teachers to rely less on external mechanisms, such as fidget spinners and vests. weighted, to encourage self-regulation.
“When we rely only on numbers, we miss the deep stories,” Cameron says. “We don’t know yet if the data is statistically different, but it’s clear that yoga is doing something profound.”
The research is a great example of what can be accomplished when researchers, educators and families work together in the same mission of helping children thrive. The culmination of the effort produced a unique study that many researchers would not have attempted, Cook-Cottone says.
“We are very grateful to have the opportunity to bring the scientific method of problem solving into schools. The term for this is pragmatic research – the process of undertaking a real-world problem and using methodologies scientists to work toward a solution,” she says. “This wonderful community shared their challenges and insights with us, and together we were able to study yoga in a way that had never been studied before.
“Perhaps, more importantly, I think Vito and the kids had a lot of fun. I know we did.