Fourth in a series on teachers: The day before Sun Valley High School summer school students’ research papers were due, Moonstone Yoga’s Jennifer Shifler led them and their teacher through breathing and yoga exercises to help them reduce stress and relax.
For the past three years, Shifler has led sessions each Friday morning before tutoring begins at the Title I charter school in Mesa, and educators and administrators there say it has helped increase students’ concentration, their ability to monitor their emotions and develop positive responses to stressful situations.
“Yoga’s been amazing. Truly. Especially during the school year, it helps so much with focus, and controlling anxiety,” said Crista Procopio, who teaches English and psychology at the school managed by The Leona Group and accredited by AdvancedED.
Video by Mary Irish/AZEdNews: How yoga is helping students
It’s also helped students with “being introspective with what you need to do in your life to be successful,” as well as understanding “how the world is working around you,” Procopio said.
Teachers had been using what they’d learned about mindfulness in their classrooms, and “we’d been talking about kids being aware of things like their heart rate and breathing, so it seemed sort of a logical progression to bring yoga onto the campus and to use it in the classroom,” said Telleny Gilliam, school leader.
“It has given the kids a way to monitor their own response to stress” and “helps them work themselves through it in a more positive way,” Gilliam said.
Developing a student-centered yoga curriculum
Shifler had been teaching for nine years when she started using breathing and yoga techniques with her kindergarteners and noticed how it helped them “get the wiggles out” and focus on their classwork.
“The students loved the movement, the break, and some enjoyed the sounds of the breathing,” Shifler said. “It was evident that it was working when immediately afterwards, we could get to our content without interruption, with focus.”
After completing her yoga training, Shifler wanted to share what she learned with students at Sun Valley, the high school she graduated from. To do that, Shifler developed her Rise and Shine yoga curriculum for students of all ages that includes important life skills and lessons.
Shifler starts each topic-driven session getting to know students with a simple activity.
“No matter the age group, I find it extremely important to connect with the students on a level that they can relate to,” Shifler said. “I also cover some of the science behind the practice and breathing, that way it doesn’t seem so scary, and they want to have info that they can recall. The why is so important to most learners of every level.”
The curriculum helps students connect with each other through an activity with a topic.
“We’ve covered such topics as responsibility, the power of yet, small choice and great affect,” Shifler said. “We’ve done a number of mindfulness activities such as study of ecosystems, which is big in a diverse populations, and the yarn toss activity that sheds greater awareness and understanding of interconnection.”
During the Sun Valley High School session, students shared that they liked to sing, play video games, box, play with their dog and their teacher said she was moving into a new home and it was stressful. Each time someone shared something they held a bit of the yarn strand and tossed the yarn ball to another person to do the same.
Shifler said students and teachers always learn something new about each other during the yarn toss activity and how connected they are despite their differences.
“It’s also incredible visual for showing how even the smallest actions that we make can impact those around us,” Shifler said. “Students want to feel connected and they want to contribute. These activities allow both.”
When Shifler asked a student to let go of their strand of yarn, the web of yarn changed dramatically, and she pointed out how that small action affected the group.
“What I want you guys to see from this is first of all, you guys know just a little more about each other than you did before, and second of all, just thinking about those teeny tiny actions and teeny tiny choices that affect those around us,” Shifler said.
Shifler encouraged students to keep that in mind, think positively and do small things for each other like “holding the door for someone or smiling at someone” and for themselves such as “giving your assignment three more minutes or reading that book four more minutes.”
AZEdNews Teacher Series:
Part 1: Small changes can create a safer, more inclusive, trauma sensitive school
Part 2: Film: Challenges of raising a family on a teacher’s salary continue
Part 3: Teacher training: Ways to help students
Part 4: How yoga helps students relax, focus, deal with stress
Part 5: School’s not out for teachers leading student learning activities
Part 6: What classroom supplies teachers buy and what they’d like for students
Part 7: Schools welcome back staff with rallies, learning opportunities
Part 8: New state funding helps Arizona Teachers Academy ease teacher shortage
Part 9: Possible changes ahead in what happens when a teacher leaves mid-year
Part 10: School leaders say better pay would attract more teachers
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Breathing techniques are key
After the opening activity, students and teachers take note of how they are showing up for the session, then begin changing their breathing patterns to align with the yoga movements they do, Shifler said.
Many students come to school dealing with stress from their living conditions, family situations or heavy workloads, which can lead to anxiousness, or social or emotional difficulties, Shifler said.
Within minutes of doing breathing techniques, Shifler said she can see positive changes in the students.
“By the end of the class, students hold themselves with more confidence, they are eager to help out, they open up and hold a new sense of focus,” Shifler said.
These breathing techniques can be used anywhere without attracting attention, and they really help students, Shifler said.
“No doubt the physical movement is beneficial in numerous ways, but the breath work and the ability to take-notice-of or for students to become the observers of their feelings, mind and body is a huge individual success,” Shifler said.
While some students may be hesitant at first, “98 percent of the time they leave with a different demeanor, a confidence and compliments or questions asking why certain things worked so well,” Shifler said.
This year, Shifler said she would like to work more with teachers, because what they learn to embody, they will share with students.
AZ resources for using yoga in schools
Sun Valley High School is one of a number of Arizona schools finding that using yoga and mindfulness benefits their students.
Educators at Holiday Park Elementary in the Cartwright Elementary School District have also found that using yoga, teaching students about how the brain reacts to stress, and encouraging mindfulness and self-reflection have helped students, staff and reduced behavior referrals to the principal.
Students at the former Arrowhead Elementary School in Paradise Valley Unified School District learned strategies to help them self-regulate during stressful situations, and teachers use social and emotional learning strategies such as class meetings, daily check-ins, calming spaces and mindful movement to increase students’ resilience.
Schools looking to help students by using these practices can also find resources through Kohl’s Mindful Me program through Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium founded by Marcia Stanton.
Helping students navigate life’s stresses
As the session ended, Shifler led the students through savasana to relax their minds and bodies.
Then Shifler asked them focus on their breathing, picture someone they are thankful for, send them a little smile, and do the same to themselves.
Afterwards, Shifler encouraged them to put their hands in their heart space, then she said to them, “The love and life source in me honors the love and life source in all of you. Thank you guys for showing up, and namasté friends. You guys did so awesome.”
Gilliam said she would like to expand the yoga program on campus next year, and she encourages schools considering offering yoga on campus to do it.
“Our goal as secondary educators is to prepare these kids for the real world,” Gilliam said. “In the real world, you can’t get upset and storm out. In the real world, you have to be able to deal with stresses as they come at you. So any tools that we can provide to our students to better operate in a stress-filled world, that’s a program that we’re interested in.”