Teaching by Reaching

A new yoga-based curriculum shows clear benefits for K-2 children with developmental disabilities

children in yoga class.

For 30 minutes a day, a dozen young children meditated, read, sang and bounced around a room in the Beyond Learning Center in Depew, N.Y. This was not your typical physical education course. This was a yoga class.

The students were participating in the K-2 Let’s Move project, a study led by education researchers at the University at Buffalo to examine the effects of yoga on self-regulation and motor skills among K-2 children with developmental disabilities.

Yoga matters

Yoga and mindfulness-based programs for children are not new. According to co-principal investigator Catherine Cook-Cottone, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology at UB’s Graduate School of Education, they’ve been shown to build body awareness, decrease anxiety and assist stress management.

However, these effects are understudied in children with developmental disabilities, many of whom have difficulties with self-regulation. Self-regulation—the ability to manage reactions to feelings and sensory experiences—can affect a student’s ability to stay in their seat during class, follow their teacher’s directions, communicate, engage in fewer impulsive actions and not overreact to new situations.

“These are society’s most marginalized individuals,” said Cook-Cottone. “As we work toward a more accepting and inclusive world, teaching a child how to self-regulate and mindfully engage in something gets them so much closer to being included.”

A marked difference

The yoga and mindfulness-based curriculum, carried out over the course of 10 weeks, consisted of movement and breathing exercises, relaxation, meditation games, reading and music.

“We tell kids to pay attention, but nobody teaches them how. We tell them to calm down, but don’t tell them what that means,” said Vito Gigante, director of occupational therapy at the Beyond Learning Center and principal investigator for the study. “Yoga provides a period to move through routine and novelty and offers many opportunities to self-regulate.”

The study soon will yield several academic papers detailing the effectiveness of the curriculum. But though the data is still being analyzed, the researchers have already observed a marked difference in the students.

According to Cook-Cottone, the study is a sterling example of what can be accomplished when researchers, educators and families work together toward the same mission of helping children thrive.

“We are so grateful for the opportunity to bring the scientific, problem-solving method to the schools,” she said. “This wonderful community shared their challenges and ideas with us, and together we were able to study yoga in a way in which it has never been studied before.”