Stretch, hold, relax, get ready to learn

Weekly yoga routine helps students manage emotions, clear minds

Seventh grader Dominic Butcher shows off his flexibility

More and more educators are looking for and finding ways to help children cope with stress. And high on the list of options is offering students experience with the ancient practice of yoga.

In East Grand Rapids, students use yoga to relax before testing. In Godwin Heights, the district has created a special space for students to find ways to de-stress and practice yoga throughout the school day.

And at least once a week in a middle school classroom that is home to students with emotional impairments, teacher Rachel Kallemeyn takes some time to catch up on paperwork as school social worker Dan Sullivan leads the class in yoga.

Seventh graders Joseph VandenBosh (left) and Ryan Slater aren’t sure about this pose

The students do the poses, though not without protest.

“Not again.”

“It hurts.”

“Exactly how many poses do I have to do today?”

While the students verbalized their objections, Sullivan got to work. “If there is a pose you can’t do, go ahead and choose any one you already know,” he told the students as he reached for the floor.

As Sullivan and the class worked their way through a variety of yoga postures, students visibly relaxed but verbally continued to protest.

“I’m very flexible but don’t like doing yoga,” said seventh grader Dominic Butchur.

“I like math better,” said sixth grader Kaleb Marshall.

Social worker Dan Sullivan, center, does yoga with the class

Teachers See Benefits 

Despite their complaints, students benefit from the activity, said Kallemeyn, their teacher. “The exercise helps clear their minds and get ready for the day,” she said.

“Every morning we have breakfast together as a group. And some days we cook together. We find that things like doing life skills and exercising together helps us learn to control our emotions.”

Students in her classroom learn to identify their personal emotions with a color chart. For instance, yellow represents nervous or super excited; red, anger; blue, tired, sad or depressed; green, good to go.

“On ‘Wellness Wednesday’ they clear their minds with Mr. Sullivan and yoga,” she said. “It gets them ready for our day and the work ahead.”

According to Sullivan, improving classroom management and educational gains from doing yoga is “researched based.”

“Often these kids have trouble regulating their emotional ups and downs,” he said. “Yoga helps us get set. We cleanse our minds so we can focus on the rest of the day.”

Sullivan and Kallemeyn agree that doing mindfulness exercises — like yoga — and teaching life skills is not only a team effort, it is essential to help students succeed.

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and is thrilled to spend some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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