“You Don’t Need to Be a Yogi”: Tips for Bringing Yoga Calm into Your Classroom

by | Sep 6, 2017 | K-12 Education, Tips, Yoga Calm

So you recognize the importance of bringing more movement into your classroom for both academics and health, but just how do you actually do it!?

Laurie Shonkwiler
Meet veteran elementary school teacher and Certified Yoga Calm Instructor Laurie Shonkwiler.

Laurie has been teaching diverse student populations and those with a variety of needs in Portland Public Schools for the past 33 years. She has been incorporating Yoga Calm in her fifth grade class of 37 kids this year (and for the prior five years with other grade levels). She has discovered that teaching breathing and movement activities isn’t just a nice extra, but is essential to to help her kids regulate their nervous systems so that learning can take place.

Laurie also integrates academic lessons in language skills and anatomy, as well as building relationship skills and teamwork in her Yoga Calm sessions.

While the breathing activities and simple yoga activities can be done in or right by her students’ seats, Laurie loves to get her kids doing more full-body movement – both to help develop exercise habits and to help meet the state’s new physical activity requirements.

So she’s set up her classroom for movement. Gone are the typical rows of desks. Instead, she uses a more flexible arrangement of table groups and a roll cart for a desk that can be moved out of the way when they need more room for Yoga Calm activities that build classroom community – activities such as Tree Circle, Trust Walk and yoga pose flows.

She also provides camping chairs and clipboards so students can move and work anywhere in the room.
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Yoga mats are available for kids who want to spread out while they work (though they aren’t needed for most Yoga Calm activities). It’s a space that’s more suited to student needs, as well as one designed for movement.

Not all teachers are able to move tables and chairs and use yoga mats in their classrooms. This is Laurie’s way; she is a mover and this classroom style works well for her and her students. There are, however, many ways that teachers can add movement and mindfulness to their daily routine. Laurie draws on her own strengths and interests to create a classroom that is alive with her passion and creativity.

The reported benefits of such flexible classrooms include

  • Using excess energy and improving metabolism
  • Increased motivation and engagement
  • More on-task behavior

Making Time for Movement

“But how can you afford to give up instructional time for all that?” some people ask.

“I can’t afford NOT to do mindful movement throughout the day,” answers Laurie. “Studies have shown that movement improves academic outcomes – like the Stanford study, where kids who exercised a half hour each morning saw grade improvements of one full level. With so many of us dysregulated from the stressors of life, the movement is even more essential.

“Mindfulness,” she continues,

is a formal time. We do it three times a day so it becomes a habit: in the morning after our 10-minute walk around the playground, when we check in with each other, then again after lunch recess, and right before we go home. At first I lead, and then the kids do.
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Leaders are picked by having a chart with their names and a clothespin on it. I move the clips down each day so kids know who are the helpers. It’s a simple routine that helps reduce the amount of set-up time we need.

There is also a formal space for meeting. In this space is a skeleton, which I frequently use to point out the names of bones and key anatomical landmarks, and how the body moves. (The skeleton was funded by Donor’s Choose.) Combining science with related movement and mindfulness activities makes learning relevant and fun.

I’ve also noticed that we get a lot more done in a lot less time. And I use a time schedule that the kids like. I’ll ask them, ‘How much time do you think this will take?’ Whatever leftover time we have, we add to our breaks. My motto is, ‘We work hard, we play hard!’

Laurie also suggests being conscious of just how much time kids spend sitting.

During the day, I’ll get them up at least every 40 minutes – but that’s for fifth grade. For the younger grades, every 30 minutes is more appropriate.

Keep Things Clear

“Keep directions clear so the kids know what is expected,” advises Laurie.

In the higher grades especially, be firm. I give kids five drum beats to find a place in the room – kids love using the hand drum, by the way – and if they don’t find a space, I’ll find one for them. You don’t want to waste time with set-up or you won’t have time for movement.

If they find their spots quickly, I’ll tally that, giving them five minutes of extra recess for efficient time management. But tallies can also be taken away if, through the day, table groups don’t stay on task. I don’t single out students, just say something like, ‘Someone at the southwest table isn’t doing x…,’ ‘x’ being whatever my expectation is. Just stating the expectation that isn’t followed usually corrects the problem.

And as for students who don’t follow the movement guidelines?

I just give them a glance and they know to sit down and join when they are ready. Sometimes for extreme behaviors, I have them sit just outside the room where I can see them, and they can join when ready. Most kids want to join in quickly. The kids who are modeling good behavior are also asked to come up and lead the activities – a big motivator for being a team player.

Bringing Yoga to Your Classroom

A lot of teachers think you have to be good at yoga or particularly advanced before sharing it with their students. Not so, counters Laurie.

“You don’t have to be a yogi,” she says. “You don’t have to be perfect either. Just learn a few basic poses and put them in a sequence.”

“Doing mindful movement has made my experience in the classroom complete,” says Laurie. “I have seen a huge difference, especially in the last few years. I see a lot more calm. We are truly a community of learners together.”

Laurie loves to mentor new teachers and share from her decades years of teaching experience. If you’d like to observe her class in person, just shoot her a note (shjola@gmail.com). But do it now! She’ll be retiring at the end of this school year, hoping to continue sharing her love of how to teach yoga to kids at other schools.

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