While all kids are special, some need more attention and guidance than others. If you’re a teacher looking to teach yoga for kids with Special or Additional Needs, these pointers help you find your footing.
1. Start from where they are.
When teaching yoga to kids with additional needs, open your eyes, ears, heart, and mind. Really see, hear, feel, and understand.
See who is in front of you, and START FROM WHERE THEY ARE! Not from where you planned, from where you think they’re supposed to be, where society thinks they should be, or where the books say they are.
If you start from where they are, they’ll be able to do just about anything… gradually. Sometimes you’ll need to break lessons down more simply, and you’ll definitely need to be flexible and creative! You can teach yoga to anyone if you follow this advice.
2. Some needs are physical.
Blind kids need more verbal instruction and touch to guide their movements, but they have amazing spatial awareness and can do absolutely anything—even partner poses and acrobatics! You’ll physically help them into poses at first, but after a few times, they’ll remember how to do it on their own.
Deaf kids need to see you all the time so they can read your lips and imitate your movements. Talk less and demonstrate more here. If you can speak in sign language, this helps immensely.
With kids on wheelchairs, you can do chair yoga, or even take them off the wheelchair (watch your back though!) to move them into poses while they are on the floor.
Bedridden children can do a lot of yoga in bed. If they can’t move much, they can practice breathing exercises. If that’s too challenging, you can help them with guided imagery or maybe even massage. If this is too much, you can just hold their hand and share your energy.
There is always a way to do yoga!
3. Other needs are mental or social.
There are kids with various kinds and levels of developmental disabilities or brain damage (from birth, radiation, or accidents), there is a big range of autism spectrum disorders, and there are a million different syndromes, Down syndrome being just one of them.
4. You will be teaching these awesome kids in two different environments.
a. A child with additional needs in a regular class.
In this case, there must be an adult practicing with this child at all times. In a regular kids’ class, so much is going on and it all happens so fast that you simply do not have the time or the energy to give this kid all the attention they need.
Kids with additional needs require much closer guidance as they don’t imitate as well as other kids and have low body and spatial awareness.
If the class is during school hours, most likely there is a shadow, teacher’s aide, or assistant with them. If it’s an afternoon program, the parents will usually be present.
b. A whole group of children with additional needs.
Keep these groups small—no more than six or eight kids, and no more than two or three kids per teacher.
Downgrading your teaching by a few years to fit their cognitive and motor skill level works well here. So if you are teaching 3 to 4-year-olds, give them a class like you give 2-year-olds, and if you teach 5 to 6-year-olds, give them a class like you give 3 to 4-year-olds.
You’ll also need to make the class slower—but just as fun!
Kids with additional needs such as autism get sensory overload easily, so play the music a bit softer than in a regular class, or turn off the music and slow down the class if you see that they become overwhelmed.
5. Emphasize touch, hands-on assistance, sound, and breath.
Touch them a lot, all the time, using firm touch only. Rarely will kids with autism not like to be touched.
b. Hands-on assistance
Kids with additional needs lack good spatial orientation and are experiencing delays in motor skills. You’ll need to physically bring their limbs into the pose. Be very gentle, though, as joint dislocation is a common result of the low muscle tone that most kids with syndromes have.
Move them SLOWLY into poses so their muscles have time to respond.
Other kids with additional needs have too much muscle tone (their nerves are firing all of the time), making their bodies really stiff and contracted—of course yoga and massage helps!
Vocalize animal sounds, make sound effects, and “Om” or “Hmmmm” as much as you can. Talk less, and sing, demonstrate, and do more.
Teach them breath awareness and control, and help them breathe more deeply using breathing exercises.
6. Success builds success.
Always focus on the children’s strengths. Often, a weakness in one area creates strength in another. If you start where it is easy for that child, they will gain confidence and slowly be ready to approach more challenging areas. Don’t start by working on the “issue” first.
7. The above elements will help them achieve some of the things they might lack.
- Awareness and better body control
- Connection to other people and to their environment—they naturally withdraw into their own bubble
- Confidence and higher self-esteem
Children with special or additional needs are like any other kid—they just want to be happy and have fun! So please don’t come to a class all merciful or patronizing. Come to play, laugh, and make them feel REALLY special!
Do your research—when you know you’re going to have a child with a specific syndrome, research adjustments you might need to make to poses, the rhythm of the class, your communication, etc.
Of course, when you actually meet that child, put aside those points and start from where they are, armed with knowledge to help them go where they want to be!
Image Credit: Rainbow Kids Yoga