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The Power of Yoga on Kids' Social & Emotional Skills

Q&A With Dr. Ilana Nankin

Founder & CEO of Breathe for Change

Can you talk about Breathe for Change and its partnership with Noggin?

I’m super excited to be partnering with Noggin, in so many different ways, including co-creating the Yoga Friends class that’s coming out in July. I just believe wholeheartedly in what the organization is doing, and I’m so happy that we’re working together to enhance the well-being for our young children and families, and larger communities that we all serve. I’m really excited to see what comes out of this!

Breathe for Change is an organization on a mission to enhance the health and well-being of educators, students, and entire communities. We run the world’s only 200-hour wellness SEL in yoga teacher training that’s specifically for educators and community leaders who deeply care about using wellness as a vehicle for healing and social change. We’ve certified over 6,000 educators and leaders up to this point, who are impacting millions of children, students, across the country and world. We also partner with schools, districts, and organizations to offer educator wellness and social & emotional learning, professional development to really support individual and collective well-being at the school and district and organizational level.

Our mission is to change the world one teacher at a time. As I mentioned before, we believe that through embodying the practices that we all seek to teach our kids, that that’s where the transformation can become possible. So we start with the educator’s self and their enhancing their own well-being, and then we move out to transformation of self, to transformation of relationships, to transformation of community. Then, that’s when the ripple effect happens.

Why is yoga practice becoming more common among children?

Yoga actually means “union” or “to yok.” So you can think about it as the coming together of our minds, our bodies, our hearts, and the integration of our inner and outer worlds. It’s becoming more and more common among young children because the benefits are so incredible. It strengthens our children’s bodies, and it stimulates their minds. Yoga increases their energy levels, and research – including my own dissertation – has demonstrated that critical connection between the practice of yoga and actual performance, both socially & emotionally as well as academically. When we see such incredible connections between taking care of our own well-being through this practice, and then how we show up to learning, it’s a no-brainer. The practice can have incredibly profound outcomes for both ourselves, as well as the young children whom we parent or teach.

What are the main benefits of yoga for young children?

There are so many! As a former pre-K teacher myself, I first got into the practice of yoga because I was stressed and overwhelmed. I started integrating some of the practices into my classroom with my kids and just saw extraordinary transformations in them, both socially & emotionally, as well as academically.

1.

Yoga really helps our students center and find that sense of focus and grounding and connection to themselves. For example, if your students are transitioning from a really high energy recess, and then the teacher starts class – or a parent transitions them from outside the house to inside – engaging in some breathing practices or some mindful movement can really help them transition into the present moment with more awareness, clarity, and a sense of connection to themselves and to the present moment.

2.

It also can be an energizing practice. For young children who may be focusing in school or at home watching TV or on devices, moving their bodies after sitting for so long is important. We want our kids to incorporate mindful movement into their everyday practice because there’s some negative effects from sitting so long, or focusing for too long. So yoga does both of those things: It can help center and ground themselves – becoming more focused. And it can also help energize and strengthen their bodies. Both of those things are critical for kids’ developmental success.

What are the benefits of a whole family doing yoga together?

This is one of my favorite things about how we approach this practice at Breathe for Change. It’s a community builder. Through this practice, you laugh together, and you feel connected to each other. You can learn something called community poses at our Breathe for Change trainings. So when we’re talking about the physical practice of yoga, which is Asana, or “mindful movement,” you can do Community Tree Pose, and through that, feel yourself connecting to each other, holding each other up, and understanding what it can feel like to be supported. You can incorporate this relationship skill development, even within the practice of yoga, which is so powerful for young children.

How does the practice of yoga strengthen children's skills, such as executive function and social & emotional learning?

One thing is that yoga is not just the physical practice. I think, especially in Western society, we think about Downward Dog or the Warrior II poses. But yoga is about embodying the ethical principles of yoga, like non-violence or being kind to ourselves. How we can be truthful, which is called Satya. So these ethical principles are also so important, and we’re really teaching kids social & emotional skills through the practice of yoga.

My PhD demonstrated that when kids are preparing to learn, whether they’re older and preparing to take a test – or for the younger ones, maybe learning the ABCs – taking that mindful moment to prepare is crucial. Settling in, connecting to their breath, connecting to the sensations that are arising in their bodies, observing how they’re feeling – all of these mind-body wellness and yoga practices help our students cultivate the social & emotional learning competencies that allow them to be better prepared for learning.

The CASEL competencies are the nationally recognized social & emotional learning competencies that educators are teaching their kids in schools, and the same skills apply within the context of parenting at home. So these skills are self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, social awareness, and responsible decision-making. The practice of yoga or facilitating these mind-body wellness practices helps your kids develop these skills.

For example, I have a seven-month-old, and I’ll do my favorite Breathe for Change SEL practice with her, which is called Three Collective Breaths. I say, “Let’s take three collective breaths together. Take a deep breath in, deep breath out, inhale, exhale, breathe in, breathe out with a big sigh. Then let’s take a moment and check in on how we feel.” That piece is just as important as the practice itself – taking that moment to connect to how we feel. That’s cultivating emotional awareness skills. “How do I feel in this moment? Oh, I feel calm.” Or, “I feel happy.” Well, later on, when I feel sad, upset, frustrated, you name it, then I’m going to have the skills, as a child, to be like, “Wait, I remember when I did that breathing technique. It made me feel calm or centered. I’m going to do that right now.” So we’ve got self-awareness, with the emotional awareness. “How do I feel?” Then, we are also getting at this second CASEL competency, which is self-management. “How do I regulate my emotions, my body, myself, in moments that are more challenging for me?” So by simply leading these very, very simple practices, we are really teaching such important life skills to our children. I’ll say it again, it’s not just the practice itself. It’s also, “How do we support our children in reflecting on the practice after the fact?” That ultimately helps them develop the skills to draw on these practices later when you’re not around and they actually need them.

About the Author

Dr. Ilana Nankin, Founder & CEO of Breathe For Change—is an award-winning entrepreneur, teacher educator, and former public school teacher committed to using wellness as a vehicle for healing and social change

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