School-Based Yoga Program as an Intervention for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders
Regular exercise and physical activity is advocated by many due to the various long-term physical benefits. In addition, incorporating a modest amount of exercise in ones’ lifestyle has been found to have great potential in positively impacting an individual’s mental health. In several studies, results showed benefits of exercise had greatly impacted mood, mental disorders, and behavioral disorders (Medcalf, Marshall, & Rhoden, 2008; Strasser & Fuchs, 2015). Not only does moderate exercise appear to reduce anxiety and depression in individuals, better yet, the effects of exercise (i.e. antidepressant effects) far outlive the period of exercise (Strasser & Fuchs, 2015).
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Physical education, in a school curriculum, is one of the primary ways that encourages physical activity and exercise within adolescents. In particular, P.E. has specific advantages for promoting improved behavior and overall wellbeing in students with emotional disturbance (Medcalf et al., 2008). It is estimated that around 12-13% of school-aged children are diagnosed with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (EBD) in the United States, with a higher prevalence in low-income urban communities (Steiner, Sidhu, Pop, Frenette, & Perrin, 2013). Untreated emotional and behavioral disorders can have many negative effects on an individual, including poor academic performances, unhealthy relationships, drug abuse, and/or incarceration (Steiner et al., 2013). Schools have found that incorporating a well-planned physical education curriculum is extremely beneficial for students with EBD. Physical education is a time for students to be outside of their regular setting, the classroom, and engage in meaningful physical activity. A successful physical education curriculum has potential to “develop social skills, in addition to physiological and cognitive function” for students with EBD (Young, 2012). The problem is that not all physical education curriculums are made relevant or meaningful with this unique population of students. A curriculum will be unsuccessful if lessons are not individualized for students’ specific needs, or lack of responsiveness to individual needs are not considered (Young, 2012). Research has found yoga, implemented in schools, to be extremely beneficial for students with EBD. A physical education curriculum involving yoga has potential to address many of the specific needs of these students, in addition to advocating and teaching meaningful skills to reduce problem behaviors and mental well-being, which commonly experienced by students with EBD. An examination of the current research involving the integration of yoga in schools is important to understand the full potential of this practice and their effects on students with EBD.
Schools are increasingly electing a universal yoga-based wellness promotion program, instead of a traditional special education approach, for students who are at-risk and students with EBD (Frank, Bose, & Schrobenhauser-Clonan, 2014). Yoga is a disciplined practice, that includes a mental, physical, and spiritual aspect to it (Tamilselvi & Mala, 2016). Although a yoga curriculum varies according to the instructor, a typical yoga program involves grounding, rooting, teaching connections, postures (asanas), a focus pose, breathing practice, relaxation (i.e. meditation), and closure (Tamilselvi & Mala, 2016). It is important to note that a universal yoga-based program, especially when used in public schools, is always nonspiritual, meaning that it does not incorporate any religious components (e.g. religious terminology or practices) (Frank et al., 2014).
Unlike traditional school-based interventions, yoga and meditation emphasize focus on increasing vital skills of students, like self-control, emotional regulation, and concentration (Steiner et al., 2013). Frank, Bose, and Schrobenhauser-Clonan (2014) researched the effects of a 12 week school-based yoga intervention for students attending an alternative school in an urban-city school district, who were at-risk. They concluded that the program revealed noteworthy decreases in emotional distress (e.g. anxiety or depression) and youth reports of decreases in violence, revenge, and hostility towards others. These results suggest the significant influence a mind-body intervention, including meditation, breathing techniques, and postures, can have on student’s physical and mental health (Frank et al., 2014). Similarly, Steiner, Sidhu, Pop, Frennette, and Perrin (2013) implemented a school-based yoga intervention with specific child-adapted yoga exercises and poses, a social component (e.g. peer or group exercises), and imagery techniques and meditation. In groups of 7 to 10 students, students received two yoga sessions per week for three months during the school day. This intervention was easily implemented in the student’s schedule, not interfering with any academic instructional time (Steiner et al., 2013) . The results portrayed an increase in students’ positive attitude, decrease in challenging behavior, improved focus in classrooms, and an overall increase in happiness and calmness (Steiner et al., 2013). Teachers expressed their content with the intervention and indicated the use of this intervention during class time, specifically when students need a mental break and time to “relax their bodies” (Steiner et al., 2013, p. 821). In addition to reduced internal and external symptoms, Steiner et al. (2013) described some students reporting an increase in physical strength and gross motor skills.
For a successful school-based yoga program, student participation and motivation is essential. During each yoga lesson, instructions should take in consideration the student’s background, focus their lesson on relevant topics, and engage in conversation with the students throughout the lesson to increase student interest (Frank et al., 2014). Each lesson should be carefully designed to maximize student performance, positive effects, and generalization to the classroom and community (Steiner et al., 2013). The overarching goal of school-based yoga is to not only develop skills to decrease internalizing symptoms (e.g. anxiety) and externalizing symptoms (e.g. challenging behavior), but for students to be able to use these skills across different settings and contexts (e.g. home, school, and community) (Tamilselvi & Mala, 2016).
Limitations of the Studies
A common limitation across several studies was the effects of a small sample size and specific characteristics regarding the population the studies focused on. Steiner et al. (2013) found this limitation rather influential because of the participants and families highly mobile background. Considering the study’s focus on an urban school setting, many families had confounding issues like poverty, foster care issues, homelessness and/or family disruptions. This affected the results, largely due to the lack of parent and student participation and involvement in pre- and post-assessments (Steiner et al., 2013). Another common limitation in both studies was that most outcome measures were contingent on youth self-report. Although self-reports are reliable for general and mental health effects, more concrete and consistent evidence from parents and teachers should be considered in future research (Frank et al., 2014).
Previous studies have provided introductory evidence for the potential effects and likelihood of success of a school-based yoga intervention to provide to students with emotional and behavioral disorders. School-based yoga is likely to reduce students the emotional distress that students with EBD are challenged with. In addition, a school-based yoga intervention is likely to increase and “promote prosocial behavior in youth” (Frank et al., 2014, p. 42). Despite these preliminary findings, more research is required to further evaluate the full potential of a school-based yoga intervention. To promote generalization, future research should consider a larger population, additional assessments regarding the effects of the intervention translated into students’ academic performance and classroom behavior, and follow-up assessments to study maintenance of intervention effects (Steiner et al., 2013).
- Frank, J. L., Bose, B., & Schrobenhauser-Clonan, A. (2014). Effectiveness of a school-based yoga program on adolescent mental health, stress coping strategies, and attitudes toward violence: Findings from a high-risk sample. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 30, 29-49.
- Medcalf, R., Marshall, J., & Rhoden, C. (2008). Exploring the relationship between physical education and enhancing behaviour in pupils with emotional behavioural difficulties. Support for Learning, 21, 169-174.
- Steiner, N. J., Sidhu, T. K., Pop, P. G., Frenette, E. C., & Perrin, E. C. (2013). Yoga in an urban school for children with emotional and behavioral disorders: A feasibility study. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22, 815-826.
- Strasser, B., & Fuchs, D. (2015). Role of physical activity and diet on mood, behavior, and cognition. Neurology, Psychiatry and Brain Research, 21, 118-126.
- Tamilselvi, B., & Mala, V. (2016). Yoga-A Boon to the Adjustment Problems and Behavioural Disorders of Adolescent Students. i-Manager’s Journal on Educational Psychology, 9(2), 1.
- Young, S. (2012). Recommendations for teaching physical education to students with EBDs. Strategies, 25(6), 8-11.
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