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Yoga Kidz-Interview with Leigh Crowder

Leigh Crowder HeadshotYoga Kidz: Reaching Out and Changing Lives

This weeks post is an interview with PYTI graduate and OTL/R, Leigh Crowder. Leigh is a long-time pediatric occupational therapist, Professional Yoga Therapist, owner of Yo Pro Therapy and co-founder of the non-profit Yoga Kidz. Visit Leigh and Yoga Kidz here.

Tell me about the history of Yoga Kidz and the program’s current status.

Funny enough the spark for this program started over dinner I had with a friend, one of the owners of the TBonz restaurant group. As we were catching up I was going on (and probably on and on) about yoga, children and how I was using the techniques with many children in my OT world. I also mentioned that in this day and age of children being more stressed, spending less moving and more time sitting in schools, yoga in schools was the perfect antidote. At the time, I had no idea that he held one particular school near and dear to his heart, Mitchell Elementary. I believe he heard my passion and also instinctively knew that yoga very well could be something that would benefit the students.

In 2008 the program was in its infantry with me teaching 8 classes a day. Seven years later we have 22 volunteer yoga teachers serving in three Title I schools in the Charleston County School District and 5 teachers in the Horry County School District in Myrtle Beach.

Each teacher has a passion for children and giving back to the community with many saying that the highlight of their week is when they teach their yoga classes in the schools.

As the program has expanded we now have a Yoga Kidz training manual and offer a free training to all the volunteers. We feel it is important everyone is on the same page with program implementation and teaching this population of students. In addition, there is a Yoga Kidz curriculum that the yoga teachers work from when teaching their classes which serves as the foundation for lessons and meaningful themes for the students.

 Describe the population of students the Yoga Kidz program serves.

The Yoga Kidz program has always targeted students in Title I schools. A Title I school is classified by 40% or more of the students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. In general, many students are living in poverty and are at risk of failure. In addition, according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network children from poverty are more likely to encounter multiple traumas over many years with less access to resources to support the impact. This is where Yoga Kidz steps in to provide that support. What we are most often seeing in the schools “looks” like an epidemic of dysregulation. Children who have difficulty paying attention, managing emotions (often anger), getting along with peers and respecting authority just to name a few. When basic human needs such as proper nutrition, a safe and stable home and trusting people in their lives are not being met academics take a backseat. From an energetic anatomy standpoint many of the students have issues in the lower chakras. In particularly, when considering root chakra being responsible for things like one’s sense of stability, safety and trust in getting needs met we can see how relates to some of the students’ challenges. The goal of the Yoga Kidz program is to give the students tools they can use so they can feel in control, of at least themselves, in times of stress and uncertainty.

 What are some of your biggest challenges?

If you had asked me this question 10 years ago I would have told you getting school administrators to take me seriously that yoga should be in schools. However, the benefits of yoga are becoming so mainstream, even for children, that teachers and administrators theoretically understand that that yoga would likely help their students.

Unfortunately, the biggest challenge now is being given precious curriculum time to be able to teach yoga during school hours. Administrators are so under the gun to get test scores up (especially in Title I schools) that yoga may seem like a gamble to some. Of course, they do care about the overall wellbeing of their students. However, when we educate on them on the that fact that yoga and mindfulness have the potential to improve things like test scores, attendance and disciplinary referrals their interest perks. Once we get our foot in the door and our yoga teachers begin teaching the students, classroom teachers and administrators are 100% supportive. They see the difference yoga has on the students. Many teachers report that on the mornings their students have yoga the rest of their day is much more positive and successful than on the days there is no yoga.

The program also makes a concerted effort to get classroom teachers involved and participating in their students’ yoga classes. We really feel the teachers are the bridge to bringing yoga, the themes and language into the classroom. On that note, a challenge is to get classroom teachers on board and feeling confident enough to implement what the students are learning in there yoga classes. Occupational therapists have known for years that movement organizes the sensory system so children are leaning-ready. In addition, research is suggesting that mindfulness exercises, which are typically more still in nature, can also have profound effects on attention, self-regulation and learning. Many teachers see the benefit of yoga and even have good intentions of using it the classroom, but are not yet taking full advantage of the tools in their classrooms. However, when teachers do consistently use the tools learned in yoga classes with their students they are reporting more ease and an overall more settled group of students.

 What are the other layers to the Yoga Kidz program?

As I mentioned previously, the majority of classroom teachers practice yoga with their students. It is a mission of ours to draw in as many teachers as we can to bring these tools into their classrooms. We feel that having the teachers be a part of and experience the yoga in their own bodies and minds, this is the first step in creating the bridge from yoga mat to classroom. In addition, there is something powerful about students seeing their teachers practicing with them. Yoga is no longer something the children are being told to do. It is something that can benefit everyone and let’s face it, the teachers need yoga as much as the students.

Another layer to our program is mindfulness. In the past two years we have started offering classroom mindfulness lessons. Many of our volunteer yoga teachers have gone through the Mindful Schools training curriculum funded by the TBonz Foundation and generous donations. Yoga has its own beautiful benefits and adding mindfulness only enhances the impact for students. The mindfulness lessons are about 15 minutes in length. They include mindfulness exercises that teach students things like breath awareness, body awareness, metta/loving kindness and tools to handle difficult emotions. Each session also includes discussion and journaling which is an element that is not addressed regularly in yoga classes. Our future plans involve implementing more mindfulness along with the yoga to more students.

 How has the PYT program impacted your delivery of this service?

Even though this work is not in the medical world per se, looking at the students through the lens of the biopsychosocial model is more than appropriate. Social aspects of the students’ life have huge impacts on their school performance. We are cognizant of students’ family circumstances and relationships, as well as, family traumas and teach skills that allow them to cope better both in the immediate and long term future. Biological factors can have direct implications in school as well when looking at a student’s ability to be learning-ready. A students medical diagnosis (asthma is common), prescribed medications, temperament and physical development would have some of the most direct impact on the functions of the brain and nervous system. Yoga seems to most naturally impact psychological aspects of the students’ wellbeing. Yoga and mindfulness teach awareness and skills to recognize emotions and thoughts that are hindering a student’s ability to be their best self. We believe that with a regular yoga practice the students are creating positive habits and the ability to respond rather than react to life’s peaks and valleys.

Want to get involved? Visit Leigh here.