Stretching exercises can benefit children with attention issues

Yoga is touted as a way for adults to limber up and reduce stress, but it's also gaining ground as an alternative to traditional children's activities and sports, such as soccer and T-ball.
Recent research has shown that yoga can be used as an intervention for children with attention problems. ((iStock))
Yoga is touted as a way for adults to limber up and reduce stress, but it's also gaining ground as an alternative to traditional children's activities and sports, such as soccer and T-ball.

Yoga has grown exponentially in the past decade — the number of Canadians practising yoga swelled by 45 per cent between 2003 and 2005, according to the North America Studio Alliance, an organization for mind-body professionals.

Across the country more than one million Canadians are estimated to be reaping the benefits of regular yoga practice, and for good reason. Research now supports what yoga practitioners have known all along — that the breathing, stretching and meditation exercises improve focus, promote calmness and reduce tension. With these kind of benefits, it's no wonder yoga has stretched its way into classrooms and after-school programs.

At first glance, these stretching exercises simply seem like a constructive method of relaxation, but yoga can be of particular benefit to kids with special needs who find traditional school settings and social interactions problematic.

"Yoga gives these children an opportunity to experience a calm, which is something they certainly don't associate with their day," says Louise Goldberg, a certified yoga instructor and creator of Creative Relaxation, a yoga curriculum for children with autism.

Behavioural research

Recent research has shown that yoga can be used as an intervention for children with attention problems.

An Australian study, conducted by Pauline Jensen and Dianna Kenny, which appeared in the Journal of Attention Disorders in 2004, found that yoga was an effective complementary therapy for a group of boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who were medicated to help control their symptoms during school, but were not medicated when at home. Parents reported that the boys who attended a weekly one-hour yoga session for 20 weeks demonstrated a drop in hyperactive and impulsive behaviour.

In another U.S. study, conducted by Heather Peck and colleagues, and published in the School Psychology Review in 2005, 10 elementary school children with attention problems practiced yoga from a children's yoga video in two 30-minute sessions per week for three weeks. During this time, teachers reported that the children were able to concentrate on tasks in the classroom for longer periods than they had previously.

However, when the yoga sessions ended, their ability to concentrate on a task for an extended period began to decrease again, suggesting that regular practice is required for long-term benefits.

In the classroom

The researchers suggested that yoga or a stretching program could be easily used in classrooms to help students focus before a test or to help a class settle into a lesson after recess. This is a practice that Teressa Asencia promotes in her book Yoga in Your School.
Some experts suggest that yoga is beneficial in a classroom setting because it teaches children how to relax and focus. ((iStock))

Asencia, who offers professional development workshops for teachers in British Columbia, says that more and more teachers are coming to her looking for ways to improve students' concentration in the classroom.

"Teachers today have big problems getting kids to concentrate because they're bombarded by media all day. They tell me that this kind of thing is so needed in the classroom. Kids really need silence," she says.

In her book, Asencia offers easy stretching 'breaks' teachers can use throughout the day to rejuvenate a class and help refocus students.

"Teachers have said how just a few little things can really calm and change the energy in the class; the chaos, the fighting, the conflict, and it can also inspire kids to be incredibly creative," she says.

Goldberg believes that yoga is beneficial in a classroom setting because it teaches children how to relax and focus.

"For a lot of kids, people are always telling them to sit still, or calm down, but rarely are they instructed on how to do these things. And it is something you can learn," she says, citing exercises such as having children tense their shoulders and then let the tension go as a way to demonstrate what relaxation means.

"This helps these words — calm down, sit still — have meaning, instead of being just some vague concept," she says.

At home

"Many adults do yoga and see the benefits, and then parents want their children to come to yoga so they can learn skills to help them deal with anxiety and stress," says Sherry LeBlanc, director of Yoga 4 Kids in Toronto, which offers yoga classes for children and families.

Heather Cook has been taking her eight-year-old daughter Ava to private yoga classes with LeBlanc for the past two years. The practice has helped Ava, who has mild autism, with concentration and anxiety.

"The breathing exercises have really helped her, she's able to implement them to help her calm herself down," says Cook.

"It's even helped her confidence," she adds. "She's more willing to try new things in school and life in general."

LeBlanc, who is a licensed practitioner of Yoga for the Special Child, says that parents need to be just as vigilant selecting a yoga instructor for their children as they would for an instructor for any other activity. She says the instructor should be registered with a regulatory body, such as the International Yoga Alliance, and they should have some coursework in teaching yoga to children.

Another important credential is to ensure the yoga teacher has an up-to-date CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certificate, in case of emergency.

Parents also need to be aware that yoga is not a quick fix for behaviour issues.

"Yoga is a self-discipline, and it doesn't happen overnight," says LeBlanc. "Children need to attend class on a regular basis, over an extended period of time, and this requires commitment from the parent."

And as with all activities, kids will derive the most benefit out of yoga if they go willingly.

"The parent may have certain expectations, but the child has to show an interest in doing in it," says LeBlanc.

For kids who are committed to practice, she says she has noticed remarkable results.

"These children develop self-awareness, body-awareness, and their self-image improves. I see their self-discipline improving, and they are better able to work through their frustrations," Leblanc says.