Do Students and Educators Benefit from Bringing Yoga to Schools?

Education Policy Brief #86 | By: Yelena Korshunov | September 20, 2023

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According to recent findings, 45% of students in high school admit to being stressed almost every day in school, and 61% of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 feel stress over obtaining satisfactory grades. According to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of college students experience stress in their daily lives. 44% of K-12 teachers reported that they are burned out. What can the education programs do to reduce our children’s stress and educator’s burnout? Maybe yoga breathing and relaxation practices in schools could bring relief?

The nationwide concern over childhood stress, especially during the pandemic, promoted an increase in the number of researches that have come out within the last decade exploring the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for children and youth. Multiple studies continue to bring evidence that yoga, including relaxation skills and breathing practices, help cultivate both students’ and educators’ social, emotional, and physical health, as well as academic success and a positive school climate.

The Feasibility and Preliminary Outcomes of a School-based Mindfulness Intervention for Urban Youth study arranged a trial of 97 fourth- and fifth-graders assigning some students to participate in a mindful yoga program that met four days per week for 45 minutes. Compared to attending school as usual, 12 weeks of mindful yoga led to significant reductions in students’ problematic responses to stress, such as experiencing repetitive negative thoughts and strong, intrusive emotions. The Effectiveness of a School-Based Yoga Program on Adolescent Mental Health, Stress Coping Strategies, and Attitudes Toward Violence: Findings From a High-Risk Sample study tasked 49 urban high school students to participate in a semester-long yoga and mindfulness program several days per week. By the end of the term all students reported significant reductions in their anxiety. The Promoting Stress Management and Wellbeing in Educators: Feasibility and Efficacy of a School-Based Yoga and Mindfulness Intervention research published in 2015 suggests that providing educators with training in yoga- and mindfulness-based skills may have beneficial effects for educators, including increases in calmness, mindfulness, well-being, positive mood, improvements in classroom management, emotional reactivity, physical symptoms including blood pressure and cortisol awakening response, and decreases in mind and body stress. The research confirms that providing teachers with skills and practices to enhance their own self-care is a crucial step toward improving classroom climate, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes.

In the near future New York City is planning to bring breathing practices to all public schools for students from pre-K to 12th grade. Schools will soon be required to facilitate daily two to five minutes of mindful breathing. The aim of this initiative is to increase students’ physical and mental health, enhance social-emotional learning, and overall improve actively criticized public schools’ culture. In March 2023, the NYC Department of Education began to roll out a professional development program to train educators and other school staff in the implementation of mindfulness breathing practices and tools that can be used in the classroom. Undoubtedly, 2 to 5 minutes of breathing practice is better than nothing, however New York City should’ve taken in consideration the experience of the other schools that found a chance to dedicate longer time for daily breathing exercises.

At a number of schools all over the country, from San Francisco to DC, yoga in the classroom has already been implemented for years reporting significant positive effects on students’ learning and well-being. Edmunds Elementary, an urban school in Des Moines, Iowa, proudly reports that yoga is on their daily schedule. They believe that morning breathing practice, yoga-based movement, and mindful meditation help students bring their attention to the present moment and prepare them for learning activities throughout the day. As a morning routine, every classroom in the school begins the day with a “Be Well” discussion about topics such as gratitude, good citizenship, being a peacemaker, and getting enough sleep. After lunch, the lights are dimmed and soft music plays as students return from recess for 10 minutes of quiet mindfulness and reflection activities, such as journaling, coloring, or listening to a guided relaxation story. According to the school reports, since they implemented this practice, the test scores increased by more than 18% while the number of students being sent to the office decreased by more than 66% over two years. The school’s principal notes that since they adopted this routine everyone is feeling a greater sense of community, connectedness, and engagement in school.

Based on multiple research findings and practical implementation of yoga and mindful breathing in school, the children’s ability to relax has a significant impact on their cognitive development and health. By engaging in relaxation techniques, young people improve their mental state which, in turn, enables them to cope with stress in a healthy manner, strengthening their mental and physical state. It wouldn’t be out of reach to assume that this practice is anticipated to cause a sustained global effect on the nation’s health and well-being as children and youth will bring these relaxation strategies into their adulthood as a life-long healthy habit and stress relief.

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