How Yoga And Meditation Are Transforming Underserved Schools

Here's what happened when a school principal and a yoga teacher teamed up to bring yoga to the kids who need it most.

 

"Yoga?! Puerto Ricans don't do yoga."

Sonia Vazquez, the principal of Donegan Elementary School on the South Side of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was incredulous when yoga instructor Kira Willey first proposed to teach Donegan students yoga and meditation.

Donegan United Way Community School is housed in a brick building a short walk away from the monolithic relic of the Bethlehem's old Steel Stacks, a reminder of the eastern Pennsylvanian city's former industrial might as a center of steel production—and of its subsequent decline. Ninety-eight percent of the 479 children at Donegan come from families at or below the poverty level and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Donegan Elementary School. Photograph Courtesy Of Dana Grubb/Bethlehem Municipal

Willey thought she could help Donegan's students develop crucial mindfulness skills that would help them cope with stress.

Vazquez, an immaculately dressed, no-nonsense Puerto Rican woman wearing heels and a short brown bob, grew up two blocks down the street from the school, and spent her career in the Bethlehem school district, working for eight years as a disciplinarian. She became Donegan's principal in 2012, and was fiercely dedicated to her students and passionate about improving the school—and willing to try new things to do so.

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"These kids come from a high rate of poverty," she says, "They deal with stress and difficulties and getting yelled at that all the time—I don't want them to deal with that in school. I want them to have a safe place, a quiet place, more than anything, a positive place."

Though she didn't really think yoga had a snowflake's chance in hell at Donegan, she gave Willey—and yoga—a shot.

Willey put together an assembly for the elementary school. There were a couple hundred kids in the room. The teachers lining the walls looked skeptical, and ready to step in if the kids got out of hand.

"We walked in, I had two musicians with me," Willey recalls. "And we rocked it."

Related: 4 Really Cool Things Schools Around The World Do To Help Students Thrive

Planting the seeds of a wellness movement in schools

Three years later, at 1:30pm on a sunny Thursday, Willey is speaking in a lilting voice, telling a group of 4th graders to close their eyes and focus on becoming a cloud—just "drifting in the warm air, weightless in the blue."

There's a few giggles and fidgets, but mostly the kids seem happy to have someone speaking to them so softly and kindly, and telling them all they have to do right now is to let go of their stress, and float.

Willey, a classically trained music teacher and certified children's yoga instructor, teaches musical yoga. "I sing my instructions and use a lot of rhythm. It engages kids so completely—you have their attention so much more than if you just are saying your instructions to them."

Acoustic guitar in hand, Willey is now thoroughly integrated into the school curriculum. Donegan Elementary plays Willey's recorded meditations two or three times every day, classroom teachers lead their students through brief yoga exercises, and the school often welcomes Willey back to teach yoga and music assemblies.

"It's not full-blown yoga and crazy poses," Vazquez says, "It's simple exercises that they can just do it in their seats, a minute or two here and there." The exercises give the kids an easy way to settle down. "It's exactly what I needed for our kids: calm when they would get angry, and also stress relief for when they get anxious about testing."

Watch the PBS39 video below to see Willey in action at Donegan Elementary:

Yoga and meditation has helped the teachers have calmer and more effective classrooms: if they don't lose class time to students arguing or fighting, there's more time for learning.

 

"What it has done for educators is given us an easy option that is positive rather than yelling at kids and punishing them," Vazquez says, "I now say, 'Okay, let's sit like this and do our candle-blowing,' —which is a meditation they now know— and it stops everything. That's so much better than teachers having to scream, 'Stop moving, sit down, stop yelling, you're not listening!"

Teaching mindfulness where it's needed most

Vazquez and Willey's efforts to incorporate yoga and meditation into Donegan's curriculum is part of a larger movement to bring mindfulness where it's needed most.

"Early on in my career, I taught a weekly class in an elementary school, and there was a boy I found very challenging," Willey says, "One day, just trying to engage the kids with light conversation, I asked them what they had had for breakfast. This boy said he hadn't eaten breakfast that morning because his mom forgot—and that it happened a lot. I felt horrible: He wasn't being uncooperative, he was hungry."

There's mounting scientific evidence of the benefits of meditation for kids under a lot of stress, and organizations like as Baltimore's Holistic Life Foundation has made great strides in replacing detention for troubled kids with meditation and yoga paired with counseling and self-reflection. And it's not just grassroots nonprofits that are tapping into the benefits of mindfulness in schools. Government initiatives and congressmen like Ohio representative Tim Ryan are advocating for yoga and meditation programs in school, too, and Willey's work is funded in part by a PBS grant.

"These kids may be witnessing violence; they may be malnourished or not getting enough to eat on a regular basis; their families may be in turmoil; they have so much stress on them… and these are little kids," says Willey.

Related: These Schools Sent Students To Meditation Instead Of Detention—Here's What Happened

Giving kids the skills to self-regulate, rather than punishing them, can help them navigate difficult situations, and sometimes even save their futures. Nine and ten year olds might not fully understand what they're learning—or why they're learning it—but the impetus for them to learn goes deeper: If kids, particularly kids in disadvantaged situations, can learn coping mechanisms and anger management techniques when they're young, and learn to find calm in difficult circumstances, they have a better shot at getting through school.

Lessons like these are important: as of 2014, according to The Atlantic, more than 60,000 Americans 18 years old and younger were living in juvenile detention facilities. And, according to the American Psychological Association, 44% of children ages 8-17 suffer from sleeping difficulty, which the APA attributes to chronic stress, and one-fifth of children reported in the same study that they worry a great deal or a lot.

"Kids are really stressed out," Willey says. "Some kids are so distracted—either by deep stresses in their lives, or from staring at screens all the time. They don't realize when their anger is bubbling up. All of a sudden they're lashing out, or hitting, and they're in trouble. Where if they had been taught the skills to just pause…take two deep breaths. Maybe they'll think, 'You know what? I should not hit that kid.'"

Related: I Tried Meditating Daily With My 4-Year-Old Kid For A Month

 

A Growing Movement

Since the success at Donegan, there are hopes of eventually expanding the yoga and mindfulness program to the rest of the Bethlehem School district—and beyond. With funding from a local PBS Health Check Up initiative, Willey has also already created programs for Farmersville Elementary School, Holy Infancy School, Fountain Hill Elementary School, and Freemansburg Elementary School. And Donegan's innovative programs continue to grow.

"What I wanted more than anything was for the kids to have open minds," Vazquez says. "Through experiencing things outside of their comfort zones, they can see what's out there in the world and then pick and choose for themselves."

Vazquez has also implemented incentive-based leadership initiatives throughout every grade level, as well as Donegan's innovative"Leader In Me" program based on Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

This year, through an innovative plan developed by Michael Alogna, the principal of Freemansburg Elementary, Willey will take part in leading a yearlong "Teacher Wellness Initiative" for the teachers at Freemansburg, a struggling school in the district which has been noted for high poverty rates and ties to historic gangs such as the Bloods.

Many have advocated that teachers need meditation and tools to deal with stressors and high pressure just as much as students. "Teachers are often so much more than teachers," Willey says emphatically, "They are mom, dad, therapist, Santa Claus, did-you-brush-your-teeth, are you eating?"

Related: 6 Things That Happened When I Meditated Every Day For A Month

The pioneering Freemansburg teacher initiative will feature a twice-weekly yoga and mindfulness training for teachers in the mornings before classes, shifting to a program passing on these lessons to the students in the second half of the year.

Vazquez laughs when she remembers her initial skepticism about yoga's place in her community, and says she completely changed her mind after seeing the practice in action in the school.

"At the time you didn't yet regularly hear terms like 'yoga' and 'mindfulness,' and culturally, yoga just wasn't on our radar," she says, "It seemed like a strange concept." She couldn't be more of a believer now: "It really and truly affects the kids, and makes a huge difference— and now I do it, too."

"While we can't go fix all of these kids' individual situations, what we can do is help them cope," Willey adds. "There's no more valuable skill you can teach a child than self-regulation—to not react immediately when they get triggered or provoked. And that's just so valuable. For all of us. Can you imagine if the next generation coming up all had that skill? Can you imagine?"

In addition to Willey's work in schools, she appears in PBS on-air segment "Get Up And Move." She is a musician who creates meditative and musical recordings for kids. Willey's new children's book, Breathe Like A Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids, will be available December 5th, and is currently available for pre-order.

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