Yoga for School Readiness: Building Socio-Emotional Skills in Preschool

It’s generally well-known—bemoaned by some, praised by others—that early childhood educators are introducing increasingly academic atmospheres and expectations in preschool classrooms.  When toddlers and preschool youngsters used to spend their days in those settings in free play, now—earlier and earlier—they are learning their numbers, colors and letters.

The Importance of Building Socio-Emotional Skills

That is all knowledge that children must master before entering kindergarten classrooms, of course. Recent research has compellingly demonstrated, however, that we serve children at this age more by focusing on their socio-emotional, rather than academic, skills.

For instance, a study from the National Institutes of Health found that preschoolers’ future academic success is closely tied with “high-quality relationships with peers and teachers.” A study from the University of Washington found that children’s abilities to “manage their emotions and behaviors and to make meaningful friendships is an important prerequisite for school readiness and academic success.”

Yoga, offered in a developmentally appropriate manner, can contribute much toward those important social and emotional skills. My experiences teaching yoga to children ages two to five years old at a low-income preschool as part of my graduate school internship, attest to that. True, I sometimes had to contend with resistance and behavioral issues. By and large, however, yoga was a channel through which I could help the children develop greater abilities to self-regulate, treat each other kindly, and develop gratitude.

Tips for Teaching Yoga to Children 

One way that I’ve attempted to keep the children engaged, and prevent them from acting in such undesired ways as running off to other sections of the room, has been to keep the practice more based in moving flows than postures. Rather than sitting in Chair Posture for a long period, I’ve guided the children in a few repetitions, for example, holding the posture for a few seconds then releasing into a Forward Fold. Such moving flows, as well as varying sequences, have offered chances to test—and over time strengthen—the children’s self-regulation skills.

In Baddha Konasana (“Butterfly” in this context), I’ve instructed the children that we would “flap our wings three times, just three times, and then stop!” After three “flaps” I’ve playfully shouted “Stop!” Similarly, in Lion Posture (as we “roar like lions”), I’ve guided them to “Stop!” at an unspecified point. In order to do so, the children must be listening carefully for my cue in addition to being ready to end the roar.

They have learned that we will “keep trying until we all stop along with our friends,” as I’ve made clear (while maintaining reasonable expectations of their abilities to stop fully all together, of course). They know that we won’t get to other fun things that we do in our “special yoga times” until they can listen for, and then follow, my instructions. I’ve seen their abilities to do so increase over the year.

Promoting Social and Emotional Learning with Yoga

Other exercises I’ve led the children in promote pro-social awareness and behavior, of awareness of themselves as members of a group. For instance, in the wintertime we would make snowballs while in Seated Forward Folds, then offer them to, rather than throw them at, their classmates (“friends”).

In the springtime, we pick flowers and blow their petals to each other. That has helped to promote generosity and cooperation, when the school otherwise has an often contentious and competitive atmosphere. It is truly precious to see the children sharing imagined gifts with each other, rather than fighting over plastic toys.

Another beautiful thing to watch has been the children’s embracing of the Namaste class-closing yogic tradition. Every time I guide them to bring their hands to Anjali mudra, they joyfully exclaim “Namaste!” (as closely as they are able to pronounce it). The older children even follow that with, “The light within me meets the light within you!”

After observing how the term seemed to be meaningful to the children, I tried to see what further socio-emotional learning I could promote with it. I started to ask them, “Do you know what it means to show light to each other? How do you think you can do that for each other today?” Meeting confusion, I explained how they can do that by doing nice things for each other.

They’ve more recently been able to affirm that they can show light to each other through things like “sharing” and “helping a friend who’s sad.” I let them know that’s important learning that sets the stage for increased social and personal success throughout their lives.

Gratitude is another concept and skill that I’ve been able to promote in the children through yoga. We thank the sun with Sun Salutations (necessarily simplified for them, of course) and trees with Tree Posture, for example. The end of class is an opportunity for me to thank them, and their teachers to guide them to thank me (which helps build to when they will be able to do that without prompting). Being thankful for gifts from nature and from each other is a skill that anyone, at any age, can work at through yoga—as are kindness and self-control.

We can guide our children to greater future success through yoga, but also remember that it has similar lessons to teach anyone. That said, the earlier, the better, I believe. Overall, yoga can help to build an important foundation for happiness, success, and wellness—a skill we can maintain throughout our lives.   

Kathryn Boland is a third-year Master’s degree student in Dance/Movement Therapy at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA), and an E-RYT 500. She is originally from Rhode Island and attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in dance (where she first encountered yoga). She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans, all demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

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