Yoga as a complementary therapy for children with SEND

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Lisa Harwood provides a guide to how yoga practices compliment many of the therapies accessed by SEND children and young people.

Yoga is the union of body and mind and is viewed as a total body and mind activity for the physical and emotional wellbeing of children, teenagers and adults with or without SEN. It provides an enjoyable and fun activity for children with SEND and their family to participate in together whilst complementing their treatment plans from physiotherapy, speech and language and psychological services.

Benefits of yoga for SEN children and teens

The benefits of yoga for children with SEND has been well researched demonstrating that yoga ‘increased balance and coordination, increased self-esteem and social communication skills’ (Kenny, 2002), improves ‘balance, flexibility and coordination’ (White, 2017) and for young children with special needs, yoga improves concentration, focus and creativity’ Mochan (2017).

Mental Health Wellbeing

Relaxing after exercising.

Yoga is the state of being present and mindful in our practice. It allows us to focus on what we are doing now and occupy our minds so we are not worrying about what we should be doing. The yoga concepts of being present (mindfulness) and relaxation, including guided meditations are used in yoga for SEN children and teenagers. These techniques are often used by CAMHS teams (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service). Resources are available from CAMHS teams including YouTube videos on yoga practice and accessible chair yoga. Collaborative working between CAMHS and Learning disability teams has resulted in the development of activity packs which include yoga practice, breathing exercises and mindful activities for children and parents to access (Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust). These enhance the management plans and support that SEN children and their families receive. On a personal level I have delivered guided meditations recordings (10-15mins each) to a teenager accessing local CAMHS services. The CAMHS team has been supportive of the use of these tools and the teenager has commented that ‘I really enjoy them, they help me relax, but I wish they were longer’.

Physical Wellbeing

Pranayama or breath work is an excellent tool to help with breathing regulation and self-enquiry or noticing what is happening in the body. Having accessible tools such as placing the hand on the abdomen, can help the child or teenager feel more in control and empowered to manage their anxiety when they first notice it is increasing. For those children with breathing restrictions due to differences in physical shape of the ribcage or spine a focus on breath work (being made fun with activities such as blowing bubbles, a feather or leaf on the palm of the hand) can help increase the amount of lung capacity used in breathing. Use of breathing techniques including bumble bee breathe, snake breathe or lion breath create movement and vibration within the mouth and vocal cords. These activities can complement the work of speech and language therapy services that the child may already be accessing.

Children in yoga class.

The most familiar part of yoga, the physical practice or Asana is often thought of as preventative physiotherapy. According to physiotherapist and yoga teacher Katherine Geddes (kjgeddes.co.uk) ‘Physiotherapy and yoga can work together. I find yoga can complement traditional physiotherapy treatments’. According to Shirley Telles (2017) ‘yoga and physiotherapy both empower an individual to regain health and well-being through an all system approach to improve all aspects of life’. You may even find that some of the exercises that physiotherapy providers give you to work on at home are very similar to those used in yoga. A physiotherapy colleague commented that it wasn’t until they took up a personal yoga practice that they realised how many of the exercises they used were yoga poses.

Let’s consider the Tree pose. One of the most popular yoga poses in my classes. The pose works on balance, strengthening ankles, engaging the leg muscles and core to achieve stability to balance. You can also ask the person to focus and concentrate on an object that doesn’t move, to help with the balance. We may not hold the balance for long but everyone has fun trying. One of my students reported that her physiotherapist commented on how much her balance and strength had improved and advised her to continue the yoga, as it was beneficial for her. The student loves yoga and was very pleased with this positive feedback.

Yoga can be accessed within the community or school settings. If your school currently doesn’t offer yoga, but is an activity you would like to consider, Teen Yoga may be able to help you. It can be difficult to identify local yoga teachers with a specific interest in teaching yoga to SEND children and teenagers. Teen Yoga is an advocate of Yoga in Schools and has a host of specially trained yoga teachers that can deliver yoga to SEN students.

Conclusion

Yoga is a whole body and mind practice. It can be a fun activity that can support the traditional therapies’ that children with SEND may be already accessing. By involving family members in a relaxed approach means children don’t perceive these exercises as something they have to do as part of their therapy. Yoga can have a far reaching beneficial effect with positive outcomes for the child and family.

Lisa Harwood
Author: Lisa Harwood

Lisa Harwood
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Lisa Harwood is a Senior Staff Nurse, University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, RYT 200 (YA) and Teen Yoga teacher. She is co-author of the ‘Yoga for Me’ approach to teaching yoga to teens and adults with Learning disabilities.
W: echoyoga.co.uk
I: @lisa_echoyoga

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