With 3.3% of students in England having EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plans) or statements of SEN and 12.1% in England receiving specialist SEN support without an EHCP, and with needs ranging from ASD to Social, Emotional and Mental Health, hearing impairments and Physical Disabilities schools are often looking for new and engaging ways to support their SEND students outside of the classroom. Many schools report that a number SEND children will not have these statutory plans and whilst in mainstream schools some interventions will be in place, it is often the case that teaching across the curriculum is not adapted to their needs. There can also be significant delays in gaining ECHPs agreed by Local Authorities, leaving pupils without support and struggling to access learning. With this in mind then, the benefits of teaching yoga in a SEND setting can be wide-ranging and often profound, providing teachers, parents and pupils with the tools needed to ensure the child’s health and emotional wellbeing while at school and beyond.
Yoga is a non-competitive practice originating in India that goes far beyond the images of impressive handstand and body contortions you may have seen on social media to encompass breathing techniques to help calm the nervous system (crucial in our often-stressed SEND children) as well as philosophical questions such as ‘what does it mean to be kind?’ It works through the autonomous nervous system to promote relaxation and reduce stress, something that benefits SEND pupils in particular, whose needs are consistently not provided for and who, increasingly, may not have statutory plans such as EHCPs. Yoga has been proven in numerous studies to reduce levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and rises whenever we feel stress or anxiety – for young people, especially those with existing conditions such as ADHD and ASD, this can be twice as distressing and can exacerbate the challenges that conditions such as this can bring. Yoga has been proven to reduce levels of cortisol, as well as adrenaline, another hormone provided by the ‘fight or flight’ response induced in stressful situations, and subsequently increase seratonin levels, the hormone known to regulate moods and often referred to as the ‘happy hormone.’
It is also a practice that is entirely inclusive of all children, irrespective of their abilities and can be adapted by specially-trained teachers to cater to the needs of this often vulnerable group of children. Lisa Greenough, a Northants-based yoga teacher specialising in yoga for SEND children says that, ‘a child in a SEND setting will find yoga supports their physical, emotional, social and mental well-being as well as give them a chance to feel included in a world that is sometimes alien to them. I have witnessed pure moments of joy when a child with SEND is welcomed, listened to, challenged and supported through yoga.’ Her students have said that ‘yoga helps to switch my brain off and gets rid of busy thoughts’ (a child with William’s Syndrome), and one student with ASD said that ‘it helps me find that place between busyness and calm and takes the weight off my shoulders.’
And there are specific benefits to children with a wide range of SEND needs. For example, in neuro-divergence diagnosis, benefits include development of heart and lung strength, improvement and maintenance of a healthy digestive system; in Down’s Syndrome it can improve attention and listening skills, help with hyper-mobility and explore the issues around social boundaries.
Yoga in SEND settings also supports the parents. Greenough says that in her experience, “parental bonds are formed and strengthened and new positive sleep patterns may occur for the child, which has subsequent benefits to the parents; the child and parent can use the techniques they learn in classes to relax together at home, and in some cases, a parent/carer may see an improvement in the formation of friendships between the child and their peers for the first time.”
And the research around the benefits of yoga in SEND students is increasing. In 2012, researchers in India assessed the ‘efficacy of a one-year, peer-mediated interventional program consisting of yoga, meditation and play therapy’ for a group of 69 students aged 6-11 years-old ‘previously identified as having ADHD.’ (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23316384/ ) Parents and teachers completed Vanderbilt (ADHD diagnostic ratio scale) questionaries in order to assess both improvements in symptoms and academic performance and such scores were seen to improve by teachers after 6 weeks, being sustained through 12 months in 85% of the students studied and in 92% by parents This was then supported in 2015, researchers in Spain found that, ‘Yoga exercise suggests an improvement in the core symptoms of ADHD.’ (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25988743/#affiliation-1 )
In mental health issues, a 2016 meta-analysis research paper found that in a group of 501 participants, living with anxiety, those with an ‘elevated level of anxiety benefitted (from yoga) the most.’ (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5116432/ ) Furthermore, yoga has been shown to increase attention span and motivation (J. Porter, La Salle University, (https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=graduateannual ).
Netia Mayman, a specialist SEND yoga teacher in Oxford, has found that yoga is highly valuable to her pupils and that as a result of her work with one group, “one girl crawled for the first time.’ In her classes, she says, “we do a lot of postures that help to gradually strip out some of the infantile responses in the bodies, such as rolling.” She also identifies the benefits of the combination of the physical movement with the rhythms of the music she uses, stating that ‘these working together means that pupils start to use their lungs properly immediately.’
Mayman goes on to say that the most important aspect of teaching yoga to this particular group of children is to ensure that visual cues and verbal explanations go further than what might seem obvious to neuro-typical people. For example, Mayman suggests that in a SEND setting the cues, “Remain on your back, bend your right knee to your chest. Move your right foot to push gently on the wall’ and then repeat each instruction with the left foot,” would be necessary, in comparison to “mainstream instructions to a class already lying on their backs, which would have been, ‘place the soles of the feet on the wall’.”
She also identifies the importance of Teaching Assistants and states that, “the thing I’ve valued most is the opportunity to work with staff. The TAs, who are with them continuously, know how things are with each on daily arrival, and are now highly participative in the yoga lessons.” These relationships help to increase the benefits of the practice of yoga in SEND schools as all can be involved and watch the progress of their pupils.
Increasingly, evidence and case studies are building the case for the mandatory provision of yoga to SEND students, and perhaps this is something we can hope for as teachers and educational advisers. One day, perhaps all of our children will be given the gift of yoga in schools.
Helen Forester is the Manager of Yoga in Schools, a for-profit charity providing specialist yoga teachers to schools across the UK. To register for yoga classes in your school, please go to www.yoga-in-schools.co.uk or email Helen directly firstname.lastname@example.org
 a rise from 3.1% in 2019
 up from 11.9% in 2019
 82,847 students in 2019/20
 39,189 in 2019/20
 6,027 in 2019/20
 13,371 in 2019/20