Anne Buckley-Reen, Occupational Therapist and long-time problem solver for the Board of Education’s most difficult cases of developmentally-delayed students, had an insight that launched an international program: What would happen for Special Needs kids if we used yoga to get them ready for their day of learning, did it every day, first thing in the morning, with all the adults on board?
Would it make any difference in their ability to adapt to the stresses of school, reduce disruptive behaviors and function harmoniously? The answer turned out to be "Yes," backed by copious data and real, heart-opening outcomes. Connecting these students to themselves - first - made all the difference in the world in their ability to then cope with the world.
When I sat down to discuss Get Ready To Learn (GRTL) with Anne, she had the posture, zest and conviction of someone talking about a beloved for the first time, even though she has presented this program in thousands of venues.
District 75 is the citywide special education “district” which services 25,000 kids with significant challenges, ranging from autism to multiple-handicaps. As an OT and interventionist, Anne spent hundreds of hours in classrooms, and she saw definitively what one hour would show a casual observer: many of these kids arrive in schools in (very) “sub-optimal states”—screaming, running, crying, head-banging, withdrawn, carsick, cursing, immobile. Staff, too, arrived stuck in negative emotional states, their “brains not open.”
While many focused on the behaviors themselves as the problem, Anne believed that “the behaviors were clues and, along with learning delays, were reflections of missed connections—80% of the pathways that feed the brain are below the neck!” She attributed the lack of progress to kids stuck in reactive neurochemical modes, missing wiring, and being “unable to jump the fence” to a serotonin rich, calmed state. She thought yoga, which worked “with those lower centers and dumped stress chemistry” could help.
A longtime yoga practitioner and student of Sonia Sumar in the Integral tradition, Anne realized “if the kids could experience one tenth of this peace, this shift in brain and body, it would be the best therapy there ever was!” So she spent a year doing only yoga with 12 of her most challenged clients—among them students who seizured, lacked any muscle coordination and tone, were autistic or nonverbal—first thing in the morning before their school day, according to their therapy mandates.
One child, an obese autistic boy, could not communicate (but for screams and flaps), initiate, or focus for more than 20 seconds. But by the third week, he would roll out his yoga mat the night before Anne’s session in anticipation, sing back and forth with her, and no longer melt-down when he transitioned from home to the bus. Yoga mornings were his good behavior days at school.
Every one of her students progressed.
Barbara Josephs, now Deputy Supervisor of D75, was the “original yoga angel,” who brought Anne to a principals’ meeting to present on the positive outcomes of altering the students’ physiology by nurturing and filling them up first thing in their school day. And so a preparatory academic program was launched, originally targeted only for classrooms where teachers “wanted it, had open hearts and minds and would implement it in the right way, daily.” Imposing the program would alter the outcomes. Worst kids? Fine. Reluctant staff? Not going to work. “The kids take their cues from the adults in the room,” says Anne.
“We didn’t call it yoga at first,” Anne admitted, but “a preparatory therapeutic program.” Get Ready to Learn distinguishes itself by its researched curriculum integrated into the daily routine, and focuses on reestablishing missing elements of the developmental sequences, using yoga “as a beautiful way to go back to birth.” Facilitators also provide essential ongoing support and training for everyone who implements the program.
The five-part morning routine “makes deposits in the bank account of coping chemicals,” consists of centering, postures (“done twice—first, get the idea, then, do it”), breathing (“the fastest way to jump the fence”) deep relaxation (“when changes happen in the brain”) and circle of song (“group harmony and connection.”). Each element is choreographed to address a particular difficulty this particular population faces.
Setting up the room gives the students who never initiate—whom Anne calls “the unplugged toasters”—concrete tasks to do. For those with spatial issues, “centering on the yoga mat lets us know where we belong.” Those on the autistic spectrum are often “in survival mode…on their toes with their backs completely locked up.” Postures designed for them mobilize the sacrum, “which is about safety, connecting me to me and to the earth.” Breathing brings the whole group out of “flight, fright, fight.” The closing, harmonious song provides an outlet for students who have no ability to communicate otherwise “to be in synch.”
The consistent outcomes of GRTL (implemented correctly!) are the proof of its validity and efficacy. Very few education programs have this kind of traction and attractiveness. GRTL has survived (“and grown like mold! I wanted it to grow like a tree with strong roots!”) because it works: the student changes are anecdotal and measurable. Anne emphasized: “We don’t have to sell it—and we shouldn’t! When one child changes, everyone wants their classroom to be picked next.”
After twenty weeks, data carefully collected from parents and classrooms confirmed that most kids were focusing for increasingly long periods, managing transitions more smoothly, and even sleeping and eating better. Reportedly, one class refused to leave for their day trip because “They had not done their yoga!” The teachers are given rubrics for careful tracking: “When a behavior disappears, it is like when a toothache goes away. When did that happen?”
GRTL is maintaining its high standard of integrity and service by doing just this with the help of intensive research team under Professor Kristi Koenig at NYU. Next, her team will study the effect of GRTL on executive function, or the ability for higher order thinking. Without the brain in a calm state, it has been nearly impossible for special needs kids “to get the idea of what I want to do, initiate it, and sequence it to completion.” Now they, too, have a shot.
What does the program leave us with—parents, teachers, practitioners, or anyone concerned about our schools? GRTL recommendation is to “first, take care of you. Fill up, and nurture, nurture, nurture.” Too often the way we respond to stress in kids and in ourselves “is to demand more.” But what might be possible if we go back to the basics and feed the brain? GRTL has proved that, in even the most stubborn, nearly throw-away cases, every child (and every adult) can learn and grow through yoga.