Radical Inclusion and Fun Are the Keys to Seeing Kids Shine!
Non-judgment, self-regulation, and appreciation: these are essential in any yoga class. When teaching neurodiverse families (as I’ve done for 20 years), these qualities will make or break your class.
Jess is a yoga teacher who was hired to teach family yoga to a group with autistic kids. She was feeling nervous about it, and reached out for best practices and suggestions. I had a lot of recommendations for to her. Initially I recorded a PODCAST with my ideas and encouragement, which you can listen to HERE. This article goes into more detail.
These suggestions can also apply to doing yoga with your own family at home, or to any family yoga class. Modeling inclusivity benefits everyone, now matter how “neurotypical” they are. What neurodivergent kids and their parents crave most is unconditional positive regard.
Drop Your Preconceptions and Be Willing to Pivot
First of all, I want to invite you to drop your preconceptions. This isn’t going to be like a stereotypical yoga class. Make sure that you are very self-regulated before the class. Once you’re there, read the room and decide whether the kids need to get their energy out or need to start slowly and calmly. Be prepared with an outline, but willing to pivot.
Best Practices with Neurodiverse Groups
- “YES” space: Create a haven from the judgment of the world. What autistic kids and their parents crave the most is unconditional positive regard. Put away anything potentially dangerous in advance, and think of ways to avoid having to say “no.” Drop your expectations of a yoga class, and be radically inclusive.
- Let it go: If you see distracting or unexpected behavior, don’t put your energy into trying to stop it. Focus on the expected behavior you see and give that your positive attention. Your sense of humor will come in handy. Of course safety is your responsibility, but you can usually let the parents handle stuff like hitting.
- Accept: When kids are fully accepted and seen, then their parents can relax. If parents feel accepted, they will be more self-regulated. If parents are self-regulated, that will help them co-regulate with their kids.
- Appreciate: Beyond acceptance is appreciation. When kids are appreciated and seen, their parents may experience relief and gratitude. Be kind, calm, and encouraging.
- Priming: Tell or show everyone what you will do together ahead of time. Keep surprises to a minimum. It is okay to repeat the same routine.
- Visual supports: Here are some ideas: a checklist, yoga poster, or yoga cards (pick out a few from the deck ahead of time).
- Special interests: Tie class themes into kids’ interests so they “buy in.” If the kids are into it, their parents will be happy. You might want to send out a short survey in advance to get to know the special interests of your attendees.
- Sensory sensitivities: You can also ask in advance about sensory challenges, or try to anticipate whether the lighting, textures, or acoustics in the environment might cause autistic kids to suffer.
- Community: Give parents a way to connect with each other. Not as a sympathy fest, but to celebrate wins together. Offer some sort of structured community engagement, such as going around the circle, saying your name and sharing a win from your week. It could be as simple as sharing your favorite color. Give explicit permission to pass.
How I Structure Inclusive Family Yoga Classes
We sit in a circle — kids with parents on one mat or each on their own next to each other. I encourage everyone to participate at their level of ability, and do something centering, like a name song, a chant or an ice breaker. We begin and end class the same way every time. This creates an emotionally safe container.
Warm Up Everyone’s Brains as Well as Bodies
Brain Gym movements can help all our brains get online. Incorporate simple self-regulation practices. There’s a yoga practice called Thoppukaranam (Western science coined it “Super Brain Yoga”). Research has shown improved attention and reduced anxiety after practicing these yogic squats.
Let the Kids Shine!
Give each child an opportunity to choose a pose or card and teach it. Give them the spotlight, if they want it. Who can sit still even for a second? Pick them and let them choose what to teach. Then help them demonstrate it.
Really look for the opportunities — even for half a second. Of course every kid will eventually be given a turn, but this will motivate those who have a harder time and give them lots of chances to practice. Give them a chance to pass as well.
Keep It Fun and Be Sweet
Do not worry about correcting postures or anything. Keep your sequencing simple and familiar. Show rather than telling. Offer encouraging comments only!
Remember that many autistic kids get corrected all day long. They will be more likely to see their practice as a haven if you shower them with appreciation for whatever effort you observe. Each of us is doing our best in the moment. Partner poses with parent/child duos may be fun. Yoga Freeze Dance is a great way to discharge energy or recover from an unsuccessful moment.
Have a Blast!
Laugh together. See the prank my son played on me in the short video below.
Keep Relaxation Time Short
Relaxation may look like rolling around on the floor or wrapping up in the mat like a burrito. This is great feedback for anyone’s nervous system. Parents and kids can take turns giving each other shoulder rubs during savasana (deep relaxation). You can also try a guided visualization or play music.
End With a Simple Song or Chant
Singing or chanting tones the vagus nerve and sparks joy! Don’t worry about who is or isn’t joining you, just model the song or chant from your heart.
You Will Learn So Much From Teaching Inclusive Family Yoga
Maybe you will see that the kids or their parents are calmer after class. Maybe you will see them shine. You may never know the benefit your class has on the families who attend. That’s okay, since inclusive family yoga isn’t something you will do for validation. It will be an extension of your yoga practice, and you will learn so much.
An older version of this article was published in Better Humans under the title, 'How To Teach Atypical Family Yoga'.
Are you a parent of a neurodivergent kid?
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Kate Lynch (she/her): Parent of an amazing atypical kid, inclusive yoga teacher, mindful parent mentor and author. Kate began teaching yoga and cultivating community in 2002. She's the creator of the podcast and upcoming book, Mindfully Parenting Atypical Kids.
Kate writes for Mutha Magazine, Autism Advocate Parenting Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, Accessible Yoga Blog, Yoga for Times of Change, The Good Men Project, and The Mighty. She has been recognized as a top writer in Mindfulness and Parenting on Medium, where her work has been published in Better Humans, Family Matters and Age of Empathy among others, and has over 11,000 followers! The Inclusive Yoga & Mindful Parenting Blog is where Kate writes vulnerably at the intersection of her practice and life, sharing actionable tools that help you stay present.
Kate's new Substack newsletter, Mindful Parenting in an Ableist World is a sandbox of her raw, unpolished thoughts about navigating parenting her neurodivergent kid in 2022.
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