The power of yoga in the classroom

Evidence-based curriculum meets national research standards

Students relax with yoga during a class offered by Penn State Fitness. Credit: Penn State FitnessAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Bringing yoga into the classroom reduces adolescents’ emotional distress and anxiety and positively influences school engagement, unexcused absences and other disciplinary actions, according to a Penn State researcher.

Transformative Life Skills (TLS) is an evidence-based classroom program that teaches middle and high school students stress-management skills through the practice of yoga and mindful breathing. Developed five years ago by Jennifer Frank, assistant professor of special education in Penn State’s College of Education, TLS is a prevention and intervention program that incorporates yoga postures, breathing techniques and meditation as a means to cope with stress.

“Adolescence is a time when many students are at risk for various psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, which can lead to drug use and various mental health problems, ” Frank said. “Those risks are heightened for minorities and children from low-income families. We know that yoga reduces stress, but we wanted to see if TLS also was effective in enhancing student learning. Is there a link between the two?”

Frank and fellow researcher Bidyut Bose of the Niroga Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes health and well-being through mindful yoga, tested the TLS curriculum on a diverse group of students attending a middle school with a high poverty rate located in inner-city Oakland, California.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology, shows that students experienced a decrease in reported stress and an improvement in their academic skills. The researchers found significant improvement in students’ school engagement as well as a reduction in unexcused absences and detentions. Students’ attitudes toward resorting to violence also decreased, and they developed better coping skills.

“All of these things are things we don’t really teach in schools,” Frank said. “But students need to have these skills in order to be successful in their academics.”

Recently recognized as having met or exceeded the research standards set forth by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the main governing body that evaluates social and emotional learning programs, TLS demonstrates the important link between social and emotional learning, and academic learning. It is currently one of a handful of yoga/mindfulness programs nationwide to achieve this rating, Frank said.

“They’re not just interested in if kids become happier or better behaved,” Frank said of the CASEL standards. “They want to know if the skills are linked to learning. And now we can say for sure that they are. We’re evidence-based now.”

TLS allows for schools to teach social and emotional skills in a way that students enjoy, Frank said, noting their research showed that student participants demonstrated a positive view of TLS.

“The curriculum is very comprehensive. It is manualized and we have demo videos to support it,” Frank said, explaining the curriculum comes in the form of a guidebook to assist educators with the different postures and breathing techniques. “We also have extension activities where kids take the content they learned and apply it to their schoolwork, interaction with peers, home and family, and the community.”

The TLS curriculum consists of four units: the stress response, physical and emotional awareness, self-regulation and healthy relationships. It also includes a structured professional development strategy so districts can continue to train educators and sustain the program.

More than 35 schools in the greater San Francisco Bay area have already integrated TLS into their programming. Other organizations such as juvenile detention centers also are using the program. Recently, the United Nations learned of the effects of TLS and asked Frank and her colleagues to travel to Palestine to train educators and refugee service providers in TLS.

The researchers are now implementing a coaching program and are planning to pilot a mentoring program that will pair at-risk students with an adult mentor.

Last Updated July 29, 2017