PITTSBORO — A new support activity at George Moses Horton Middle School led by Chatham’s Communities In Schools is a hit among participating students: Friday yoga classes.
“Beyond providing physical movement and activity, yoga can teach mindfulness and deep breathing,” says CIS’s Shirille Lee, the student support specialist. “The classes give students a chance to relax, refocus and breathe away stress. These are important skills for anybody, particularly for students who sometimes feel anxious or are dealing with emotional stressors.”
The yoga classes are part of Horton’s daily intervention time, 30-minute blocks of time dedicated to additional student support. For most of the week, this class time is set aside for academic support and is topic-based, according to Principal Bradyn Robinson.
“On Fridays, we have introduced and implemented social and emotional supports teaching self-care skills towards self-advocacy, confidence and interrelationship building — skills that help them to be successful as middle school students in trying times,” Robinson says. “Yoga allows them to focus on themselves without a lesson plan in front of them. Kids enjoy it — it’s very different from anything else they do throughout the day.”
The co-ed classes offer several physical and mental benefits, as yoga is widely lauded for expanding body strength, flexibility and mindfulness. It is practiced as a means to raise awareness of the mind-body connection through one’s breath.
“Yoga is a way for children to not only develop more awareness between their breath and their body and their mind, but also to have a stronger body and calmer mind, to regulate their attention and thoughts,” says yoga instructor Marcia Cordova-Roth.
With a background in public health, designing systems of care for women, children and families, Cordova-Roth worked with the N.C. Div. of Public Health and is currently a member of the adjunct faculty with the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
“Yoga can teach ways to calm ourselves, slow ourselves down and be aware of tightness in our shoulders or chest,” says yoga instructor Karen Frisch. “It can help us breathe, reducing anxiety and tension.”
A certified yoga teacher, Frisch has worked with senior citizens, patients with dementia and young adults and youth with cognitive challenges. Frisch was instrumental in bringing yoga classes to CIS. Both Cordova-Roth and Frisch are involved in each class at Horton Middle School.
Both instructors say that they can observe differences between when students enter the room and when they leave.
“They’ve changed, they’re calmer, rested and relaxed,” says Cordova-Roth. Each session ends with a two-minute rest, or pose, called “savasana.”
“They absorb everything they did, integrate it into the body and then go on about their day,” says Frisch.
The instructors talk to kids about things they can do when they are not in yoga class — how to breathe and move in certain ways to release tension and stress, according to Cordova-Roth.
“Yoga is beneficial even in sports,” says Lee. “It provides great stretching for athletes.”
While stress and anxiety can naturally occur at times among middle school students, the need for increased academic, social and emotional support programs was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which required students to engage in virtual learning from home, according to Robinson.
“Due to the year we had, a year at home, some of the typical, normal behaviors, maturity and social skills that you would expect of a certain level are lacking,” says Robinson. “We missed a year, and we’re trying to get them caught up on things they didn’t have an opportunity to learn at home.”
Robinson has worked at Horton Middle School for five years thus far – the first three as assistant principal; the past two as principal.
A lot of students returned to school with some anxiety over concerns about the pandemic and exposure to the virus, according to Lee.
“Remote learning seems easy, but it’s really not,” she said. “A lot of kids did not do well with it. Isolation is just not good for anybody; our kids need to have the ability to mingle and be with peers and build relationships.”
CISCC is a highly valued partner in education. With 10 employees, three team members are embedded in specific schools in Siler City.
“I am the wanderer, not dedicated to one school,” says Lee, who spends a day per week at three different schools: Horton Middle, Siler City Elementary and Pittsboro Elementary.
She’s been with CIS for 23 years.
“Shirille (Lee) is an awesome asset for this school,” says Robinson. “Anything we need as far as bringing in outside resources, she brings in. Communities In Schools is the first place we turn to, our first point of contact, when we need something.”
Cordova-Roth offers high praise to Chatham schools, including Horton Middle, and CISCC for embracing volunteers.
“I just give them a tremendous amount of credit for bringing in things like yoga that students may not otherwise be exposed to — for being open to helping the kids and making time during the day,” she said.
CIS exists to support students and staff. “We are flexible in what we offer, depending on what an administration feels they need,” says Lee.
Currently, the organization is utilizing reading groups and specific books and other social and emotional learning programs to teach empathy, compassion, inclusivity and diversity. Other CIS youth development programs include mentoring, family advocacy, community service/restitution and teen court.
Another couple of yoga instructors have been brought on board and will be working with students at Pittsboro Elementary starting soon. Discussions about longer-term goals include following a group of participating students all the way through 8th grade to record data of benefits towards incorporating more mindfulness activities into the curriculum.
“We want to monitor and obtain results to see how developing more empathy and compassion for others can help with academics and behavior,” Lee says.
What is evident is that the Horton Middle School yoga classes are popular with the kids participating.
“They come in very talkative and giggly, but before long, they are more attentive,” she said, “calling out the names of the poses, practicing their breathing — and reaping the benefits.”