Epigenetics and Child Development: How Children’s Experiences Affect Their Genes
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University
New scientific research shows that environmental influences can actually affect whether and how genes are expressed. In fact, scientists have discovered that early experiences can determine how genes are turned on and off and even whether some are expressed at all. Thus, the old ideas that genes are “set in stone” or that they alone determine development have been disproven. Nature vs. Nurture is no longer a debate—it’s nearly always both!
More Information on Epigenetics
Deep Dive: Gene-Environment Interaction
Learn more about the physical and chemical processes that take place as part of the creation of the epigenome.
Working Paper 10: Early Experiences Can Alter Gene Expression and Affect Long-Term Development
This in-depth working paper explains how genes and the environment interact, and gives recommendations for ways that caregivers and policymakers can effectively respond to the science.
During development, the DNA that makes up our genes accumulates chemical marks that determine how much or little of the genes is expressed. This collection of chemical marks is known as the “epigenome.” The different experiences children have rearrange those chemical marks. This explains why genetically identical twins can exhibit different behaviors, skills, health, and achievement.
Correcting Popular Misrepresentations of Science
Until recently, the influences of genes were thought to be set, and the effects of children’s experiences and environments on brain architecture and long-term physical and mental health outcomes remained a mystery. That lack of understanding led to several misleading conclusions about the degree to which negative and positive environmental factors and experiences can affect the developing fetus and young child. The following misconceptions are particularly important to set straight.
Contrary to popular belief, the genes inherited from one’s parents do not set a child’s future development in stone.
Variations in DNA sequences between individuals certainly influence the way in which genes are expressed and how the proteins encoded by those genes will function. But that is only part of the story—the environment in which one develops, before and soon after birth, provides powerful experiences that chemically modify certain genes which, in turn, define how much and when they are expressed. Thus, while genetic factors exert potent influences, environmental factors have the ability to alter the genes that were inherited.
Although frequently misunderstood, adverse fetal and early childhood experiences can—and do—lead to physical and chemical changes in the brain that can last a lifetime.
Injurious experiences, such as malnutrition, exposure to chemical toxins or drugs, and toxic stress before birth or in early childhood are not “forgotten,” but rather are built into the architecture of the developing brain through the epigenome. The “biological memories” associated with these epigenetic changes can affect multiple organ systems and increase the risk not only for poor physical and mental health outcomes but also for impairments in future learning capacity and behavior.
Despite some marketing claims to the contrary, the ability of so-called enrichment programs to enhance otherwise healthy brain development is not known.
While parents and policymakers might hope that playing Mozart recordings to newborns will produce epigenetic changes that enhance cognitive development, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that such exposure will shape the epigenome or enhance brain function. What research has shown is that specific epigenetic modifications do occur in brain cells as cognitive skills like learning and memory develop, and that repeated activation of brain circuits dedicated to learning and memory through interaction with the environment, such as reciprocal “serve and return” interaction with adults, facilitates these positive epigenetic modifications. We also know that sound maternal and fetal nutrition, combined with positive social-emotional support of children through their family and community environments, will reduce the likelihood of negative epigenetic modifications that increase the risk of later physical and mental health impairments.
The epigenome can be affected by positive experiences, such as supportive relationships and opportunities for learning, or negative influences, such as environmental toxins or stressful life circumstances, which leave a unique epigenetic “signature” on the genes. These signatures can be temporary or permanent and both types affect how easily the genes are switched on or off. Recent research demonstrates that there may be ways to reverse certain negative changes and restore healthy functioning, but that takes a lot more effort, may not be successful at changing all aspects of the signatures, and is costly. Thus, the very best strategy is to support responsive relationships and reduce stress to build strong brains from the beginning, helping children grow up to be healthy, productive members of society.
Promoting Empathy in Middle School
October 10, 2017
At my school, ACTION stands for Assisting Communities Together; Inspiring Our Neighbors. ACTION is a student-led initiative to fight hate and intolerance through community partnerships and purposeful acts of kindness as diverse groups of students work together.
Our program encourages a team approach that supports college, career, and civic life by pairing middle school students with career mentors. Attention is given to finding mentors in professions that match the teens’ talents and interests.
Each team identifies a specific need in the community, researches the topic, and then designs and implements a service project that relates to the students’ career aspirations and solves the problem they identified. Our projects are intended to inspire unity in our middle school and beyond as the groups work together to tackle challenging issues. Together, we demonstrate love in action.
Last year, students with and without disabilities collaborated on two unified projects. Abigail Mojica, a special education teacher, served as the mentor for the School Store Team, which included 14 ACTION members and 11 students with special needs. It was a diverse group that included white, African American, Asian, and Latino students.
The ACTION students learned about challenges facing students with intellectual and physical disabilities, and each of Ms. Mojica’s students was assigned an ACTION buddy. With adult supervision, the students learned various job skills such as advertising, ordering, inventory checking, selling, restocking, and customer service. A grant provided the funds needed to purchase our supplies: Chromebook chargers and covers, headphones, and a variety of school items.
The school store was open during lunch three days a week, and student groups were assigned shifts. Four ACTION members worked each store day with their project buddies. A student project manager created the schedule and collected the inventory sheet at the end of each month. ACTION members scheduled their own substitutes when needed.
Everyone understood their role on the team. Ms. Mojica set educational and social goals for her students, and served as the mentor by modeling teaching strategies so that ACTION members could properly assist their peers. My job was to guide the ACTION members through the design model as they planned, acted, and reflected on their team participation. I also served as liaison between my students and the special education staff.
We formed a second unified team in the spring. This time, students with and without disabilities partnered with Karen Jackson, a water resource agent from Clemson Extension. For the first meeting, Ms. Jackson provided a hands-on experience to teach the team about plants and animals that are native to South Carolina. The team then went outside to assess the outdoor classroom. Ms. Jackson proposed several possible projects, including a rain garden to solve the water runoff problem, and she told me about a grant opportunity and wrote a letter of support.
After this, the Outdoor Classroom Team met four times. First, Ms. Jackson helped students research best management practices for dealing with stormwater. Next, the team determined that a bioswale would be a better solution for the outdoor classroom’s mud problem. Ms. Jackson provided the team with data about possible plant choices. During the third meeting, students selected the plants and designed the garden. Using the grant money, Ms. Jackson helped us purchase the plants before the final meeting. The students, teachers, and Ms. Jackson then worked together to plant the bioswale.
A Model Other Schools Can Use
ACTION’s team approach can be adapted and carried out by secondary teachers in a variety of school settings. We’re expanding our ACTION teams this year, but although each team has a unique purpose, the approach remains the same. First, widen students’ knowledge base by bringing in experts from various fields. Mentors serve as role models who demonstrate acceptance, partnership, and leadership while gradually releasing responsibility to the students.
Next, allow students to explore possibilities before deciding on a plan of action. Encourage them to use critical thinking skills to address issues in a meaningful and respectful way. Throughout the entire process, build relationships among team members. Provide a safe environment where all ideas are heard and individuals are valued.
ACTION is committed to the whole child—educating both the mind and the heart. To combat hate, empathy must be strategically developed in our students. We choose projects that are of high interest to a variety of students and seek to attract mentors who represent diversity. Unity occurs when diverse groups work together toward a common goal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
• Lori Wenzinger, M.Ed
8th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Action for Unity Founder/Advisor
How Happy Brains Respond to Negative Things
By Summer Allen and Jeremy Adam Smith | March 29, 2016
You drop a glass while making breakfast. You get stuck in traffic on your way to work. Your boss yells at you for being late. Congratulations! You’re having a bad morning. It happens to everyone, at one time or another. But how we react to the bad things in life reveals a lot about our brains.
It might seem to go without saying, but people with sunnier dispositions are better able to regulate their emotions than people with gloomier personalities, who are more likely to be thrown by unpleasant events. Why is this?
There are several possibilities. One is that happier people wear metaphorical “rose-colored glasses” that allow them to focus on positive things and filter out negative ones. Another possibility is that happier people are just better at savoring the good things and allowing them to lift their mood, while still seeing the bad.
Why does this question matter? Because of its implications for the way you view your life. Is it better to ignore the negatives and setbacks altogether, or to strengthen your ability to zero in on the good without glossing over the bad?
One way to test these hypotheses is to look at activity in the amygdala—a small, almond-shaped brain region—in people with different emotional styles. For years, neuroscientists have thought of it as the primitive “fear center” of the brain, always on the lookout for potential threats. In some people, increased amygdala activity has been linked to depression and anxiety. However, less is known about how the amygdala responds to positive stimuli—and how this activity might relate to feeling positive emotions.
That’s what psychologists William Cunningham at the University of Toronto and Alexander Todorov of Princeton University are exploring with their colleagues. In a series of recent studies funded by the John Templeton Foundation (which also supports the work of the Greater Good Science Center), they’ve discovered a whole new amygdala—one that’s implicated in human connection, compassion, and happiness. According to their research to date, the happiest people don’t ignore threats. They just might be better at seeing the good.
What is the amygdala for?
A wild zebra must constantly be on the lookout for lions and other predators, even while it is in the process of pursuing a goal, such as looking for water or a mate. Scientists have traditionally tied this looking-out function to the amygdala. However, recent research suggests that the amygdala is also active when people are trying to meet so-called “appetitive goals,” like our zebra’s interest in drinking, eating, and mating.
Because threatening situations can have lethal consequences, it makes sense that the amygdala would be tuned to react to all fearful stimuli. But does the amygdala respond to all positive stimuli as well? Would our zebra’s amygdala activate every time it sees a watering hole, even though it’s a good thing, not a bad thing?
Cunningham and colleagues took on these questions in a study published last year in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. They displayed a series of side-by-side images to study participants—15 people in total—while recording their amygdala activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The pictures varied in their emotional content (positive, negative, or neutral) as well as the extremity of the emotion they evoked.
From the fMRI data, Cunningham and colleagues found that negative images did provoke amygdala activity, as expected. The positive images did as well—but only when the participants were explicitly told to focus on them.
Humans have a negativity bias, a tendency to focus on threats. But this research suggests that people may be able to compensate for it by consciously trying to focus more on the positive. As the authors put it in their paper, “while people do automatically attend to negative stimuli, given the proper ability and motivation, they can show the same sensitivity to positive stimuli.”
Another study by a team that included Cunningham and Todorov—to be published this year in the forthcoming book Positive Neuroscience—found that the amygdala “may also be at the heart of compassion.” The researchers scanned participants’ brains as they viewed pictures of people who might be useful in pursuing a goal—or in need of help. The team found that amygdala activity spiked when participants perceived people in need. Not surprisingly, this was especially true for participants who scored high in empathy.
As the authors note, other research has linked the ability to connect with and help others to personal well-being. Taken together, these studies suggest that humans possess a subconscious “compassionate instinct”—an urge to help people that exists even in parts of the brain that are sometimes referred to as “primitive” or “reptilian.” The paper concludes:
This research project builds on the idea that our evolutionarily older brain systems are not solely a source of immorality and selfishness, but when tuned by our goals, can contribute to moral and just behavior. Thus, human flourishing does not come from the suppression of aspects of the self, but rather through the integration of all relevant processes together into a unified response.
Happy people take the good with the bad
But this research raises another question: Does human happiness depend on filtering out the negative things in life? Or in brain science terms: Do we want to avoid the stress of amygdala activation, even when it comes to perceiving people in distress? How do happy people respond to the dropped glass, traffic jams, threats from the boss—or even the sight of homeless people on the street?
That’s the question tackled in another study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, where Cunningham and Ph.D. student Tabitha Kirkland sought to determine whether the amygdalae of happier people respond differently to positive and negative stimuli when compared with less-happy people.
Cunningham and Kirkland recorded the amygdala activity of 42 participants as they viewed series of positive, negative, and neutral pictures. Participants also filled out surveys to determine their subjective happiness levels. Was there anything distinctive about the way happy people’s brains responded to the different types of photos?
Indeed, when compared with less-happy people, the researchers found that happier people had greater amygdala activation in response to positive photographs. But they did not have a decreased response to negative images, as would be predicted by the “rose-colored glasses” view of happiness.
In fact, the researchers found that “amygdala activation among happier participants was equally high for positive and negative stimuli.” According to the paper, this suggests that “happier people are not necessarily naïve or blind to negativity, but rather may respond adaptively to the world, recognizing both good and bad things in life.”
This is a particularly interesting finding because it suggests that being able to sense and respond to negative information may actually be an important component of happiness. The authors’ conclusion from this study: “Happy people are joyful, yet balanced.”
The upshot of this research is that our amygdala can no longer be viewed simply as the brain’s fear center. Instead, it seems that even at a very deep, instinctive level, we are wired to see people in need and help each other out—and that doing so might help us to be happy.
CARE TECHNIQUES TO TRY IN THE CLASSROOM
Mindfulness for students and teachers
1. Calmer Transitions
When it’s time to move on to lunch or PE, get students to take three deep breaths and then listen to the sound of a bell. Have students listen quietly until the sound fades away before moving on.
2. Take 5
Suggested by a CARE participant. For children too young or too restless to do regular meditation. Have them sit and quietly take note of five things they can see; then shut their eyes and count five things they can hear; then notice five things they are touching.
3. Quiet Corner Or Peace Corner
Described in Montessori and the Inner Resilience program. Set up a space in the classroom where children can go to deal with difficult emotions. It might have pillows and be stocked with stuffed animals, calming books or smooth stones. It should be inviting, not feel like a punishment.
4. Mindful Walking And Centering
For teachers, who are always on their feet: When standing, focus on the sensation of the weight on the feet and the pressure of the feet on the floor. When walking, maintain the awareness of weight shifting from one foot to the other.
Why Teachers Say Practicing Mindfulness Is Transforming The Work
Garrison Institute looks a little like Hogwarts. The retreat center is housed in a former monastery amid tranquil green hills overlooking the Hudson River, 60 miles north and a world away from New York City.
Inside the airy chapel on a recent summer afternoon, about 35 educators from the U.S. and at least five foreign countries are seated quietly, shoes off.
“Just notice your breath, the sensation of your air coming in, going out,” says Christa Turksma, a Dutch woman dressed all in white with silver-white hair. She’s one of the co-founders of Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators, or CARE for Teachers.
For the past nine years at this annual five-day summer retreat, and now within schools, CARE for Teachers teaches what’s called mindfulness: calming the body and mind through breathing and movement, and using insights from psychology to better regulate your emotions.
They do a series of role-playing activities to practice listening and conducting difficult conversations with a boss, fellow teacher, parent or student. It’s the first mindfulness program to be partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education — and aimed at teachers, not directly at students.
Teaching is inherently a stressful occupation, and by many accounts, it’s getting more so. Students bring the effects of poverty and trauma into the classroom. Administrators lay on the pressure to meet ever-changing standards. In the last few years, teacher job satisfaction has reportedly plummeted to a 25-year low, and turnover is high — almost 50 percent for new teachers.
Patricia Jennings isn’t necessarily out to change all these factors. Instead, she aims to help teachers become the change they wish to see in the world.
Jennings is the second co-founder of CARE (Richard Brown is the third). She has gray hair cut straight across in bangs and a beatific smile. Jennings had a difficult childhood; she was orphaned at age 14 when her mother committed suicide.
Then, as a college student in 1970s Arizona, she discovered Zen meditation. “I started realizing that a lot of the suffering and anxiety I was feeling — that those thoughts were not me,” she says. “That was a huge revelation, to go oh, this feeling of dread is a result of this experience, but it’s not who I am and I can let those thoughts go.”
Jennings studied at the Buddhist Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. She earned a degree in psychology and a teaching degree, then founded a Montessori school where she taught kids meditation as early as 1980.
In the classroom for over two decades, she also used mindfulness techniques moment-to-moment, whether to smooth transitions between activities or when figuring out what was really going on with a student who was acting up. Later, she took a position teaching teachers, and realized that other teachers could benefit from these tools as well.
Jennings is now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where she conducts research on the CARE for Teachers program.
In a soon-to-be published study, Jennings and her co-authors provided an extended version of CARE training to 224 teachers in high-poverty schools in New York City, with several two-day sessions spaced over the course of a year. The participants reported that their anxiety, depression, feelings of burnout, being rushed and perceived stress all went down compared with a control group. Their sleep improved, and the teachers said they felt less judgmental.
Even more interesting effects came from classroom observations. When teachers were more mindful, “yelling went down,” says Jennings. Classrooms were rated more emotionally positive and productive. Students were more engaged.
Among the students who rated lower on social skills at the outset of the study — presumably some of the most vulnerable — reading scores also improved. Again, these effects came from working with the teachers, not directly with the students.
Bonnie Kirkwood and Michele Coyle-Hughes work at P.S. 279 in the Bronx. Their school participated in the study over the 2014-2015 school year, and they spent the school year that just ended helping teach the techniques to their colleagues.
They are back at the CARE For Teachers retreat to figure out how to spread it further. As part of the student support staff, “I deal with teachers in crisis,” says Coyle-Hughes. “I can see that they need more tools.”
About a third of the students in their K-8 school come from homeless shelters. A large percentage have incarcerated parents or are in foster care. Most are English language learners, including a refugee population.
“Our kids gravitate to our building because they want structure and routine,” says Coyle-Hughes. Kirkwood, a reading specialist, says the CARE techniques have improved her relationships with students and colleagues. “I’m learning to let go and let God,” she says.
(Although the practices taught in CARE draw on many different traditions, Jennings makes clear that the program is entirely secular and suitable for public schools. For example, they use the term “mindful awareness practices” rather than “meditation.”)
Like Coyle-Hughes and Kirkwood, Nicole Willheimer has also agreed to help facilitate CARE training for her colleagues, at P.S. 140 in the Bronx. Jennings and Turksma are trying out this expansion this year, called CARE Coordinators, with the idea that these techniques will best spread from colleague to colleague, not as a top-down push from administrations.
Willheimer says the program has helped her be more attuned to her students. For example, rather than be set off by a kid who is tapping on a desk, she can recognize if he or she is trying to cope with attention difficulties. And like other teachers, she says CARE has been most helpful in dealing with her bosses, not just with students.
“When administrators call you, you never know what they want. It could be a parent is upset with you, or you forgot something,” she says. “I used to rush to meetings, grab a seat, and jump in. Now, I practice mindful walking. I think about where I’m going. When I arrive, I’m not revved up. I’m able to receive criticism or conversation without being triggered.”
In the training, CARE participants talk a lot about “triggers” and “scripts” and being “reactive.” Past experiences may shape your perception of a situation, and bring on too-strong or inappropriate emotions. If you are “reactive,” you’ll succumb to those emotions, following the unconscious script in your head. If you are “reflective,” you’ll be able to pause and get a more accurate read on the situation.
In one session Jennings tells a story recounted in her book, Mindfulness for Teachers, of a previous CARE participant who was immensely bothered by a 7-year-old student who was late every day and disrupted the whole class with laughter. On reflection, the teacher remembered that in her own family, there had been severe punishments for being late. She sat down and talked to the girl and learned she was the daughter of a single mother who worked nights, so the little girl was responsible for getting herself to school every morning. And her giggling wasn’t intended to be disrespectful — it came from embarrassment.
After a lunch of beet salad, quinoa and garden greens, the teachers disperse outside for a walking exercise and paired discussions. Here amid the wildflowers and butterflies, it’s easy to feel tranquil.
But in a few short weeks a new school year will be starting. “I can feel my heart start to race when I think about September getting closer,” one teacher says in a session. “In September there is NO space. If you were walking into an inner-city urban school this September, what two CARE practices would you bring?” she asks Jennings.
Jennings replies that she has an empirical answer, from the forthcoming study, where they asked all the teachers the same question. Their top answer was simply stopping yourself, whenever needed, to take three deep breaths.
And the second answer was cultivating a daily practice in breathing, mindful walking, yoga or other relaxation discipline. “That helps you remember to take the three breaths when you need it!”
Sensory Integration and How Yoga Helps
By Mira Binzen
Every day our senses perceive, process, and filter a mind-boggling array of input. Our nervous system receives messages from our environment through our five senses, interprets and processes the messages, and then emits an appropriate response.
In addition to our five familiar senses of vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, we have two additional "inner" senses. These two senses are called vestibular and proprioception. The vestibular system is based in the inner ear and lets you know where your body is in relation to earth's gravitational pull. Your vestibular system tells you that your back arm is at shoulder height (or not) in virabhadrasana II (warrior II).
Through proprioception, we sense where our body is in space and get a sense of "groundedness," or connection. It gives us the ability to plan and coordinate movements. Sense receptors in the joints and muscles are constantly sending signals to the brain so that we can walk with a steady stride, bring our coffee cup to our lips and sip, and carry out thousands of other everyday coordinated movements. Your proprioceptive sense tells you where and how much pressure is needed in your foot to balance in natarajasana (dancer pose). A child who has difficulty integrating proprioceptive input may hold something so tightly it breaks, or so loosely it falls to the ground--and breaks. It is this proprioceptive sense that gives us "body awareness."
Brooke Backsen, an occupational therapist in Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Services at Provena Mercy Medical Center in Aurora , works with children who have sensory processing disorder (SPD). She helps parents understand by asking, "Do you notice that Jimmy seeks out or enjoys bumping or crashing in his environment?" Then she explains, "This is proprioceptive input, just like we get when we are doing pushups (or a series of downward facing dog and plank pose). Jimmy's jumping and crashing gives him more input, helping him to better understand and feel where his edges are."
Sensory processing disorder
SPD is a condition where input from one or several of the seven senses is perceived as too strong or too soft or is misinterpreted. This condition was first recognized by occupational therapist Dr. A. Jean Ayres and described in her book Sensory Integration and Learning Disabilities, published in 1972 .
Everyone experiences times when they are not responding well to the environment. We are more likely to find ourselves integrating our sense experiences poorly when we are "off balance." Insufficient sleep, poor dietary choices, and stress can throw our nervous system off balance. Most of us have the skills and experience to filter out overwhelming stimuli and to self-regulate. Backsen explains by asking, "Have you ever noticed on days that you have a tough day at work and you come home you may notice that you are more irritable or sensitive to your environment--the kids' TV cartoons, the sound of the dishwasher, or your husband clicking his pen while he fills out the crossword? This is your body experiencing sensory processing dis-regulation." She goes on, "When we have a tough day at work, our body often seeks out certain things--a workout at the gym, a big deep breath and a sigh, or even chewing gum in the car on the ride home--to regulate our systems."
Research by the SPD Foundation indicates that one child in every 20 experiences symptoms of sensory processing disorder that are significant enough to affect their ability to engage fully in everyday life. Symptoms of SPD, like those of most disorders, occur within a broad spectrum of severity. While most of us have occasional difficulties processing sensory information, for children and adults with SPD, these difficulties are chronic and disrupt everyday life.
Stanley Greenspan, author of The Challenging Child , describes it this way: "Imagine driving a car that isn't working well. When you step on the gas the car sometimes lurches forward and sometimes doesn't respond. When you blow the horn, it sounds blaring. The brakes sometimes slow the car, but not always. The blinkers work occasionally, the steering is erratic, and the speedometer is inaccurate. You are engaged in a constant struggle to keep the car on the road, and it is difficult to concentrate on anything else."
There is a wide variety of types of SPD. Someone who is overresponsive to sensory input is often in a state of mild panic and may appear anxious or resistant to interaction. Everything she perceives is interpreted as an alarm to the nervous system. A child may appear to be bossy, irritable, or picky but is simply trying to control the environment that is bombarding her with sensations she is having difficulty processing. Others are underresponsive. Such a child may seem lazy, bored, or stubborn, but he is simply not receiving the messages that you and I do at a "normal" volume. He needs the input longer, louder, and deeper than you or I may find comfortable for it to register. Another child may have a sensory-seeking condition, as he is underregistering sensory input. He craves sensory experiences and comes across as a daredevil as he bashes into walls and other children, races from activity to activity, and earns a reputation as a "wild child." A child with difficulty processing sensory stimuli may be misdiagnosed as having attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disability, or a "behavior disorder." Therapeutic intervention is important for children, as SPD can, and often does, get in the way of learning, socializing, and self-esteem.
How yoga helps
When describing the benefits of yoga to children, I often tell them they are like a DJ and they have a DJ's mixing board full of dials and knobs. Yoga teaches them how to adjust the volume, change channels, or add some bass. Children with difficulty processing sensory input aren't easily able to access all these knobs and dials.
Students of all ages need a practice that is suited to their unique constitution, temperament, and interest. All children and adults at all levels of sensory functioning benefit from the strengthening, balancing, and toning effect yoga has on the nervous system. Scott M. Shannon, MD, recommends yoga in his book Please Don't Label My Child . He writes, "It provides structure and a commitment to wellness that kids who need grounding can easily latch onto. It's an empowering activity that suits kids well and that they can engage in for a lifetime."
Relaxation response . The sensory system is soothed, and the relaxation response (parasympathetic dominance) is engaged in forward folds; deep, even breathing; progressive relaxation (tensing then releasing each muscle group); and deep relaxation. Most children in my classes also love to put sandbags on their bodies for final rest. This is especially helpful for a child with sensory processing challenges. An eight-year-old boy in my class, whose mom signed him up to address "sensory issues," let out a series of five or six "Ahhhs" when I placed a sand bag on his chest. (Make sure the sandbags are not too heavy; check in with the child and look for easy, relaxed breathing. Leave them on for five minutes or less.) He had been irritable and very talkative during class. After relaxation, his face was soft, he smiled gently, and when I asked him how he was feeling, instead of launching into a dramatic high-energy story, as is his tendency, he just nodded his head as his smile widened. Backsen describes this as DTP, deep touch pressure. "This is the most calming form of input." It also increases body awareness, as there is increased sensory input across large surface areas of the body. Children with SPD often have weighted blankets to help them sleep at night.
Body/spatial awareness . Better body awareness is one of the greatest benefits of the yoga practice. Children get excellent proprioceptive and vestibular input through partner poses, walking around like bears and dogs (hands and feet on the floor), and in twisting poses that compress the muscles. The repetitive and soothing motions of vinyasa flow can be helpful for a child who feels too much sensory input but difficult for a child who has trouble processing proprioceptive or vestibular input.
Standing and balancing poses help develop stability, strength, and coordination. Poses such as tree, eagle, and dancer provide much needed joint compression. Moving from backbends to forward bends to twists gives the vestibular system rich input, which helps a child feel calm and grounded. This all makes it easier for children to feel more comfortable and present in their body.
Breath awareness . Breathing, mantra, mudra, and meditation all have a soothing and regulatory effect on the nervous system. Sharon Heller, PhD is a developmental psychologist who describes herself as "sensory defensive." In her book Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World , she shares many strategies for coping and states, "The potential of yogic breath control to revitalize the nervous system is enormous." She recommends ujjayi breathing and alternate nostril breathing. Breathing practices we teach children, including balloon breath, flower hands breath, and open wings also help soothe and balance the whole nervous system while facilitating the relaxation response. (See " Yoga for Kids; Let the Body Breathe" at yogachicago.com/may07/yogaforkids for an explanation of these breathing exercises.)
Self-awareness . All of the practices in yoga have as an aim to develop better awareness--awareness of the body, the mind, and the breath. Yoga also inherently helps develop a greater sense of self, a feeling of more ease in the world, and a sense that "everything is okay just as it is."
The technique of pratyahara , or sense withdrawal, is listed right along with asana (yoga postures) in the eight limbs of yoga in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras . It is an integral part of the practice and is the first step to mastering the mind. One of the most beautiful and sacred texts in the yoga tradition, The Bhagavad Gita , says it plainly: "Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will" (verse 2.58, translation from The End of Sorrow by Eknath Easwaran). For someone who is more sensitive than others, or who has a difficult time making sense of what they do perceive, withdrawing the senses and focusing within can be a monumental task. The breathing exercises and postures of yoga help a child get to a place where meditation is more accessible. Dr. Heller suggests, "When it comes to learning to control the body and its experiences, few exercises can beat the over-3,000-year-old practice of yoga.."
If the same effort was put into practicing concentration as is given to developing other life skills, such as teeth brushing, bike riding, and playing an instrument, our children would be relieved of a tremendous amount of stress and confusion. Just like brushing your teeth, you will continue to do it every day for life. Just like practicing an instrument, a little bit every day leads to mastery. The mind is an instrument, and concentration and meditation are the practices that lead to self-mastery. Whether someone has been given a diagnosis of SPD or not, we are all having our senses assaulted by the fracas of modern living and can benefit tremendously from the multifaceted practice of yoga.
Mira Binzen is a certified yoga teacher, yoga therapist and co-founder of Global Family Yoga ( globalfamilyyoga.org ), a teacher-training program based in Chicago , focusing on children and families. Her E-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Girls ages 8-12 experiencing stress, anxiety, or attention challenges are invited to join Mira on Thursdays, April 8 through May 13, from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at Flourish Studios, 3020 N. Lincoln Ave. , Chicago , to learn effective techniques for self-soothing and self-empowerment. For more information, E-mail Mira at email@example.com .