You know that being a yoga teacher is more than leading people through postures on a mat, so why not use your skill set in service to your community? Even better, why not equip future generations with the transformative life skills you’ve come to know through yoga?
As we learn more and more about how mindfulness can cultivate resiliency, self-awareness, and even compassion, the demand for yoga programs for children and teens keeps growing. But before you unroll your mat and start teaching your first kids class, it’s important to know the ABC’s of children’s yoga. Children and teens aren’t just miniature adults. From their anatomy to their attention span, there are fundamental differences that influence how kids move through yoga poses and through class. Understanding these differences is key to keeping kids safe on the mat, while also keeping them engaged in your class and, of course, having fun!
#1 Know Your Audience
First things first, it’s essential to get to know your audience. Children and adolescents are still growing, and as such, their brain development is still a work in progress. This means that the way that they process information is different than adults, and that the way they’ll respond to your teaching (or not) is linked to their brain’s structure. This development involves the biological, but also the psychological and social changes that occur, and each facet of their development is bound to show up on your mat in ways both big and small.
Structuring your yoga class to meet these developmental needs starts with the length of the class itself. Younger yogis, particularly in preschool and kindergarten, not only have a more difficult time maintaining attention for long periods of time, but also exhaust their muscles and brains more quickly. Rather than a full 60-minute flow, tailor your class to be 20- to 30-minutes long. As students get older, they can both focus and move for longer periods of time, and by grades 3 through 5, you should be able to structure classes to fill a 45-minute to 60-minute time frame. If you are required (or wanting) to teach a longer class for younger kids, get creative with fun group games, activities, or crafts to keep your yogis engaged.
The language that you use in class should also reflect where your students are at in their development. For young kids, and even teens, it’s important to be clear, concise, and imaginative in your cues, and because of their emerging spatial awareness, mirroring can be a great tool to help students visualize how their bodies should be positioned in space. Just like when teaching adults, your priority is to get students in and out of poses safely. Use cues that help students get situated from the ground up, honing in on adjustments and variations that can make poses more accessible and stable, and choosing kid-friendly languaging to name poses can help your students log them in memory! (Who wants baddha konasana when you can have butterfly?!)
When teaching kids, behavior management can arise as an issue, and when left unaddressed, can derail your entire class. So how do you avoid potential conflicts during class? Connection. For children and teens, and especially for kids new to yoga, it’s essential to find a way to meet them where they are. Growing brains respond best to what is relevant and engaging, and as a yoga teacher, it’s your job to understand how your students relate to the yoga you teach. Being present to how they show up to class, and to any potential developmental differences among your students, will empower you to adapt to your students needs. Take the time to establish their buy-in early on, and be creative in how you maintain that connection throughout your time together.
For young children, this could mean incorporating your sequence into a fun yoga story. Make your class an adventure (a safari, anyone?) or use holidays and children’s books to bring your class to life. For teens who might roll their eyes at your jokes, simply taking some time at the start of class for quality conversation can be a game-changer. Get to know their hobbies, interests, or concerns, and find ways to make class relevant to their experience. Setting intentions, like finding peace of mind when dealing with drama with friends, or coping with finals stress, can help make the yoga practice feel more personal, and will give them a clear direction for bringing what they learn in yoga off the mat.
In classrooms or on the yoga mat, children and teens perform best when they have a personal connection to what they are doing. Without connection or relevance, students disengage and quickly lose interest, often leading them to act out in ways that can be disruptive to others. Connecting yoga to their real lives is key, and may help them cultivate a sustainable, life-long practice.
#3 Play it Safe
Once you have your students engaged in class and moving on the mat, it’s up to you as the teacher to keep them safe. Having a sound understanding of how children and teen anatomy differs from adults is crucial. After all, understanding the functional physical differences will not only minimize the risk of injury, but will also maximize the physical benefit of the yoga itself. Each child you teach will differ in development and in ability, but in general, it’s important to be aware that kids tend to have less bodily awareness, less muscle strength, lower endurance, and lower capacity for balance. Teaching from a place of modification, encouraging adjustments to support greater balance, and providing ample opportunity for rest are all great ways to make students feel supported. Even further, realizing that growing bones are hypermobile, be aware of postures that may put vulnerable joints, especially the neck, at risk.
In the end, children and teen’s bodies are distinct from adults’, and poses will look different in their bodies, according to where they are in their development. It isn’t your job to “fix” how their bodies are, whether they’re clumsy or inflexible, or have scoliosis or asthma. You’re there to give them a space to move and explore the strength of their bodies, and keep them safe while they do.
Of course, throughout class you’re hoping they’ll have some fun. And it should be fun! Kids don’t come to yoga to fix themselves, either, so coming to class with a good sense of humor and a whole lot of flexibility is a great place to start. You don’t need to take yourself too seriously, and you don’t need to try to be cool. Just come as you are, and the kids will come too.