Blanche Pope Elementary School

Image from civilbeat.org

In the small agricultural town of Waimānalo, Hawai‘i, Blanche Pope Elementary School lies nestled between the verdant Ko‘olau mountains and the ebbs and flows of the nearby Pacific Ocean. Juxtaposed against this view of presumed paradise, the people of Waimānalo, like many other rural communities across the United States, endure deep and lasting struggles that include overlapping impacts of trauma, with more than 1 in 5 residents living below the poverty line. (Resource: welfareinfo.org)

Typically, where there are higher rates of poverty and trauma, we see school communities significantly impacted as students’ wellness is compromised physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. (Resource: Blanche Pope on SchoolDigger.com)

These students can experience a constant state of survival-oriented defense—the “fight, flight, freeze” response—in which their nervous systems maintain a state of high alert because the stimulus for the stress also remains constant. Unmitigated, these circumstances have critical effects in both the short and long term.

Physically, these students accumulate tension in the brain and body which can lead to fatigue, aches and pains, and even injuries or illnesses. Cognitively, the stress negatively impacts their ability to learn as they may be unable to take in new information. Emotionally, students may not be able to regulate who and how they are being due to a general lack of self-awareness and the inability to practice self-care. Socially, stress affects the way students interact with others, such as inhibiting their ability to form relationships or causing them to react strongly to a facial expression or remark that they perceive as a threat. (Resource: Stress in the Mind and Body on YogaEd.com)

Blanche Pope Elementary School’s community experiences these very effects.

When Aaron Okumura became the new principal of the school in 2017, he quickly recognized pronounced trauma symptoms across the student body. He also understood that where there are high rates of trauma for students, their teachers likely endure vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue.

Principal Okumura understood that in order to improve the overall wellness of the students and teachers at Blanche Pope, he would need to shift the institution’s approach. Instead of focusing solely on improving a child’s academic performance, the school would begin to address the health of the whole child—physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.

“We determined that providing SEL would help to support our students,” Principal Okumura said.

Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL for short, is defined by Principal Okumura as “the process through which people learn to manage their emotions, understand relationships, and make responsible decisions.” He goes on to say that “SEL is one of the ‘soft skills’ that are considered ‘non-academic,’ yet is a foundation to develop the whole child.”

Many students of Blanche Pope Elementary navigate challenging life circumstances and endure systems that perpetuate patterns of traumatic stress. Without tools to become aware of this stress and its effects, their behavior choices would remain limited, potentially hurtful, and increasingly reactive.

In search of supportive programming that prioritizes SEL and a whole-child perspective, Principal Okumura found Yoga Ed.

Yoga Ed.’s approach to Social-Emotional Learning is an integrated strategy that addresses student and teacher wellness in tandem. As Yoga Ed. cofounder Julia Bond describes it, our stance is that “student SEL cannot occur without teacher SEL.”

With sustainability as a core value, Yoga Ed. recognizes the importance of teachers in the school wellness equation and provides solutions that support SEL for all members of the community, teachers and students and families alike.

Yoga Ed. and Blanche Pope Elementary proved to be a powerful partnership. All teachers and staff received in-depth training, including an all-day professional development workshop that immersed teachers in the 5 Core Competencies of SEL, explored their significance in the classroom context, and equipped teachers with simple, accessible yoga and mindfulness tools to develop and reinforce SEL.

The Yoga Ed. tools include breathing exercises, poses, mindful movement breaks, and relaxation techniques, all of which address the four developmental domains: physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive. These tools are designed to be adaptable for use throughout the school day, within existing frameworks and curricula, and not just as a “yoga break” from the day.

In addition to this school-wide training, all Blanche Pope faculty gained access to Yoga Ed.’s robust online library of classes. These streamable yoga and mindfulness classes provide an additional option for educators—they can press ‘play’ on SEL-focused lessons and participate in the practice themselves rather than leading it. Particularly supportive for teachers who are new to movement facilitation, these videos are akin to an informal apprenticeship opportunity to follow along and learn from Yoga Ed.’s experienced instructors.

Yoga Ed.’s partnership continued even beyond the upfront training and access to our online resources. Quarterly check-ins allowed Blanche Pope teachers to raise questions, to problem-solve in collaboration with Yoga Ed., and to continue building a strong community together. These check-ins provided peer-to-peer support, guidance for challenges, and steadfast encouragement rooted in Yoga Ed.’s 20+ years of history in this work.

outcomes: a student’s perspective

Students were surveyed mid-way through the school year, across three grade levels: 2nd, 4th, and 6th. Over 50% of students reported feeling more calm and relaxed when faced with various situations including, but not limited to, academic pressures, peer relationships, family stress, and emotional instability (e.g. anger, frustration, aggression).

Students were consciously using their yoga and mindfulness tools to reinforce the 5 SEL Competencies, while simultaneously improving their physical, mental, emotional, and social wellness.

Physical

In terms of physical health, students shared enjoyment and improvement in flexibility, strength, and energy levels while at school, in addition to better sleep, body conditioning, and overall exercise outside of school.

“Our body feels better”

4th Grader

“Yoga helps me in school by helping me calm down before a big test or before a big performance in front of people. It helps me by not stressing out and doing my best in everything I do.”

6th Grader

Mental

Regarding the mental/cognitive domain, students were able to reflect on the role yoga was playing in their classrooms and at home. Yoga was helping them to think, concentrate, focus, avoid risky situations, and be more learning ready. 

“Yoga helps me in school by calming me down and getting me ready to learn.”

6th Grader

“I do yoga at home on the weekends because it helps me with reading.”

2nd Grader

Emotional

Emotionally speaking, almost 40% of students expressed how they used breath as a tool to calm down, rethink their actions, and respond versus react. Words chosen to describe their emotions associated with yoga included happy, calm, and relaxed. 

“Yoga helps me outside of school by calming me down so I don’t get as angry.”

6th Grader

“If a classmate makes me mad when I go home I do yoga”

4th Grader

Social

Insights gathered within a social context spoke to improved relationship skills, such as effective communication, listening, demonstrating and being more aware of respectful encounters with peers, as well as making informed choices around behavior towards self and others.

“Yoga in school helps me to be calm, relaxed, and make sure i’m not causing drama. When I do feel like i’m gonna get in trouble I make sure to do my yoga and talk to the person that’s making me angry.”

6th Grader

In addition, students’ social wellness progress didn’t stop at school. In fact, close to 16% of students referenced the impact of yoga at home. 

“It helps me to stay calm and listen to my parents.”

4th Grader

“How yoga helps me outside of school is sometimes I get into arguments with my brothers so I walk away and separate myself from them so that I can and calm down to release all my anger so I don’t start fights.”

6th Grader

outcomes: a teacher’s perspective

Three years after the initial training, when asked how teachers are using SEL in their classrooms and/or in their own lives, a fair number expressed feedback for both, and they highlighted the importance of taking these life skills beyond the walls of Blanche Pope.  

“I use it to walk students through how they are feeling and how they can get through these feelings at school with hopes of the students using it outside of school.”

2nd Grade Teacher

As for the 5 SEL Competencies, one teacher reflected on how Self-Awareness and Self-Management showed up for her uniquely:

“. . . during an argument with a family member, I was aware of how aggravated I was feeling and tried to regulate what words I used.”

SpEd Teacher

Another teacher expressed how Social Awareness and Relationship Skills were making their appearances:

“I see that my students are more patient with each other than in the beginning of the year. They have compassion for one another and understand that they are responsible for one another. One example is that when students have had conflicts with one another, they are able to discuss their feelings with each [other] and find a resolution quickly. One student once said after one of these peer meetings: “We decided that we don’t need to be friends, but we can still work together.” The answer surprised me but it made sense. It showed that they understood the importance of working together respectfully and peacefully.”

2nd Grade Teacher

A different teacher shared about more space for Responsible Decision Making: 

“A huge success for me is when a student recognizes their feelings/emotions and appropriately asks for a break. A lot of the students I work with have difficulty regulating their emotions and utilizing the skills we teach them in the present moment. Just by simply acknowledging their feelings, thinking about what they need in the present moment then responding appropriately is significant.”

Behavioral Health Specialist

looking ahead: an integrated future

When working with schools such as Blanche Pope Elementary School, Yoga Ed. aims beyond the classroom setting to encompass the health and wellness of the greater school community. What we know is that a tree can only be as healthy as its roots, and our students can only be as happy and successful as we ourselves are supported to be. 

Yoga Ed.’s Mindful Movement Program helps schools to implement and sustain evidence-based yoga and mindfulness programming with training that is custom-fit to the institution’s needs. Yoga Ed.’s tools and educational resources are backed by research for a foundation of social-emotional learning to last a lifetime.

Learn more about Yoga Ed.’s Mindful Movement Program today.

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Brynne Caleda

Brynne champions the efficacy of innovative, evidence-based yoga programs for schools to establish lifelong foundations for student’s fitness, wellness, and productivity.

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Harmony Tesoro

Artist, Educator, and Entrepreneur, Harmony Turner has made it her life’s work to inspire, inform, and integrate.

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