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No Child Left Unhealthy?
By John Monahan
The embattled U.S. public school system often is likened to an overburdened farm wagon lugging its diverse crop of students behind the twin horses of government mandates and standardized tests. But despite the system’s ever-increasing challenges, enlightened parents, educators and even private enterprise are working to make public schools healthier, more compassionate places in which to learn.
Connecting mind and body
Lori Burgi is one parent advocate who has made a difference. In fact, she’s the reason why every student in grades one through eight in the Laguna Beach, Calif., school district takes a six-week unit of yoga as part of physical education (PE).
District officials were already receptive to yoga, but it was Burgi—a 10-year practitioner herself—who delivered a program called Yoga Ed. that included a pre-written curriculum teachers could readily incorporate. Still, it took a year-and-a-half to get buy-in from the board of education and various committees.
“When I first approached the district, I became really aware that nothing was in place to help support yoga and other great programs, and I realized we’d have to start by educating the educator first,” Burgi says. Today, all 13 of the district’s PE instructors are trained to teach Yoga Ed., and other teachers who’ve taken it for classroom use receive staff-development credit.
“The point we have to get across is that the laws of this country don’t support accessible and broad-spectrum choices in health and well-being in our fitness programs,” Burgi says. “Many elementary students don’t even get PE, or if they do, it’s only once or twice a week.”
Then there are the unique benefits of yoga itself: “To actually have a skill where you align your mental awareness with your physical awareness increases the capacity to accomplish anything you want to do,” Burgi says. In one Yoga Ed. exercise, students are taught how thinking a negative or positive thought either weakens or strengthens their arm when a partner pushes down on it (a practice known as applied kinesiology). “This brings responsibility back to the kids and lets them see the way the mind impacts the body,” Burgi says.
Balanced brain, better thinking Along with yoga, a program incorporating a specific series of exercises to balance the brain to facilitate learning is catching on in schools. Brain Gym, founded by Paul E. Dennison, PhD, in the early 1980s, has evolved into something of an international movement based solely on word of mouth, says spokeswoman Rose Harrow. The organization provides an impressive bank of research to show that its methods improve participants’ self-esteem, motivation and ability to cooperate in teams.
Julie Mundt taught fourth and fifth grade in the Greater Boston area and used Brain Gym in every class for years. “It calmed the students down before tests and before our yearly Shakespeare performances,” Mundt says, noting that it also helped children with reading difficulti...
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