Focusing on A.D.D
One Child's Class
It takes a special yoga teacher to work with ADD kids. "The teacher must have access to a variety of specialized techniques for dealing with anger, distractibility, and impulsivity, as well as a solid foundation in yoga," says Sonia Sumar, author of Yoga for the Special Child (Special Yoga Publications, 1998). Sumar trains and certifies yoga teachers, like Randolph, to work with developmentally challenged children. Randolph combines Sumar's special education approach with 30 years of hatha yoga practice in her classes with Clayton.
She works patiently, often one-on-one for several months, before integrating a child with ADD into a group setting, which includes two or three kids at the most. "These kids can be very intense," says Randolph. "A yoga teacher who works with children with ADD must develop patience, boundless energy, and a keen focus herself. These children need someone who can think faster and more creatively than they do; otherwise, they soon get bored."
Every Thursday, Clayton steps into Randolph's studio at The Yoga Center in Reno, Nevada. "Sometimes it's a struggle to get him there," says his mother, Nancy Petersen, "but in the end, he's always glad he went." Children with ADD struggle with transitions, so Randolph enlists a brief ritual, including candles and incense, to help Clayton shift into yoga mode. The structure of Clayton's classes generally follows the same basic pattern every week, with a few alternating poses chosen for variety.
ADD children do best in a well-organized environment, as their internal sense of structure lacks coherence. The Yoga Center has a sunny room with large windows and mirrored walls, but Clayton's classes take place in Randolph's basement studio, where the ivory-yellow paint and sienna carpet keep distractions to a minimum. Since the ADD brain functions too slowly while processing sensory information, concentration comes more easily when the stimulation level remains low.
To encourage body awareness, Randolph begins by asking Clayton how tight his body feels and how much warm-up he needs. Depending on the answer, Randolph begins with Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation) in either a 12- or 28-posture sequence. This cycle challenges Clayton's ability to focus and helps increase his attention span. Learning a complex series like Sun Salutation "recruits a lot of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex," says Ratey. "The brain is like a muscle: When you strain it, you strengthen it." But purely intellectual endeavors, like learning multiplication tables, don't promote what Ratey jokingly calls "neurological Miracle-Gro" to the extent that complex movement patterns do.
Following Sun Salutation, Randolph leads Clayton through a succession of forward bends, lateral bends, triangle poses, and backbends. In addition to their psychological benefits, these yoga poses help children with ADD learn to coordinate their bodies in space, which is important since they tend to have higher injury rates than their peers. Similar to the work of a physical therapist, carefully performed asanas engage alignment, balance, and coordination to train a child's sensory-motor system. Balancing poses like Vrksasana (Tree Pose) are Clayton's favorites, and he frequently practices them outside of class. Says Randolph, "Kids gravitate toward play that involves balance," such as skateboards, pogo sticks, swings, merry-go-rounds, and tumbling, because it excites what physiologists call the vestibular system. The inner ear's vestibular system allows you to judge your position in space and informs the brain to keep you upright.
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