Imagine a school without a timeout room. A school where kids are not banished to the hallway for misbehavior. A world where kids as young as 3 recognize when they need to Take 5 and get in control of their feelings and frustration without disturbing or hurting anyone else.
Eleven years ago, Sheila Palmquist, owner of Lincoln Yoga Center and a parent, began to notice how children were sent to the hallway, the office or a special isolation room when they "lost it" at school. She listened as they told her they “were bad,” “stupid” and “hated.”
She heard similar statements in 1999, when two disenfranchised Columbine High School students armed with guns and bombs killed 12 classmates and one teacher and injured 23 others. Palmquist saw trauma in school staff, who feared there was little they could do to reach and repair the bullied, the depressed, the self-loathing and angry youth.
“I thought there has got to be something we can do,” recalled Palmquist, who was living in Loveland, Colo., at the time. “I didn’t know what it was. But I knew our kids were asking for help.”
Then she thought of what helped her heal following a debilitating bout of carpal tunnel syndrome brought on by a high-stress job and lifestyle.
Yoga -- mind, body, breathing and control.
Palmquist admitted she was dubious when friends insisted yoga would improve her life and eliminate the need for surgery.
"Finally, I agreed to take the stupid yoga class," she admitted.
“It just changed everything. I’m not living outside of myself. I am living in the moment. I learned to change my attitude, and it changed my whole world. It makes you think about what’s important --- what’s important to me.”
She realized yoga -- at least some of its techniques -- were things kids needed to de-stress, de-compress and self-regulate.
She created Take 5 -- a yoga course for kids as young as 6. The premise is simple -- teach children yoga-based breathing practices, concentration techniques, exercises/movements and conflict-resolution skills allowing them to quell the inner turmoil in just five minutes.
The program was the focus of a study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln doctoral student Heidi Fleharty, who is writing her dissertation on development of children’s cognition and attention, focusing in part on how yoga can improve attention in preschool-age children. Last fall she studied Take 5's impact on preschoolers, and just last week she began a second phase looking at yoga's impact on elementary-age children.
Take 5 also is part of Lincoln Parks and Recreation’s summer programming. Last year 800 youth learned the techniques.
Since then, Palmquist has trained teachers, parents, counselors and anyone else interested in the techniques, so they in turn can teach the skills to students. Palmquist also visits schools and kids programs, leading youngsters in yoga lessons for self control, self-awareness and inner calm. Take 5 is based on five 5-minute exercises that allow youth to choose the best way to handle their stress.
“It’s about taking a break from the chaotic environment,” Palmquist said.
“Our mind and body can’t keep up with our world,” she added. “There is so much stimulation all the time. We need to disconnect.”
Schools and families expect kids to keep up, hurry up, sit still and focus all at the same time.
That dichotomy is most noticeable in the classroom.
“The learning environment is different than our real lives,” Palmquist said.
Kids who can’t shift quickly between overstimulated and quiet worlds tend to get in trouble for their fidgeting, noise-making and all around disruptive behavior. When kids lose control in the classroom, they are sent to a corner or to the hallway where they are expected to calm down and not focus on the disruption and the shame that follows public discipline.
“Instead of making kids think, 'There is something wrong with you' -- which is a terrible message -- let’s invite them to take five deep breaths with us,” Palmquist said.
Take 5 begins with a simple unobtrusive hand signal -- hands are put together to form a T, followed by raising the hand with all five fingers extended. The teacher can silently acknowledge the signal, and the child is free to take action whether it is moving to “a safety zone” or “putting his head down on his desk.”
“It allows them to regroup and recognize a problem,” Palmquist said, “instead of sending them to a naughty seat in the bad room.”
Take 5 techniques range deep breathing exercises to positive mantras -- such as making buzzing bee sounds to repeating affirming statements like "I am calm, I am in control." Techniques include various movements from Happy Elephant to stretches and yoga poses. Another technique invites students to doodle or journal, focusing on things that make them happy, places they would rather be or people who make them feel good. Another Take 5 exercise encourages people to talk it out or accept the comfort of physical touch such as holding "pancake hands."
Although Take 5 sounds “new wave-ish,” Palmquist says, centuries of practice show it is effective and safe.
Often school administrators say they do not have the physical space, the time or staff or the money to provide programs like Take 5. But Palmquist says classrooms need nothing more than a yoga mat. And once children and school staff know the techniques, it takes a matter of seconds to give children permission to excuse themselves and regroup.
“When you feel connected to your body, you make good choices,” Palmquist said. “It is not something you teach and fail at.”
And she makes a modern-day comparison. Just as our smartphones, laptops and iPods need to power down and recharge, so do people.
“It is not a bad thing,” she said. “We need to be OK with stillness, quiet and hanging out with our own thoughts.”
It's not only a philosophy Palmquist lives by, but one she feels obligated to share.
“You can’t keep this knowledge from people if you can save a life,” Palmquist said. “This is what I was put here to do.”