Balwin: Mediation and Yoga for Refugee Children

 Meditation 4My name is Ed Meers, and I am a teacher at Balwin School. I am also a certified Yoga instructor who has specialised largely in PTSD. I have been a Yoga and Meditation practitioner for over 20 years. I initially started teaching Yoga in schools approximately 7 years ago where I offered Yoga as an options class at Highlands Jr. High. Five years ago, I moved to Balwin School where I was teaching in the Transitions program. This program was for refugee students with little or no prior schooling (grades 3-6), and no English language skills. I am now the ELL coordinator at Balwin, and teach ELL to students grades 3-9.

In the northeast corner of Edmonton lies a small piece of the Global Village. Balwin is an inner city K-9 school, comprised largely of immigrants, refugees and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

When Balwin is showcased in the news, it is typically with a negative slant. For several years, Balwin was rated at the bottom provincially in terms of academic achievement, and was known for having murders committed along its immediate boundaries four years in a row, the last being a decapitated human head.

Meditation 3Perhaps more disturbing than having a human head found in the alley behind your classroom, was the students reaction – or lack of reaction from such an event. Sadly, many of the students at Balwin have come from refugee camps and situations in countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq where they experienced unimaginable traumas. The evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is prominent in our student population, ranging from the inability to self-regulate to physical violence against staff and other students. Between the affects of PTSD, coming to a new country, new culture, learning a new language in addition to curriculum, and, for many, learning to be in a school for the first time, it has presented an incredible challenge for all parties involved, and, perhaps, sheds a bit of light on why Balwin often scores low provincially when it comes to raw academic scores. Students straddle between the new world in which they find themselves, and their old world which was rife with violence and, often, religious fundamentalism.

Growing up is difficult in general. One of my students who, quite honestly, is more of a son to me than pupil, will tell me that “one day Allah is going to hit the world with a big stick and I am going to have to cut off your head”. When I ask why would he do this, does he not care about me, he replies “yes, but it’s not me doing it. It’s Allah guiding my hand”. The challenges these students face, and those who are desirous of assisting them to succeed academically, are immense.

One of my former students, now in grade 9, from Djibouti, came up to me not long ago and gave me a big hug, then told me that her aunt was murdered – shot in the head – the previous day, back in Djibouti. This student has been through so much in her young life. In Djibouti, she was raped, lived outside and witnessed such horrors as seeing her aunt try to set herself on fire because she could no longer tolerate being a woman in this country. The suicide attempt had failed, so they killed her by ramming a nail in her head. Upon coming to Canada, her father lost his leg and later died. When she first arrived, she was extremely volatile and violent. She would have anxiety attacks so drastic, the we had to call 911 a few times as we were unable to revive her. Now, as a teenager, she has one foot in her traditional Muslim culture, and, the other in Western culture. We have concerns about her joining gangs, drug use, etc.This story repeats itself over and over again in our school. These are the children we serve, and offers a bit of insight into the massive barriers that we encounter as Educators.

Meditation 2Ultimately, this is a story of success. I have been teaching at Balwin for half a decade. Originally, I was hired as a Transitions teacher. This program, for which funding was recently ended, focused on students who specifically were new to Canada, from refugee camps and had little or no previous formal schooling. While my class was small and I had a cultural broker to assist me sometimes, there was seldom a significant difference between the students in my class and those making up the majority of other classes. Overall, we were looking at approximately 50% of students being English as a Second Language (ESL) school-wide, a statistic that remains about the same today (though I would say these statistics reflect a lower percentage than what I perceive to be the case in terms of numbers). These ESL students are not those coming from peaceful places with a culture similar to our own here in Canada. Instead, the majority of our students are of Somali background, with others coming from troubled or impoverished parts of the Middle East and South America. The resources to support these learners are quite different and extensive than supporting a newcomer who is from a place like France or Germany. In my first year, 5 teachers went on stress leave, fights were a daily occurrence – sometimes using rocks and pencils as weapons. There was often chaos and little learning happening. We had to assess how we could affect change. Given the situation, staff were dealing with children who came from what I would call “alpha” cultures – large families, interned in camps; a place where only the strong survived and the loudest were fed. In Canada, we do our best to nurture all students with inclusion and differentiation, often perceiving those attempting to become “alpha’s” in a negative light due to their aggressiveness and difficulty being a team player. Understanding the “why”, we could now ascertain the “how” to affect positive change. As we identify the problem, we can begin working on developing solutions.

With my class being the least restrictive in terms of curricular mandates and of a smaller size, but also of perhaps the most concentrated of negative and violent behaviours, I introduced daily Yoga and meditation. A practicing Yogi myself for nearly 20 years and a certified Yoga instructor, and also as a person with PTSD, I understood the value and impact that such a daily practice could potentially have on students. The movement of Yoga, coupled with the calming affect meditation can have and the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system, were, in my opinion, important first steps in helping students to withdraw from their fight or flight mode and engage in learning. From here, I needed to establish a set of classroom rules – which I referred to as “Our Classroom Agreement” – as a way to keep behaviours in check, develop community, empathy and create an environment conducive for learning. These rules were compiled based largely on the Tribes program which I had trained in previously, in addition to other readings and personal experiences. The result was the following:

  1. No put-downs
  2. Always listen
  3. Respect
  4. No fighting
  5. We all belong
  6. Never give up
  7. You control you

Success did not come quickly, and my first year was difficult. In all honesty, every year has pushed me to my limits. Still, abiding by my own rule #6, I continued to persist. A large part of making these ideas work was to develop positive relationships with my students and their families. At the time, most of my students were strong Muslims from Somalia, and accepting that meditation and prayer were different things did not come easy.

However, over time and with more relationship building which included learning a bit of Somali myself (and, since: Serbian, Romanian, Farsi, on top of my smattering of Slovak, French, German and Spanish), and Balwin’s organization of monthly information nights for parents who were new to Canada went a long way in building bridges and making Balwin a community hub; as well as providing us with the rare opportunity to have translators and effectively communicate with parents. So, again, by never giving up, these strategies began to have a positive effect.

Meditation 1After witnessing these success stories, our Principal proposed that we do morning meditation with all the classes. So we did, with even further success. Then we decided to take things a step further and agreed, in the interests of truly building a positive school community, that we should gather all the students from K-9 in the gym every morning for meditation. I can honestly say, five years in, that the impacts have been profound. School violence and conflict has reduced significantly as students utilize meditation techniques to calm down and self-regulate, and academics have increased in positive results. In my opinion, there is a direct correlation to the settling and peace within our school, and increase in academic success, and our mindfulness practices. Research tends to support the benefits of adding a mindfulness meditation and Yoga practices to school curriculums. Given the affects such practices appear to be having at a school with needs like Balwin, one might assume that schools with more stability would also gain profoundly from implementing such practices.

Article written By Ed Meers

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