It was a boy named Austin who sparked the passion in Shawnee Thornton Hardy to work with children with special needs.
Hardy, who met Austin while working as a preschool assistant in Boston, said the the young boy struggled compared to his peers.
“For Austin and for many, many children — it can be difficult to communicate and express your emotions. That leads to feelings of frustration or sadness,” said Hardy, who is now a behavioral specialist living in North Park. “I began to look into the challenges he was facing. Austin was an inspiration for me — he was the beginning of my path.”
Hardy, a certified yoga instructor, went on to earn her masters in special education. She now trains others in effectively working with children with special needs. This month, Hardy released Asanas for Autism and Special Needs C.A.L.M.M. Yoga Toolkit, a guide for anyone wanting to teach yoga to children.
The toolkit, which includes more than 200 instruction cards, was developed after Hardy wrote a book with the same name in 2015. She said she created the instruction cards after finding a lack of resources for special education teachers.
“I wasn’t able to find what I thought would be the right resource to provide the support for children with special needs,” Hardy said. “The toolkit is appropriate because they’re easy for the children to look at and they won’t be distracted by other images.”
But the instruction cards aren’t like any other cards you’ll find in a store. Hardy said she developed them specifically for children with special needs, utilizing specific language and visuals to help the children process the yoga poses and understand the benefits of the practice. The toolkit also includes wristbands to help the children differentiate from left and right.
Hardy said she hopes the instruction cards will help further the practice of yoga as the benefits for special needs children are plenty. She said it helps reduce anxiety, which is a common problem among children with special needs.
“Children really experience a lot of anxiety in this world, in this day in age,” Hardy said. “There’s a lot of pressure so just getting children to move and understand their breath throughout the day affects their mood and their behavior. It also supports socialization and helps them develop positive relationships with other children.”
Yoga can also improve a child’s self-confidence, said Hardy, who has trained hundreds of teachers in working with children with special needs.
“Yoga helps them recognize the beautiful things in our unique selves. It teaches them self-acceptance and self-love. I have just seen a tremendous difference in my children when we take yoga breaks throughout the day.
“If we can get yoga into school programming, into a home setting, we can really make a big difference in helping them develop coping skills,” Hardy said. “They will just be happier and healthier children.”
For more about Shawnee Hardy, go to asanasforautismandspecialneeds.com.