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Ancient Ways Uplift 21st Century Humans

kids tai chi

By Suzan Mullane, CEI Research Associate. Getting fit in mind, body and spirit is a timeless adult mantra–something to strive for in an often hectic world. But what about our students?

Teaching children emotionally uplifting tools to calm emotions while enhancing attention skills is vital pedagogy for many. Eric Jensen in: ‘Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind,’ (Jensen, 2013), reminds us to teach students how to deal with stress by creating a positive mindset and stimulating students’ locus of control and self-regulation. ‘Use mental relaxation tools like positive self-talk, slow breathing and meditation. Teach students to release the stress.’  We know that stress busters work, but which ones?

Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century. Let’s consider Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese ‘brain body avenue’ involving well-defined slow flowing movements that proactively teaches kids and adults to relax through focused breadth. The benefits? Better self-regulation. Studies conducted at the Institute of Healthy Minds at Madison Wisconsin, show Tai Chi is an effective alternative to pharmaceuticals. These conclusions were based on self-reports from young adults who previously suffered from inattention.

This past week I just completed my first Tai Chi class. I left feeling joyful and clear headed even after a long day. What I particularly enjoyed was my rhythmic breathing as I moved in synchronized patterns with others. Camaraderie–when practicing something new, like synchronized movement in Tai chi–is a wonderful medium to meet new people, very non-threatening.

Tai Chi may not be a traditional ‘brain break classroom strategy’ or even considered in traditional P.E. classes, but perhaps it should be.  Besides being fun, the benefits for many are enhanced:

  1. Listening skills

  2. Stress management,

  3. Simultaneous attention

  4. Cognitive flexibility

  5. Coordination

  6. Working memory

  7. Structured noncompetitive peer socialization

Combating Brain Freeze and Chronic Stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone we all have assists the executive functioning system in our brains, for learning and survival; however, when the human body feels chronic stress, like many of our students who live in chronic poverty, too much cortisol may flow into the bloodstream. BOOM! Our brain’s ability to process some vital social situations can be skewed (Child Development, May/June 2005). It’s like a ‘brain freeze,’ and anyone, including students, especially younger students, can react at a gut level and center themselves in a ‘fight or flight mode.’

When students can learn to refocus on a noncompetitive mind body movement like Tai Chi, their emotional and physical health can improve as well as their self-regulatory skills. Good student choices made through grounded focused energy, without the harmful side effects of stimulant drugs, could offer a multitude of blessings for schools and the families they serve.


Blair,C., Granger D. & Razza, R. P. (2005). Cortisol reactivity is positively related to executive function in preschool children attending Head Start, Child Development , 76, 3, 554-567

Converse, A.K., Ahlers, E.O., Travers, B.G. & Davidson, R.J. (2014). Tai Chi training reduces self-report of inattention in healthy young adults. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8,13.

Jensen, E. (2013). Engaging students with poverty in mind: Practical strategies for raising achievement. Baltimore, MD: ASCD.


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