Hays Free Press
On a recent Thursday in a gently-lit gym on the Hays High School campus, students
from special education hum and moan as they copy the gentle movements of their
Tai Chi instructor.
Flexing their hands, both students and teachers raise their arms, holding an imaginary globe out in front of their relaxed bodies. Soon, teacher Jim Williams from Four Seasons School of Tai Chi Chuan leads the group through a walking exercise, showing students how to use minimal energy to glide across the hardwood.
“If you feel like you are doing a lot of work you are not doing it right,” advised Williams, directing the comment to the special education teachers and aides that will continue the instruction once Williams’ contract expires.
During the lesson, teachers and aides calmly guide their charges’ attention, pointing at Williams, offering help, and high fives, if needed. The visitor distracts a few students, and one boy makes laps around the gym, but for the most part all eyes and attention is focused on Williams, mimicking his poses and movements.
“I knew about Tai Chi and its health benefits,” said Special Ed Life Skills teacher Julie Ward, who is collaborating with teacher Julie McCann on the program. “I thought my students would be able to learn the poses if we practiced enough, so I wanted to find out if the health benefits would become automatic, thereby “automatically’ improving their behavior and helping to prevent undesirable behavior.”
Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art attributed to the Daoist monk Chang San-feng, is a sequence of slow, relaxed movements designed to enhance a person’s balance, coordination and flexibility. Practitioners believe Tai Chi strengthens the natural connections between the body’s muscular system, breath and circulation.
A grant award from the Hays Education Foundation resulted in funding for the Tai Chi instruction, which takes place every other week until May. The $1,350 grant pays for 10 classes with Williams.
On the days when Williams doesn’t lead the exercise, the students practice in the classroom.
“We practice every day in my class, and one of the students always leads,” Ward said. “It’s pretty amazing and hilarious at the same time – we’re completely silent, all eyes on the leader, and we do whatever they do, which is by no means “authorized’ Tai Chi. Sometimes it’s stretching that they remember from other activities. And for some reason, the leader always starts drumming on the desk, and the rest of us join in. It seems to fit. I told Mr. Jim about it, and he thought it was great.”
Ward has kept a behavior chart, hoping to show that Tai Chi results in less acting out and a calmer classroom environment.
“My classroom definitely had a honeymoon period that lasted about three weeks,” Ward said. “Everyone, aides and me included, was in a better mood, and I did not record any incidents on the behavior chart I’m keeping.
“That changed last week. I’ve documented some behavior incidents in the past two weeks. I talked to Mr. Jim about it, to see if it was common.”
According to Ward, Williams said that after a few weeks people begin to realize that it takes work to see benefits. “So we’ll continue doing the work,” Ward said.
Despite the setback, Ward hopes the long-term benefits will pay off in better behavior. Williams, who also teaches senior citizens Tai Chi in an effort to reduce falls, said balance is one of the great benefits to the exercise.
“Balance can make you feel calmer,” Williams said.
And feeling calm may be a gateway to less behavior infractions.
“One of the goals you often find in behavior plans for special needs students is “learn behavior management (or anger management or relaxation) techniques,’” Ward said. “I’ve only been a teacher for three years, but I’ve found teaching behavior management to life skills students to be very challenging. With their disabilities, they learn much better by doing. Trying to make a connection between deep breathing and anxiety is too abstract for them.
“Also, with the longer time they need for processing information and reacting to it, it’s difficult to get them to breathe deeply or squeeze a stress ball when they are in the “fight or flight’ stage of anger or anxiety. Actually, that’s probably true for everyone -not just disabled people. So prevention seems to be the way to go.”
Already a part of Ward’s classroom, she plans on continuing well beyond the end of the school year.
“Our classes with Mr. Jim end in May,” Ward said. “I think I will start taking one of his classes in Austin at that point, so I can continue to learn and work with the students.
“We’re going to do this daily. As long as I’m the teacher, it’s part of the classroom routine now.