An organization created for educators, by educators. That’s how Lauren Greenspan describes Youth Yoga Project, a social enterprise created by herself and co-founder Julia Handelman.
After years of working in academia and public school settings, both Greenspan and Handelman stumbled upon a missing piece of the mental health aspect in K-12 education, for both students and teachers themselves.
“We saw this huge gap and unmet need, which is that we oftentimes ask students to calm down or focus in the classroom, but we’re not teaching them how,” Greenspan explains.
She found that educators did not know where to start with helping students “calm down,” usually relying on counselors like herself.
“Oftentimes teachers would send their students to me for support with their stress or emotions, which of course was my job,” Greenspan says. “I was happy to help them with that, but I kind of had this a-ha moment of, ‘What if I train the teachers on some of these really basic reading strategies, relaxation strategies, movement strategies that could be incorporated into their classroom instruction?’”
The two chose yoga and mindfulness as the focus of their program, which launched in 2017. Greenspan and Handelman found breathing exercises and meditation were the best and easiest strategies for children and educators to use in and out of the classroom.
“We really want to be able to lift up strategies and practical tools that would help teachers not only attend to their own selfcare, as well as be able to teach their students some practical tools so they could manage their emotions and their learning already in the classroom,” Greenspan explains.
“We know that all it requires to practice these strategies is your breath and your body, so we really wanted to focus on those as tools because we know that kids will have access to them anytime, anywhere for their lifetime and all of these well-being strategies would just become a part of the school day.”
The founders first started the pilot program by going to local schools and teaching yoga to children, later pivoting to training teachers on how to bring mindfulness into the classroom. This pivot allowed them to expand their reach and ultimately serve more students.
A social enterprise model of “train the trainer” fit their goals.
“What we really started to develop as part of our social enterprise approach to this work is offering a training and mindfulness curriculum to teachers so that they could start to integrate yoga and mindfulness directly into the school day,” says Greenspan.
The trainings consist of various modules, including a two-day training session where teachers can learn best practices for teaching yoga and mindfulness to students. The coaching also includes the Mindfulness Curriculum, a professional development program taught directly in schools with the goal that every teacher in the building can have the same set of skills and tools to best support students. This 35-week, researched-based program gives students 70 mindfulness tools and practices that they can use moving forward, even after the school year ends.
Recently, the demand for student and teacher mindfulness is more important than ever before, as most schools nationwide transitioned to fully-remote or a hybrid learning model due to the pandemic, causing Greenspan and Handelman to pivot their training strategy to best support their community.
“We know that in order to have well-functioning, happy, healthy schools, you have to have happy, healthy adults inside of that school. So even pre-pandemic that was a priority for us and it became even more important when the pandemic hit,” Greenspan says. “We’ve seen across the country increases in mental health concerns, increased isolation, worry, anxiety, stress.”
The founders ultimately shifted the program to an online format, creating new training for educators specifically catered to navigating and understanding the impact of the pandemic, both on themselves and their students, as well as providing practical stress reduction strategies to implement with their class.
“We’ve been able to provide training from last summer all the way through this fall, really helping teachers be prepared to help themselves and their students heal and build resilience in the face of COVID. So we’ve been supporting teachers to teach that wonderful curriculum via Zoom and giving them best practices for creating videos that their students can watch,” Greenspan says. “We’ve found that to be really successful. We’ve been presenting at many conferences over the summer and fall to help educators across the state understand these concepts.”
Teacher well-being has become an increasing need for the program, with much of their mindfulness curriculum zeroing in how to best support educators during this time.
“Teacher stress is at an all-time high,” Greenspan says. “They have been asked so much this year to make so many shifts very quickly. In addition to teaching teachers how to support their students, we want to continue teaching teachers how to support themselves.”
Aside from training and education, the organization recently launched a social enterprise product that allows students to practice mindfulness in their own home during remote learning. These “Mindfulness at Home Kits,” are curated boxes full of activities and mindfulness strategies that promote family time away from the screen. The boxes can be purchased directly on the program site, and operate on a buy one, donate one model, where customers can get a box for their own student and donate another to a student who might not otherwise have access.
The bright yellow boxes differ by age group, with different tools and activities personally customized for children of all grade levels to have the opportunity to practice mindfulness, regardless of where they go to school.
After participating in Philanthropitch in March of 2020, Greenspan and Handelman narrowed in on their business model and further brainstormed more ways to give back to the community through their organization.
“It really helped us to look at our business model and think about the different ways that we can earn revenue as an organization and to use that earned revenue or any net income that we have in the organization to invest back in our community, through scholarships and free and reduced cost programming for teachers and schools,” Greenspan explains.
“We were able to get really specific about how we operate as a business and organization, so that was a major benefit, and then of course having the opportunity to be on stage, tell our story, and increase awareness about what we’re doing.”
Within the foreseeable future, the Youth Yoga Project team hopes to expand their trainings and continue their curriculum to educators and schools outside of Ohio.
“We want to continue to be a community partner to schools, and a leader and an expert in the area of wellness, student mental health and mindfulness in schools,” Greenspan says.
This includes not only opening training sessions to teachers and educators, but also parents, community members, and even medical professionals.
“We welcome anybody who wants to learn more about how to support young people’s wellbeing through mindfulness and yoga to our training,” Greenspan says.
She also encourages anyone who is interested in supporting mental health in schools to visit their YouTube channel, where several videos can be found on mindfulness and yoga strategies for students and families to use at home.
To learn more on how you can get involved in the next Youth Yoga Project training on January 16, visit youthyogaproject.net. For more information on health and wellness social enterprises like Youth Yoga Project, visit the SocialVentures Marketplace.
Founded in 2014, SocialVentures is a non-profit organization that advances remarkably good businesses—businesses that intentionally integrate social impact as a non-negotiable component of their business model. To contact SocialVentures, send an email to [email protected] or visit socialventurescbus.com.