In one district where teachers practice yoga, student behavior is better

Yoga was Superintendent Barbara Malkas' response to the stress educators were dealing with when North Adams Public Schools reopened to in-person learning during the COVID pandemic. And it's still paying off.

Here’s an unconventional way to improve student behavior: get your teachers practicing yoga. That was Superintendent Barbara Malkas’ response to the stress educators were dealing with when North Adams Public Schools in Massachusetts reopened to in-person learning during the COVID pandemic.

And the effort continues to pay off. A teacher who adopted yoga said that last school year that she did not send any students to the office because of behavioral problems.

“It’s very hard for teachers or any human being to be responsible for the social-emotional health and wellbeing of another person without first attending to themselves,” says Malkas, Massachusetts’ 2024 Superintendent of the Year and a certified yoga instructor. “By addressing self-care through mindfulness, through mindful movement and moments of presence, it allows teachers to all be there for their students and to provide that security for their students.”

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For her training, Malkas chose Breathe for Change, a yoga and social-emotional learning program specifically designed for classroom educators. Over the last few years, about 45 of her teachers have also been certified. Malkas and some of her staff now offer weekly yoga classes to community members.

“The discipline referrals in classes where teachers are using mindfulness and mindful movement have decreased substantially,” Malkas notes. “One teacher reported she had not had one significant office referral the entire year last year, which was revolutionary compared to the years prior.”

It’s not just about yoga in North Adams

Just like the educators in her past who drove her with high academic expectations, she wants to provide the same experiences for her students. When it comes to the basics, the district serves free breakfast and lunch to all students. On the other side of the spectrum, North Adams operates one of the few early-college high schools in Massachusetts.

“Students need to have that experience to know there are no barriers to them attending and completing college,” Malkas notes. “Even though we have a college locally, many students think it’s not for them because their demographic and historical context would tell them it’s not for them.”

The early college environment was many years in the making, starting with developing one of the region’s most robust advanced placement programs. District leaders also engaged students in designing the early-college curriculum and course schedules, including which classes are offered at the high school and which at the local campus, the Massachusetts College Of Liberal Arts.

Over last the four years, North Adams has been building its “portrait of a graduate” in collaboration with other high schools in western Massachusetts. This allowed students to work with their peers in other districts. So what else is she most excited about?

“Even though we’re a high-needs district and we don’t have a lot of resources, the community truly believes in education and is willing to support education,” Malkas concludes. “I have an amazing group of district leaders—I have a nice balance of veterans who bring a lot of experience and knowledge and some young, energic educators who are looking at our system with fresh eyes and thinking strategically about how to move the district forward.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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