How Students Build Character & Reduce Stress through Yoga

By Ric Zappa, School Leader, KIPP Summit Academy

Since its origins, KIPP has placed equal emphasis on academics and character development. As educators, we want our students to have grit, aspiring to prepare them for every obstacle that comes their way. When I became principal at KIPP Summit Academy in San Lorenzo, California, in 2010, one of my first initiatives was to integrate restorative practices—an approach to resolving conflict that is designed to help students stay connected to school and their peers—into the curriculum. I also wanted to deepen our character work, specifically around stress management.

In 2008, an English Language Arts teacher introduced me to Katherine Priore, the Executive Director and Founder of Headstand, a non-profit that brings stress reduction techniques and yoga to economically disadvantaged youth. After learning the benefits of the program aligned with the goals of integrating restorative practices and character work, the team and I ultimately decided to implement Headstand into our current curriculum. This decision was transformational.

Headstand did not come to KIPP Summit without some initial resistance. Katherine said, “Some teachers were skeptical of what Headstand could offer.” Critics of the program did not see the benefit of incorporating yoga into an already packed school day where every minute matters. However, Headstand’s structure and approach in class proved to be successful. The program spread to KIPP Heartwood Academy in East San Jose in 2011, and eventually to KIPP Academy Elementary in 2012-13.

“Headstand is much more than yoga … our mission is to combat the negative effects of stress and build character through curriculum, focusing on mindful breathing, yoga, and journaling,” said Katherine.



Headstand’s instructors have all had at least three years of teaching experience, and like traditional educators, they have a set curriculum. For KIPP Bay Area Schools, lessons vary, but are generally grounded in stress reduction and developing the eight character strengths­­ we focus on in the Bay Area—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity, and love.

At KIPP Summit, students attend yoga class once a week for fifty minutes, and at KIPP Heartwood, students attend class twice a week for forty minutes per class. As an example of the curriculum, KIPP Summit’s eighth graders are learning calming strategies, breathing techniques, and developing positive thoughts, as well as conquering advanced yoga postures, such as headstands and arm balances. Students engage in group discussions, journal regularly, and even take tests on key yoga terminology.

Despite the initial skepticism, Headstand is making big gains in student satisfaction and learning. According to the program’s surveys, 98 percent of students have stated that they feel more ready to learn after yoga class. “Students come to me saying that they know how to calm themselves. They know how to move from feeling upset or rowdy to a positive mindset, because they have a reference point from class.”



Try it with your students!

The methods Headstand teaches are not exclusive to a yoga studio. Here is a technique Katherine suggested for any classroom environment:

“Take five” Calming Technique: Instruct students to take five deep breaths to calm the nervous system and refocus so they are ready to learn. Students need to firmly plant their feet on the ground (can be sitting or standing) and inhale for a count of five, blowing up their bellies like a balloon. Students hold their breath (with a big balloon belly) for five counts, then open their mouth slightly and breathe out for a count of five. Students can repeat the “Take Five” technique three times to shift back into a more calm state.


For more information on Headstand, visit