Kids Who Can't Sit Still
Letting them fidget may keep students focused on learning.
For a few months in the fall of 2009, the sixth - graders in Abby Brown's class in Stillwater Area School District, Minnesota, felt like celebrities - they hosted anchors from local television news programs, a reporter from The New York Times, and camera crews from ABC World News.
The reason for all this attention? The students' desks.
Working with an ergonomic furniture company, Brown designed an adjustable-height desk that allows students to decide how they want to learn: They can stand, sit on a stool, or balance their feet on a swinging footrest.
“The students can’t stand all day, but they can lean against the stool, and the footrest allows for natural movement,” said Brown. “It’s a comforting kind of fidget that helps them stay focused.”
Today, teachers across the country have embraced the surprising idea behind the standing desks’ success: that movement, when channeled correctly, can actually enhance learning. Whether through desks like Brown’s, or do-it-yourself tools and activities like exercise equipment or yoga, teachers have found innovative ways to get students active and improve focus—without derailing the learning process.
“This way, students feel much more in control. They feel like it’s their option, and they don’t have to sit perfectly still and feel confined,” said Brown, who received grant money, including funds from Education Minnesota, an affiliate of the National Education Association, to pay for the desks. “It’s empowering for them.”
Research by a number of experts supports this fidget-friendly mindset. A 2008 study found that children actually need to move to focus during a complicated mental task. The children in the study—especially those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—fidgeted more when a task required them to store and process information rather than just hold it. This is why students are often restless while doing math or reading, but not while watching a movie, explained Dr. Mark Rapport, the supervisor of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Increasing students’ activity level in the classroom provides physical benefits, as well. Dr. Donald Dengel, director of the Laboratory of Integrative Human Physiology and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, co-authored a 2011 study that examined changes in caloric expenditure due to standing desks. His study found that participants using the desks burned 114 more kilocalories per day, or about half a candy bar.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you add that up for five days a week, it’s about two and a half candy bars per week, and over the course of the school year, it adds up to almost six pounds,” said Dengel.
Teachers don’t need to purchase new desks to provide these physical and mental benefits to their students, however. Kent, Washington, high school teacher Michel Plemmons fashioned footrests using old tires to make giant rubber bands, which she strung between the legs of traditional desks to give her students an outlet for foot-fidgets.
“The old tire trick was recommended to me—you could outfit a whole classroom, if you had to, with a few bucks' worth of recycling,” she said. “I don't go first to the expensive, teacher store, items. Shoeboxes and paper tubes and plastic tubs work just as well, and teach a recycling ethic.”
While Plemmons sometimes uses handheld tools like squishy balls, she prefers the footrests because they keep students’ movements out of sight and allow them to write freely.
In keeping with Plemmons’ recycling ethic, North Carolina elementary school counselor Scott Ertl asked friends and community members to donate used exercise bikes for a “Read and Ride” room. Teachers can rent the room for 15-minute intervals, in which their students can read while pedaling away, and many have integrated exercise equipment into their classrooms.
“I've been surprised how eager some students have been to read—especially boys,” Ertl told Education World. "Because they love being active, they find that the movement allows them to have more fun reading. Many students previously thought reading was boring or too hard, but now they see reading can be fascinating and fun."
Trichel House, a kindergarten teacher at Russell Primary School in Russell, Kentucky, created her own techniques to enhance students’ focus. She uses movement, coupled with music, to help students exercise and concentrate during the school day.
“I have found that I had to change my comfort zone to allow for more than the norm of fidgeting,” she said.
At Brittin Elementary in Fort Stewart, Georgia, Gwyn Ann Raczkowski underwent a similar adjustment when she taught a student who liked to walk while reading—and it actually improved her comprehension.
“Kids hate sitting all day, and I do also, so the idea came to me that if they can make a responsible choice and get their work done, it doesn’t matter if it’s at a desk, on a stool, or cross-legged on the floor with a clipboard,” she said.
Since then, Raczkowski has embraced a “whatever works” approach with her students: She uses stability balls, sitting on the floor, and a variety of other tools and activities to help her students stay active and focused. Yoga exercises, especially a few minutes before a test, help Raczkowski’s students concentrate on the task at hand.
Raczkowski admits that her approach may not be the solution for all teachers; but for her, it’s a perfect fit.
Illustration by Dave Clark