By Dan Lawler, Ph.D.

In schools today students who engage in antisocial behaviors are a real challenge for teachers and administrators.  Too often these behaviors diminish a student’s ability to learn and often interrupt the education of others.  Many times teachers and schools apply restrictions to privileges, more seat time, anger management strategies, and suspensions as a remedy for these behaviors.  A few months ago I assisted a middle school with initiating an alternative to these traditional approaches for serving kids with a history of emotional, behavioral, and compliance issues.  The strategy was based on recent research showing that targeted exercise and physical activity could reduce aggression, increase focus, and improve learning.  What is unique about this strategy is that it taps into the brain’s motivational system by using technology – and specifically Exergaming – to promote daily exercise for these students.

After two months of executing this intervention, I wanted to get a picture of the impact exercise using Exergaming had on this special education classroom.  I asked the social worker (who also teachers) to give her impressions about how this combination had impacted this classroom environment and these students.  Below is her narrative report on the impact and overall effect that this strategy has had on her, her colleague, and most importantly, the students.

We began integrating movement into our instruction during October with short movement breaks using just our bodies or balance boards that involved students standing on a plastic board that included a maze and moving a ball through the maze by changing their balance on the board.  The students enjoyed this activity and seemed to focus better after the activity.  Even when I timed students to see how many jumping jacks (or similar activities) they could do within a set amount of time they were engaged and wanted to do more of this type of activity.

By November, we had integrated two XaviX into the classroom and implemented scheduled movement breaks throughout the day.  As a class we took 3-4 movement breaks throughout the day that gave each student about 5 minutes of exercise each movement break.  In addition, students could request additional movement breaks throughout the day as needed.  As we gained more equipment and had more choices for students (in January we added two iSTEP DDR pads, two Exerbike GS’s, and a Kinect), we expanded so that each student could have a scheduled 30 minute movement break during the beginning of the day and two 5 minute movement breaks later in the day.

When I think about the impact of implementing exercise in our program, I think particularly about one student who has always had the need for more movement than other students.  He can often be seen walking around the classroom when other students are seated, using fidget toys at his desk, standing at his desk, and having a difficult time focusing.  Since beginning the movement breaks (especially the 30 minute scheduled break), this student hasn’t brought ANY toys to school to fidget with, is much less distracted, has earned fewer office referrals, and is able to participate in class more fully.  He is able to stay in his seat for longer periods of time and is completing more of his work.

I once watched a video clip of Johnathan Mooney, a graduate of Brown University diagnosed with ADHD, talk about how when he was in school teachers viewed him as “crazy, lazy, and stupid” because his need for movement was different from that of students around him.  He said that as he grew up he learned that he only had a disability when he was placed in an environment that made him look disabled.  To me, this is what offering movement breaks is all about.  Students in our program are often viewed this way by adults who don’t understand their needs.  Allowing them access to movement in a way that makes movement normal and expected takes away some of this stigma and just lets them meet their needs.  Dan also brought in a video clip of a school that implemented movement breaks first thing in the morning and saw a decrease in negative behaviors and an increase in participation.  In all my years of working with students with emotional and behavioral issues, this intervention of exercise through exergaming has had the most significant impact on improving behaviors of anything else I have tried.   This has allowed my students to access their education, improve their mood, and make for a completely different learning environment.

Please feel free to contact me for additional information and observations.

Sara Thompson

Integrated Services Teacher

Lincoln Middle School

Fort Collins, CO

What an inspiring testimonial about how the combination of exercise and Exergaming works for students with behavioral issues.  The strategy has definitely improved behaviors, fostered better relationships, and created a feeling of caring for all involved.  Most importantly, however, is that this unique approach has given students better access to their own education by increasing focus, decreasing aggression, and improving the overall learning environment.  Rather than struggling to have these students, who are naturally looking for stimulation, be anchored to their seats all day, educators need to make sure that part of the students’ daily schedule includes aerobic exercise utilizing Exergaming which will sustain motivation and commitment to this unique strategy.

I hope that people realize, from this letter, the possibilities that exist for kids in similar situations all across the country.  If I could wave a magic wand, I would put this intervention in every school that works with kids who learn differently and behave in ways that interfere with their success.  We know that using exercise through Exergaming will not fix every issue, but it can open up opportunities to help kids in ways not previously recognized.

The research is clear that exercise improves mood and behavior.  What’s novel about this intervention is the introduction of Exergaming as the medium to get students (many of whom are reluctant to be physically active) motivated to actually exercise on a regular basis.  Rarely, in my 30 years as a principal, have I witnessed something that has had such an immediate and positive impact on both students and teachers.  If you are working with kids similar to those mentioned in this article, I would encourage you to give this intervention serious consideration.