Would you sit still and focus?!

The Problem

I can remember countless times during my childhood that I just could NOT sit still in school. In Second Grade, I got in trouble for the very first time for my wiggles. We were studying vocabulary words and I’d subconsciously devised a strategy for these simple words. Each time I would spell a word, I swung my legs forcefully forward while saying each letter in my head.

Office. O *swing* F *swing* F *swing* I *swing* C *swing* E *swing*.”

I was very quickly working through my vocabulary when suddenly my teacher said quite loudly “Lydia, if you do not stop that right now you’ll have to flip a card!” I was completely frozen. What had I done? I couldn’t figure it out. I sat completely still and focused on nothing but the complete and utter embarrassment that was attempting to swallow me whole.

Once I was sure that everyone had gone back to their studies, I began practicing my vocabulary words once more. Again, I swung my legs subconsciously as I spelled out the words in my mind. Inevitably, my teacher called out my name and demanded I flip my card. While still unsure of what I’d done, I quietly walked to the front of the class where everyone could see and flipped my beautiful green card to yellow.

(If you are unaware of the card flipping system of classroom management, I suggest you look into it. It is without a doubt the worst memory of school that I have).

You see, my teacher assumed I was playing; goofing off while I swung my legs back and forth. Instead, I had found a rhythmic focusing strategy. I may have not even realized what I was doing, but my body was instinctually aware of my need for movement and accommodated itself. To my teacher, however, I was not sitting still. Therefore, I was not focusing.

Is Sitting Still Indicative of Focusing?

According to the scientific community, our brains’ information processing and retention is enhanced when accompanied with movement. According to the journal Frontiers in Psychology, even gesturing is a way for our brains to process and remember information. “Gesturing has been shown to improve problem-solving abilities by decreasing working memory load by conveying the same information through a second, image-based, modality…” When I was swinging my legs while practicing my vocabulary, I was turning my brain on. I was waking up my brain from its slumber in order to maximize its learning capabilities.

When we are still and inactive, our brains tend to go to sleep. We become tired, lethargic and desensitised. Often times, when a child is watching television in a reclining position without actively engaging with the program, they have trouble retelling the plot. However, if the child gets up to engage with the show (making car sounds, pretending to fight the bad guy, etc), they will likely be able to provide a much more  detailed account of what occurred in the program.

A child’s (in fact, no one’s) body is not designed for extended sedentary periods. The very last thing you can expect a child to be doing while sitting still for an extended period of time is focusing on a lesson.

Classroom Implementations

Teachers know that children need to move. However, the current required educational checkpoints and standards that teachers are bombarded with can make fitting this movement into the day extremely difficult. So how do we accommodate this movement need and allow for energy release in our students while still meeting educational standards and cramming in the required curriculum?

Our current Groove Break is less about taking moments out of the day to wiggle and shake, and more about creating accessible tools for students to facilitate functional movement while maintaining a focused classroom that is meeting its educational checkpoints and standards.

  1. Seating Adjustment

For many students, sitting in a typical classroom desk is excruciating. The chair is not designed with growing bodies in mind. Instead, a one size fits all model is assigned to each student. Often times, you will see students contorted in very unnatural positions in their chairs as they try to find a position that is conducive with comfort. Luckily, there are things we can do to accommodate students who may be struggling with this seating method.

  • Exercise/Stability Balls – Exercise balls are a great seating option for students who sit at tables. They are especially great for those who may find it difficult to sit without bouncing their legs, rocking or getting up frequently to sharpen a pencil or use the bathroom. Additionally, these a great aid to students who may have sensory disruption issues or an ADHD diagnosis. A child sitting on an exercise ball can access a range of motion while remaining seated at the table. By gently bouncing up and down on the ball (with bottom remaining on the ball at all times), students can provide themselves with vestibular input. This plays a key role in being grounded, centered, equilibrium and  postural dynamics. This movement on a ball can also provide a child who is sensory seeking with proprioceptive input. This tells their body where they are in space and can be very organizing and focusing for a child.
  • Stretch Bands – These large elastic bands allow students to pull or push their feet and legs without getting out of their seat. These have been marketed as Bouncy Bands but can be made out of simple exercise bands that we would recognize from the 80’s. This band attaches around the legs of a chair or desk and allows students to manipulate it with their feet. This provides enough tension for sensory input and energy release by the student pushing, pulling and bouncing without causing a distraction to themselves, their peers or the classroom environment. These movements can become rhythmic focusing tools for children who may be struggling with attention during the school day.
  • Scoop Chairs – These chairs allow for students to take their studies to the floor while still supporting an upright seated position. The difference is that the bottoms of these chairs are rounded to allow for rocking back and forth. Many children with sensory processing disorders, autism spectrum disorder or ADHD find that the rocking is very organizing. Because this motion helps reset the vestibular system (which controls equilibrium, postural dynamics), students can find more calming focus during their task while rocking back and forth.
  • Floor Work – Whenever there is time in  your schedule, get students out of their seats and onto the floor. Offering students the option to take notes,  study, go over course work, work in groups or read texts while in a varied position can wake up their bodies and minds. This change of positioning also offers physical relief to tense muscles that can become sore from remaining seated for extended periods of time. When a student is more comfortable and at ease, their able to give attention to the task at hand.
  1. Keeping our Hands Busy

A student’s lower body and trunk are not the only muscles that need to be activated in order to refocus the mind. While large motor movements are excellent tools for pairing cognitive ability and attention, fine motor activities during the school day should not be overlooked. Fidget tools can be very soothing and focusing for students struggling with attention.

  • Fidget Pencils – These busy tools are great for the working classroom. This tool attaches to the top of a pencil and provides distraction free fidgeting. Rather than pencil tapping and eraser chewing, students can keep their fingers busy twisting and untwisting this unique tool while maintaining focus on their task.   
  • Texture – Often times, we think of texture tools as items that are only beneficial to students with special needs. However, almost every student can find calming stress relief in the feel of differing textures. Now how do we add this to our classroom? Simple; Velcro Strips! Applying velcro strips to the underside of desks can provide tactile input to those searching for focus. Additionally, because these are placed under the desk, they are out of the range of distraction. Try placing one soft and one scratchy velcro strip, about 3 inches in length, on the underside of desks or chairs to provide students with a sensory object to keep their hands busy and their minds on task.
  • Stress Balls – We’ve all seen the colorful little balloon balls filled with flour that wear funny faces. These wacky sacks are meant for pinching, squeezing, stretching and massaging when we feel stressed, anxious or worried. Often times, this tool can be used as a focusing strategy for students who just can’t seem to keep their hands still. You may find them picking their nails, pulling lint off of their sweater, doodling haphazardly in their books, twirling their hair etc. Having a stimulating object in the student’s hands that allows manipulation without distraction or destruction can help refocus their mind to their task. A great use of this is to make a rule for the stress ball to only be used under the desk or in their lap. When listening to a lecture, reading notes off of the board or viewing a video presentation, students can manipulate the stress ball out of sight to realign their attention and keep their brains awake. These tools can be cheaply bought or easily made with a few balloons and some flour.

Distracting vs. Organizing

Often times, the idea of adding tools for students to interact with, or seating arrangements that are unconventional into the classroom can be daunting. It is easy to become skeptical of their benefits. They can be seen as distracting toys rather than focusing tools. As with every item in the classroom, students need a demonstration and definition of each tool being presented in the classroom.

As mentioned above, introducing stability balls without proper demonstration or definition is hazardous. It would be like introducing a trampoline or rodeo horse into the classroom. However, when guidelines are set and boundaries are made, students can understand the function and benefit of each item presented in the classroom. Handing out stress balls with no instruction is a recipe for disaster. However, introducing them as a tool that they can access when they need to move their hands along with the guidelines of having it under the desk or in their lap creates a structure for the tool that prevents misuse.

If you see that a child is using an object improperly, perhaps it’s not the object suitable for them, or maybe they need another reminder. If you find that floor work time has turned into social hour, try adjusting the amount of students on the floor at a time or the groups that are together.

Remember that modeling is excellent. Speak out loud for students to hear as you recognize a need of your own.

“I really feel stiff in my back. I’m going to work on the floor.” “I can’t focus on this grading very well. I feel like I need to wiggle. I’m going to use my stretch band and move my legs.” “I feel worried about this assignment. I’m going to use a stress ball in my lap to squeeze. This will help me focus and relax.”

Recognize a need vocally. Then provide a solution for them to hear. This does not have to be a performance, but the modeling of self care is an excellent guide for students to follow.

Closing Thoughts

The biggest lesson you can remember is that there are a multitude of options for a reason. Students are not cookie cutters (as we all know). Therefore, different tools will work for different students. Empower your students to make the choice for themselves. Help them recognize anxiety, restlessness, boredom, exhaustion or discomfort that may be building up from a day spent in a desk. Then work with them to find solutions so they can stay on task and meet their goals.

Have some suggestions for us? Leave a comment below with your thoughts! Let us know if you’ve tried any of these techniques and how they went. Do you have a specific tool that you use in your classroom when your students need to move? We would love to hear from you! Drop us a line in the comments below!

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