The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class

A post I published in July titled “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today” seems to have struck a nerve with readers, who continue to read it in big numbers.  The piece was by Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, who said that kids are being forced to sit for too long while they are in school and are being deprived of enough time for real physical activity. This, she said, is affecting their ability to learn and in some cases leading to improper ADHD diagnoses.

Here is a follow-up post by Hanscom in which she talks about how to get kids moving in class and some of the mistakes teachers are making. Some of her suggestions may be controversial. For example, she takes issue with a method that some teachers say they are using with success — having students sit on bouncy balls. Hanscom is the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England.

By  Angela Hanscom

My last post, “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” has and continues to generate tremendous feedback from around the world. Many people wrote that the connection between moving and learning that I wrote about just makes sense. However, with this new enlightenment on why movement and play outdoors is critical to learning and attention in the classroom, came the million-dollar question: “Now what?”

My virtual mailbox instantly got bombarded with email requests–demanding ideas on how to get kids moving both in and outside the classroom. I also noticed people were getting creative. Ideas were being tossed around. Some people suggested, “How about sitting on bouncy balls?” Others asked, “What if children stand to learn?” or “What if we put bike pedals on the classroom seats, so they can exercise while learning?” And finally, “What about taking short movement breaks?”

My initial reaction to these brainstorming sessions was, Finally! People are inspired and are starting to think outside the box. However, as I recalled why I wrote the article in the first place, I realized these strategies were still partly missing the point. They may be creative and thoughtful, but they won’t fix the underlying problem.

In order to create actual changes to the sensory system that results in improved attention over time,  children NEED to experience what we call “rapid vestibular (balance) input” on a daily basis. In other words, they need to go upside down, spin in circles, and roll down hills. They need authentic play experiences that get them moving in all different directions in order to stimulate the little hair cells found in the vestibular complex (located in the inner ear). If children do this on a regular basis and for a significant amount of time, then (and only then) will they experience the necessary changes needed to effectively develop the balance system–leading to better attention and learning in the classroom.

In other words, adjusting children’s seating and taking quick one-minute movement breaks will offer some support — but we will continue to see significant sensory and behavioral problems, as well as a decline in children’s overall health (i.e., rise in obesity, decrease strength, and poor body awareness) if we don’t start allowing for adequate time in which children can get up and out of their seats to move.

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