Photo: LA Johnson/NPR
Everyone has that one child…..
I recently spoke at a preschool teacher’s conference. I was excited to hear their questions about how to support children with sensory differences in the classroom. As I was listening to their questions and stories, I started seeing a pattern.
Everyone has that ONE child that stands out to them. The one that they stay up nights thinking about. They have tried every behavioral and motivational strategy they could think of and nothing seems to be working. The child that you know is horribly anxious, leading to acting out or running out of the classroom. The one that is quietly sitting in the corner and doesn’t seem to want to socialize with the other kids. The child that wanders in circles on the playground but won’t climb on any equipment. There is always one. And often more than one.
But we need to start somewhere. And usually, it’s the child that seems to be the most disruptive to the flow of the classroom routine and unable to self-regulate to stay focused.
Where Do You Begin?
Step 1: Schedule Movement into the Routine
At the beginning of the school year, teachers spend a lot of time setting up their routines and helping children “get in the groove.” Many of the issues seem to resolve as children learn that they can count on things happening at certain times of the day. But a routine is only the first step.
What should be in your routine? Many studies support the idea that exercise and yoga improve self-regulation. Schools have implemented mindfulness strategies as well. All in an effort to help children be more available for learning. But are these activities part of your scheduled routine or do you just “try to do a few brain breaks throughout the day”?
My first recommendation is to schedule movement opportunities so they happen BEFORE children sit down to engage in the next learning activity. Whether it’s listening to a story, independent work, learning a math concept, or partner reading, children’s bodies need to be proactively prepared for learning. This is different from an opportunity to “burn energy off” after concentrating.
Children move to learn. That is how their senses and their brain get activated to take in, process, and adapt to the world around them. So the next time you plan your daily routine, schedule your preparatory movement activity in addition to your brain break!
Step 2: Decide what Movement to Include and How to Balance Technology with Exercise.
Teachers use a variety of programs and videos from the internet to quickly access fun and educationally relevant movement and exercise videos. But did you ever stop to think about how much screen time kids are now getting during the day. They read online, play video games, watch TV in the car on the way to appointments, and play with mom’s cell phone… It’s a lot. Especially when the American Academy of Pediatrics published guidelines for screen time by age stating that young children and teens should only have 1-2 hours daily of screen time for leisure. A study published by The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health found that following the guidelines for approximately equal amounts of screen time (1-2 hours) and movement (1 hour) combined with adequate sleep (9-11 hours) is associated with improved global cognition. Maybe it’s time to rethink adding screen time to our movement breaks and focus on the quality of the movement breaks we take.
So what do I recommend instead? Do 3-4 exercises before transitions in the following order:
Energize with Dancing and Aerobic exercises to increase the heart rate. Specifically, incorporate head tipping and turning.
- Tip: Speeding up and slowing down keeps children from getting overstimulated.
- Why? Vestibular (movement) input supports alertness and increases arousal. It also directly connects to our vision to support the development of functional visual skills.
- Why start with this? We want kids to be alert and connected so they are available to learn.
Activate with Windmills and Cross Body Taps. Facilitate midline crossing and get the two sides of the brain/body working together.
- Tip: Children MUST look at their hands with each tap or windmill.
- Why? 80% of the information we receive comes through the visual system. It needs to be the lead system, guiding our bodies’ movement so that we look where we are going, don’t bump into other children, and can use our eyes to guide our hands for writing and drawing.
Regroup with stretching and eye cupping:
- Tip: Combine stretching up/down and left/right with having children close their eyes. OR stretch first and end with 30 seconds of eye cupping while encouraging deep breathing. This is also a great time to add in your mindfulness strategies or simple yoga movements if that is already a part of the classroom culture.
- Why? Increased screen time adds to the stress on a child’s visual system. Children often tense their bodies while sitting for long periods and/or visually fatigue out of activities. Think about how often they are asked to “sit up and listen” and “keep their eyes on the teacher” and “stay focused” on their work. It’s exhausting and children need to recover from the effort.
Step 3: Know Your Why
You can help that one child in your classroom be more successful and less disruptive by meeting their foundational body needs. Building these three elements into movement breaks will help that child who needs more movement or is overly fidgety get what he needs. It will also help that child’s body to work for him so learning is easier. As teachers and professionals, we know that the child who is struggling often fatigues out of activities faster than his/her peers. So by ending with regrouping activities and even building them in quickly throughout the day after reading and writing, we teach that child how to balance what their body needs to recover with the expectations and the demands of the school day. Body Activated Learning will leave children calm, organized and connected to their bodies so they can optimize their attention and focus for learning, no matter if the struggle is emotional, physical, or learning-related.
Take Away Message:
I believe that all movement opportunities are beneficial for children. It doesn’t matter if you use brain breaks, wiggle breaks, yoga, or mindfulness. However, there is always that one child in the classroom who is not responding to the routine and the behavior strategies the teacher is using. If it’s it’s more than one child, then you have nothing to lose by trying out the Body Activated Learning approach to incorporating proactive opportunities for movement in the classroom that is focused on meeting the sensory, neurological, and visual needs of today’s learners.
Written by: Aubrey Schmalle, OTR/L, Owner of Sensational Achievements and author of the Body Activated Learning Handbook