Sixth graders at Mount Anthony Union Middle School use exercise balls Wednesday in place of standard seats. (Peter Crabtree)
Sixth graders at Mount Anthony Union Middle School use exercise balls Wednesday in place of standard seats. (Peter Crabtree)
Thursday March 14, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Teachers in some area classrooms are doing away with chairs in place of stability exercise balls as more and more research shows incorporating movement into the school day helps students stay engaged.

Classrooms in various local schools have begun offering the large rubber balls for students to sit, bounce and squirm around on while at their desks, as a way to promote continuous blood flow and oxygen circulation to brain.

"The research shows when they're engaging their body in some way, they're actually more focused," said Jeff Johnson, a physical education teacher at Mount Anthony Union Middle School who has been one of the leaders in a movement to incorporate motion in every class. "When their bodies are slouched in class is when they start losing focus. We call (using the balls) active sitting."

Recently, the middle school received exercise balls for use by an entire class donated by local chiropractor Ken Sullivan. The balls will rotate to different classrooms in the school and serve as a trial to see whether students and teachers would like to permanently make the switch.

Sixth graders in Macaela Shaughnessy's math and science classes were the first to try out the new balls after they were delivered to her room Wednesday. Shaughnessy has had a limited number of exercise balls in some of her classes before and believes in their benefits, particularly with students who are often fidgety.


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In the past, students who have trouble sitting still have been encouraged to squeeze stress balls or hold other things in their hands, which Shaughnessy said are often more of a distraction than a benefit.

"(The exercise balls are) something in the back of their mind. They're still focusing on the lesson; whereas, when they have something in their hand, and that was always the go-to method for keeping kids focused, that is something that they visually see and other kids want and it becomes more of a toy. Here, if they all have them, it's not necessarily a distraction," Shaughnessy said.

In addition to encouraging movement to keep students thinking, the balls also serve the purpose they are most commonly used for: Strengthening core muscles.

One initial concern the balls may raise for some is whether there is a risk students may fall off and injure themselves; however, sixth grade teacher Catherine Coons said after having some exercise balls in her classroom the past three years, she has never had that happen. As long as rules are in place and students understand how to behave with the balls, Coons said the balls are no more of a risk than chairs.

"If you make the rules clear at the beginning of the class, they don't do it," she said. "Clearly if a kid is using it in an unsafe way you say, ‘you're off the ball, go get a chair.'"

Middle school classrooms are not the only ones exercise balls have also been rolling into. Another room where the majority of students have chosen balls over chairs is Lisa Ferris' second grade class at Molly Stark Elementary. Ferris has said the balls are great for high-energy students. Like Coons, Ferris said her students have been responsible with the balls after she made the rules clear. If a student misbehaves with the ball the ball is taken away and, she said, because many students prefer the balls, the rules are rarely broken.

As a physical education teacher, Johnson has long bought into the importance of exercise and movement and in recent years he has led teacher training efforts about ways to break up classes with short spurts of movement. Throughout Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union -- and many schools across the country -- teachers have been experimenting with doing "brain breaks" as part of their regular instruction. Similar to the intended benefits of the exercise balls, the breaks allow students to get the blood flowing, relax their mind for a moment, and then regain focus when they sit back down.

Among the teachers who uses brain breaks is Shaughnessy, who said she's been able to notice a difference since including about a minute during classes to allow students to move around. Breaks include movements such as jumping jacks or jogging around the room.

"I have one 90-minute block right after lunch and that's a really hard block to keep them focused if they didn't have a break. When they get rid of that energy or they use that energy with some kind of physical activity it makes them more alert for the rest of the period," Shaughnessy said. "And they get really excited about it too. They love taking a break and going for a 10-second lap around the classroom."

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi