Sometimes reputations are deserved.  Sometimes reputations can disguise what’s really happening in an organization.  In this case, we’re talking about a school that has been burdened with the reputation of a significant portion of its students being difficult to manage and, thus, difficult to educate. In this case,the data actually legitimizes the reputation.
With regard to the school being referenced, two data points are of particular interest:
  1. The number of parents who opt to have their children attend a different middle school
  2. This school had a history of 1000 office referrals for disciplinary action
Historically, one significant measure of effective schools and successful instruction has been good classroom management.  That became a rite of passage to become an effective teacher.  Sometimes, however, the bad comes with the good.  Yes, we’ve created an orderly environment, but we’ve done so measured by how successfully we can keep kids in their seats without being disruptive.  What we know now, fortunately, is that good classroom management must also include time for physical activity/brain breaks and classroom movement.
In an attempt to change the culture where discipline has been an overriding issue, this school will be incorporating aerobic exercise as a means to improve behavior and attitudes that for so long have interfered with learning.
Here’s what we know:
  • Societal and clinical concern of antisocial behavior in school-aged children is significant. Students engaging in antisocial behavior represent a major challenge in the school system (Cihak, Kirk and Boon, 2009) and account for a large proportion of placements in special education classes (Knitzer, Steinberg, and Fleisch, 1990). Despite significant support and interventions, issues involving anti-social behavior remain high.
  • New research is showing that exercise and physical activity can improve students’ behaviors and give them a better opportunity to access their education.  Connected to this research is evidence that students with anti-social behavior have an unpleasant physiological state that prompts the student to seek stimulation via aggressive and other inappropriate actions (Folino, 2011).  Additional research points to this physiological state being caused by a malfunctioning of genes resulting from a sedentary life style (Ratey & Satterail, 2012).
  • A substantial and growing body of evidence is demonstrating that children with aggressive and disruptive behaviors display a decrease in problem behavior after participating in exercise or physical activity. Many of these kids are physiologically “wired differently” (especially ADHD), and the more we can use the research to work with that physiology, the more effectively we work with them.
  • Despite the high prevalence of antisocial behaviors in schools, teachers often receive little or no specialized training in behavior management and often feel unprepared to deal with these students (Obenchain and Taylor, 2005).
  • When dealing with antisocial and disruptive students, teachers tend to be reactive and rely on punitive approaches. Common disciplinary strategies include verbal reprimands, time out, exclusion, and suspensions (Bear, 1998). Mounting evidence suggests that the use of harsh and punitive disciplinary strategies do not result in long-term reduction in maladaptive behavior and may actually heighten such problems (Sherrod, Getch, and Ziomek-Daigle, 2009).
  • Teachers of students with anti-social behavior often spend a disproportionate amount of their time and effort addressing disruptive behavior instead of teaching positive behavior strategies and academics (Sherrod, Getch, and Ziomek-Daigle, 2009).  Anti-social student behavior can lead to excessive teacher stress and burnout, job dissatisfaction, and high attrition rates (Baker, Lang, and O’Reilly, 2009).   When teachers are stressed, all students in the classroom (those with and without challenging behavior) are likely to suffer serious consequences (Bru, 2009).  Stressed teachers may devote less time and energy to job commitment, teacher-pupil rapport, student motivation, and educational goals. Despite the best of intentions, they are exhausted.
  • A 2006 University of Georgia study involved 16 young men with high-trait anger.  The researchers flashed a series of slides intended to induce anger depicted through events that were upsetting.  What they looked at was how exercise could reduce or inhibit levels of anger.  The results of the study suggest that exercise – even a single bout of it – can have a robust prophylactic effect against the build up of anger.  When the men did no exercise, they had considerable difficulty controlling their racing emotions.  But after exercise, their moods were under firmer control.
If this isn’t enough reason to incorporate physical activity into the school, there is an additional body of research that connects physical activity to improved cognition.  Moderate to vigorous exercise not only activates the attention system but gives access to the executive functioning needed for learning, problem solving, and creative thinking.
After years of interventions to improve the environment by reducing the number of discipline issues, most of the attempts have had temporary, if not minimal, effect. This year this school is taking a new tact in reducing the number of discipline issues and improving the learning environment for their students.  After careful consideration and thorough research, the leadership and faculty have enacted the concept of increasing physical activity as a strategy to offset the high number of classroom disruptions and office referrals.
One of the interventions that inspired the move toward a more comprehensive approach was the success of a pilot that was conducted last year with 15 of the most significantly disruptive students.  For six months these students participated in 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise utilizing a mini-lab of Exergaming equipment. Even students who would normally resist being physically active were motivated to participate because the programs were so engaging.  What was observed was a 37% drop in office referrals, improved climate in the classroom, improved teacher sense of efficacy, improved time-on-task, and, thus, learning. There was such optimism that grew out of that action research that the school decided to expand that experience for all students by putting in an Exergaming lab for the whole school to use.
The Exergaming lab will consist of high-tech, interactive, highly motivational game platforms that require movement.  The lab includes such activities as racing games and dance routines, some of which are competitive and others that focus in individual performance improvement.  The goal of the program is to reduce discipline issues, improve health and wellness, increase academic achievement, and, ultimately, make the school experience more positive for all the students.  This will be an exciting adventure!