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Our great Exergaming friend, Dan Lawler Ph.D. has written another piece of Exergaming. This blog focuses on the Exergaming industry starting to focus more of SPED programs in school districts. We think this is an exciting new direction to bring the industry in, read on and tell us what you think!


Another Tool for the Educators’ Toolbox

By Dan Lawler, Ph.D.

Schools, and especially teachers, provide substantial support for kids who have been identified as having emotional/behavioral disorders.  For teachers to be successful with students, they develop a “toolbox” with an array of strategies.  Students who display inappropriate behaviors that interfere with their success have a long and arduous path to travel as they work to change to a “better” way.  Social competence is linked to peer acceptance, teacher acceptance, inclusion, and both school and post-school success. These are important skills, and they require great patience and persistence on the part of teachers to teach them.

All programs designed for youth with emotional/behavioral disorders rely on a variety of approaches.  According to the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, almost all programs integrate a strong social skill component to support students’ success.  However, most of what we are really asking our socially impaired kids to do involves immediately changing behaviors that are indelibly etched in their brains, i.e. how their brains are “wired.”

Because these students so often struggle with emotional stability, direct instruction on anger management is common.  It’s a strategy to give kids a skill set that is more effective than the ones they are currently employing.  In addition, almost every student who’s being served would be familiar with some type of point system intended to focus on specific behaviors that interfere with being successful in school.  Other strategies that would be a part of the teacher’s “toolbox” would include positive reinforcement, clear boundaries and expectations, consequences for poor choices, a home-school partnership, organization skills, direct instruction, and medication.

Despite all of these efforts, there are still two common unintended consequences that every special ed director should consider when analyzing the overall success of these programs.  First,  despite best efforts, too many of these kids still end up dropping out of school.  Second, the burn-out rate for teachers directly serving these kids is often three to five years.

One common denominator of so many of the strategies in the teacher toolbox is that each one depends on an outside influence to change behaviors.  Whether it’s a point system, positive reinforcement, etc., the strategies are based on rewarding the desired behaviors that a teacher wants a student to exhibit.  It’s important to note that all of these strategies can and do make a difference in children’s lives.

Unfortunately, exercise – one of the most effective treatment strategies that improves mood, lowers aggression, increases focus, improves pro-social behaviors, and increases compliance to teacher requests – is being severely underutilized as an educational tool. The strategy involves understanding and working with the unique physiology of students with emotional/behavioral disorders to help them be successful.  One has only to look at the physiology of exercise and the research to understand the value that this tool provides.

A significant difference between other tools in the toolbox and exercise as an educational tool is that the former are based upon external influences whereas exercise is an internal influence.  When one exercises, dopamine and other neurotransmitters involved in behavior and attention just flow – one can’t stop it  – it just normally happens.  When one works with the body to use those naturally produced neurotransmitters to regulate behavior and attention, they then allow the other strategies to be more effective.

The growing body of research that shows the positive effect of exercise on attention and behavior has typically used treadmills as the source of exercise.  While that might work for the duration of a research study, for kids with attention issues, sustainability is questionable. Michelle Tyne’s work at Dartmouth makes a crucial point: for engagement sustainability, it is important to make exercise fun.

Since students with attention/behavioral issues often will not engage in physical activity, let alone sports, it is important that there are other exercise options that will motivate them to move. This is where Exergaming is unique in its ability to provide a treatment that is exciting, fun, and sustainable.  Exergaming utilizes technology, gaming, and exercise to motivate students to participate.  In one middle school with a program for students with severe behavioral disorders where Exergaming exercise was introduced to the “toolbox”, the faculty, in one semester, saw a 36% decrease in office referrals.  Plus, the gravity of those infractions was less.  They also noted an improvement in mood, focus, and daily compliant behavior.  Every successful teacher who works with kids with emotional/behavioral disorders puts a major emphasis on relationship building, the cornerstone being trust and open-line communication.  This was greatly enhanced through the power of play as staff joined students on the Exergaming equipment.  In addition, it doused the “flames of burn-out” of teachers as they experienced the encouraging change in the behavior of the students and the climate of the room.

Schools and teachers that provide support for kids who have been identified as having emotional/behavioral disorders have “toolboxes” that include many effective strategies, but most are lacking a very important “tool” that can make a huge difference: exercise as an intervention.  If every program in the country had at least a couple of pieces of Exergaming equipment available (to motivate students to engage in physical activity) and staff trained in the effective use of exercise as a strategy, they would have added vital tools to their teachers’ “toolboxes” that could significantly change lives.

You are encouraged to visit the link below to view a video (6 minutes) on the difference that Exergaming, as an educational tool, can have in students’ lives:



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