The ExerGaming Lab As an Effective Tool to Help Students With Behavior Issues

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 unusually low resting heart rate which causes 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).  

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 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 those with ADHD), and the more we can use the research to work with that physiology, the more effectively we can work with them.

Recently, some schools have employed a new intervention:  installing ExerGaming mini-labs in special ed classrooms to significantly assist in putting into practice what the research shows the relationship to be between exercise and behavior.  The unique value of using ExerGaming equipment is that, contrary to the traditional approach of having kids sit for 6 hours a day and expecting them not to misbehave, it provides a motivating venue that will engage often-reluctant students to actually exercise and raise their heart rates.  

The main focus is to target exercise for students with anti-social issues that interfere with their behavior, learning, and health.  This would be done by scheduling a 5-10 minute “Time In” on the equipment before instruction every 2 hours (or as needed – teachers would be coached to send a student to the lab for “rebooting” when they see him/her beginning to lose focus but before the behavior escalates) to keep the students’ bodies prepared for attending, behaving, and learning.  What we know, from the research, is that the positive effects of exercise can last from 60-120 minutes, so the actual time would be adjusted for each student’s needs.  John Ratey, MD, of Harvard Medical School, advises, that, if the behavior problem persists, the frequency, time, and/or intensity of the exercise need to be increased.  

Teachers using this intervention have shared that the integration of exercise through ExerGaming has not only reduced discipline issues but has created a positive environment for kids in a setting that is often viewed by them as only being rigid and, often times, controlling.  Teachers have also reported that they are witnessing the effects that research shows to be the result of exercise, i.e. decreased aggression and anger, an improvement in mood, activation of the attention system, and an overall more cooperative student who is ready to learn.

A second focus of the ExerGaming lab would be to use it as a reward for appropriate behavior. Special education students would be provided with opportunities to earn free time in the lab for getting assignments in, desired behavior, etc.  In addition, SpEd students could become the “experts”, showing other students how to use the equipment if the lab expanded to include all students.

Many schools have a number of students with significant behavioral issues that are not only negatively affecting their learning and future life, but impacting the whole school.  A major function of the lab would be to use exercise to get the students into a physiological state where they are receptive to instruction – including teaching them strategies for controlling their behavior.  If special education directors could witness what we are seeing in the early stages of this intervention, they would begin to insert mini-labs into every program that they supervise.


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Bear, G. (1998).  School discipline in the United States:  Prevention, correction, and long-term social development.  School Psychology Review, 27(1), 14-32.

Bru, E. (2009).  Academic outcomes in school classes with markedly disruptive pupils.  Social Psychology of Education, 12(4), 461-479.

Cihak, D., Kirk, E., & Boon, R. (2009).  Effects of classwide positive peer “tootling” to reduce disruptive classroom behaviors of elementary students with and without disabilities.  Journal of Behavioral Education, 18(4), 267-278.

Folino, Anthony (2011). The effects of antecedent exercise on students’ disruptive behaviours:  An exploratory analysis of temporal effects and mechanism of action. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto.

Knitzer, J., Steinberg, Z., & Fleisch, B. (1990).  At the schoolhouse door:  Programs and policies for children with behavioral and emotional problems.  New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Obenchain, K. & Taylor, S. (2005).  Behavior management: Making it work in middle and secondary schools.  Clearing House:  A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues, and Ideas, 79(1), 7.

Ratey, J. & Sattelmair, J. (2012).  The mandate for movement:  Schools as agents of change.  In A. Meyer & T. Gullotta (Eds), Physical activity across the lifespan:  Prevention and treatment for health and well being, (pp.235-265).  New York:  Springer.

Scherrod, M., Getch, Y., & Ziomek-Daigle, J. (2009).  The impact on positive behavior support to decrease discipline referrals with elementary students.  Professional School Counseling.  12(6), 421-427.