Brain researchers such as Ratey and Medina aren’t surprised at all by findings like those from Woodland Elementary.
“Kids are less likely to be disruptive in terms of their classroom behaviors when they have been active,” according to Medina.
A couple real-world examples illustrate this perfectly.
Allison Cameron is a teacher at City Park Collegiate High School, a Canadian alternative high school for kids of last resort in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She teaches grade 8 students, almost all of whom have learning disabilities, behavioral problems, or domestic or personal issues. Many have defiance disorders. In addition, approximately 50 percent have ADHD. Her students often have anger issues that prevent them from learning properly. Class disruptions are commonplace at this school. Most of her students are doing work at the grade 4 level.
Cameron has a background in sports and fitness. Through her readings, she learned that special ed students have fewer behavioral problems after going out for a jog. Grant Roberts, a friend of Cameron’s and a personal fitness trainer and health club owner, told her about the Naperville district 203 program run by Lawler and Zientarski. She contacted Zientarski and later Lawler. After each conversation, she came away excited about the possibilities for her school. Zientarski and Lawler invited her to their annual DuPage County physical education conference. It was there that she learned about Dr. John Ratey and his book SPARK.
After attending the DuPage conference and reading SPARK, Cameron was convinced she needed to implement a movement-based initiative at City Park Collegiate High School. When Roberts’ fitness organization donated eight treadmills and six exercise bikes, Cameron was off and running—literally. She got administrative approval to place the exercise equipment in the back of her classroom, and the bikes and treadmills became part of her teaching approach.
As with any new activity that Cameron introduced, the students were skeptical, and some were outright defiant, refusing to get on a bike or treadmill. Gradually, the students got on board. They saw Cameron doing the workouts every day and began to see the benefits in the handful of students who had been doing the workouts from the first day. Slowly but surely, all the students began to participate in the exercise segments.
Some started by doing only 5 minutes of slow walking. Eventually, Cameron was able to get her class to consistently keep their heart rates in the 65 to 75 percent of maximum range for 20 minutes. She found that sustained aerobic movement for 20 minutes was the key to the program’s success. She’s discovered that 20 minutes of aerobic exercise results in 2 hours of sustained concentration from her students. Thus, she believes that the high state of learning readiness that follows the exercise more than compensates for the 20 minutes of instruction time that is lost to exercise.
During a typical day, the first thing Cameron’s students do is 20 minutes of cardio exercise with heart rate monitors on. They are then prepared for academic work. Since Cameron began her “exercise for learning” program, her students are focusing better and working harder, and they are less defiant. The swearing and running around in class that used to be commonplace have dropped dramatically.
“It feels great,” says Alex Herbel (age 14), one of Cameron’s students who was bullied at his former school and suffered from concentration problems. “I feel better about myself. I didn’t think anything like this would help, but it does. It’s crazy.”
After only four months, Cameron’s students improved a full grade level on average in reading, writing, and math. That’s a huge leap forward for kids who began Cameron’s exercise program three or four grade levels behind their peers. The only change Cameron made was adding the aerobic exercise component to her classroom.
“We had a lot of added benefits besides improved academic performance,” says Cameron. “Especially in the areas of behavior and attention.”
Dr. Ratey was not surprised by Cameron’s results at City Park Collegiate.
“After exercise, students are sharper, more attentive, less impulsive and fidgety, and sustain their attention longer,” says Ratey. “What I find so compelling is the strong relationship between movement and attention.”
Cameron saw enormous potential in her students but wasn’t sure how to bring it out.
“It’s so difficult to effectively teach in a school considered the last resort,” says Cameron.
Then she started her exercise program. After initiating her “treadmill classroom,” her students gradually began to transform before her eyes.
“How do you put into words the profound experience of witnessing the metamorphosis of a human being whose potential emerges before your eyes?” asks Cameron. “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“Everyone changed. Kids started getting off Ritalin. They started coming to school every day to use the workout equipment. A student who could barely sit still for 10 to 15 minutes could sit quietly and complete an assignment for the first time. Students could concentrate and work harder. There was no swearing, no running around. One student felt more energized and with improved mood could control his anger and concentrate better. One student said he started getting smarter, paid attention more, and began to see how he could turn his life around. Not to mention an improvement in reading and writing of 25 to 30 percent. One student had a 400 percent increase in comprehension. Math performance was up 25 percent.”
Cameron says that the benefits of exercise are well known but that the traditional competitive sport approach is designed to fail with a lot of kids.
“Kids who aren’t athletically inclined tend to shy away from it,” says Cameron. “On a track, the slower people get lapped, and it can be damaging to their self-esteem. In this (program), no one knows who’s slower or faster.”
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