Michigan School District Swaps Students’ Chairs For Exercise Balls In Classrooms

One Michigan school district decided to trailblaze along with select other schools districts across the country by removing traditional classroom chairs and using exercise balls in their place. Many elementary school buildings within the Howell Public Schools joined a growing trend that is believed to be beneficial for all children, not just children with special needs like ADHD, autism or FASD.

Last year, Ms. Mena, a Challenger Elementary first grade teacher at Howell Public Schools, began using exercise balls as chairs after it was suggested to her. A Chicago Tribune article from 2009 claimed that students are more focused and are better at sitting right up when chairs are replaced with the balance balls.

“I had a student who was having a difficult time staying focused, so when I heard this may help, I thought I would try it out,” Mena explained.

“Exercise balls have been shown to help increase student concentration and engagement in all students and especially in students who have attention deficit disorders,” Mena told Livingston Daily. “However, students do not have to use a ball seat if they choose not to. In fact, at any given time a student may switch our their ball chair for a traditional chair.”

The elementary school teacher started by replacing only a few students’ chairs with exercise balls, but when she saw a startling improvement, she allowed any student to use an exercise ball instead of their chair. This school year, the entire classroom uses the exercise balls as chairs. She said that she set very clear rules on their use.

“They are not basketballs, so we don’t bounce them,” she told them. “They are not soccer balls, so we don’t kick them.”

Occasionally, Mena will ask a child to use a traditional chair if repeated reminders to use the balls properly fail; but, generally, the children do quite well with them.

“Students don’t want to lose their ball chairs so this happens pretty infrequently,” she said. “Since switching, I have noticed an increase in attention span and in the students ability to attend to the task at hand while also seeing a decrease in off-task behaviors used to release energy. Children are natural learners, and it’s interesting to me how they just don’t bounce when they are completing a task which requires them not too, such as handwriting.”

Voyager Elementary, another school in the district, has made the switch from chairs to exercise balls in the the fifth grade. Several teachers started using them a few years ago, according to Livingston Daily.

“It takes a while to get kids used to sitting in them without bouncing all over,” Marlee Gariepy, a Voyager Elementary fifth-grade teacher, explained. “Once the norms are set, the exercise balls really do help students with attention deficit disorders as well as all kids stay on task and focus for longer periods of time.”

While people might believe that the bouncy balls would set the stage for awful penmanship, Mena said it actually has shown to improve muscle control everywhere in a child’s body, including in fine motor muscles needed for writing. She also said she sees fewer behavioral issues, probably because the children have a means to work out extra energy. Therapy balls have been used regularly for children with special needs on an IEP; now, the exercise balls have made the bounce to the mainstream.

Also known as balance balls, the large bouncy balls were originally developed in the 1960s for physical therapy purposes. In the 1980s, occupational therapists began using them in the classroom for children with special needs. Just over a decade ago, a study was published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy concluding that the trailblazing occupational therapists were right, as students with ADHD were able to exhibit better behavior and more productivity by sitting on therapy balls instead of chairs. Similar studies confirmed these findings over and over again.

“There is a neurological pathway that goes from your body’s balance and movement system to your alert system in your brain. Movement actually allows for alertness and attention,” occupational therapist Diana Henry explained a few years ago when the first schools were starting to make the transition.

A second grade teacher named Lana Ray in North Carolina was among the first to make the switch to exercise balls in her classroom. Not long after, Ray told Gaiam, the company that donated some of the balls for the children in her classroom, that “in August, these students came into my classroom 1-2 years below grade level. If they continue to grow in the next semester as much as they have in the first, they will be on or close to grade level at the end of the year.”

Parents, would you like to see exercise balls replace traditional chairs in your child’s classroom?

[Image via Pixabay]

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