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Alternative seating helps students focus

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) — Introducing big, bouncy balls into a middle school classroom may seem like a prescription for pandemonium.

Not so in one Jewett School of the Arts seventh-grade classroom. Switching out traditional desk chairs for yoga balls has helped some students focus, improving their grades. Rachel Flores admits her classroom is often “organized chaos,” but for seventh-graders, that is a productive atmosphere, the teacher said.

Students have the freedom to wiggle and lightly bounce on the balls as they work, which helps eliminate the jitters common in middle-schoolers, and keeps them focused for longer periods, Flores said.

Another benefit: The balls are almost impossible to slouch and sleep on.

“It is good for posture and for your back and stuff. You can’t slouch,” Karliena Bruno said about using the balls as seats.

Flores said some students have become noticeably more focused and awake since the balls arrived.

The large, flexible, plastic balls, also called exercise or stability balls, are traditionally used for physical therapy or yoga and core strengthening exercises.

One class day earlier this month, students used a variety of seats while working on a group project about sea turtles.

“Find your comfortable spot,” Flores said when assembling the students for a presentation.

Students choose between the yoga balls, bean bag chairs and traditional desk chairs, and many have unique ways of getting comfortable.

Some sit straight up on the balls. Others lean on the balls stomach down. Still others sit in bean bag chairs and elevate their feet on the balls.

Others sit on the balls with a wall or table to lean against.

No one chose the desk chairs, which are usually used for working on one of the computers in the back of the room. Karliena had a good reason why.

“A chair doesn’t have a cushion and hurts your back when you slouch. Your blood doesn’t flow as much sitting in a chair,” she said.

An increasing number of teachers are using some sort of yoga or stability balls in the classroom, including in Lake and Pinellas counties.

Stephanie Burnett introduced smaller stability balls to her first-grade students at Seminole Springs Elementary in Lake County, and it was so successful that she said she would never go back to using traditional chairs, according to an article in the Orlando Sentinel.

In Pinellas County, Kerry Giordano brought in exercise balls for each of her sixth-grade students, also with great success.

Balls have been implemented in elementary and middle school classrooms in the last five years in Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Texas, and probably more.

In 2008, John Kilbourne, a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., conducted a research experiment, giving 52 university students in four classes stability balls for 14 weeks.

Every student gave the balls a positive review, saying they helped them concentrate, focus on taking notes, engage in classroom discussions, take exams, and pay attention for longer periods of time.

After the experiment, 98 percent of the students said they would prefer to sit on the balls over traditional chairs.

The idea of using the balls, which require more core strength and balance to sit on than traditional chairs, stems from the well-documented idea that exercise increases brain activity in students.

Dr. John J. Ratay had this to say about the effect of exercise in his book “SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:”

“In addition to priming our state of mind, exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain’s potential to log in and process new information. Research from kinesiologists to epidemiologists shows again and again that the better your fitness level, the better your brain works.”

Before the balls were introduced in October, Flores said she had several students making D or F grades in the first nine weeks grading period.

Afterward, in the second nine weeks, she had none.

Teachers have to be willing to allow a certain amount of “organized chaos” for it to work, she said.

“When I give them more freedom, I get more out of them. Some refused to pick up a book (before). Parents have told me that the kids read more this year,” she said.

“It’s reading, but in a fun way. She makes it more fun,” said Jorge Tutiven, a student in Flores’ intensive reading class.

Additionally at Jewett, teachers fill out discipline cards when a student acts out or is distracting another student from work. Flores said she was filling out three to four a day before she got the balls.

Now, she rarely fills one out. The behavior change has been major, she said.

“(Students) sense a more relaxed attitude in me when they’re good. I give them more freedom. The ability to move freely,” she said.

The kids struggling the most in reading when the year started are now the first ones to get their work done, and have become class role models, she said.

“It’s cool. It’s better than just sitting in here. When I first came in, it was boring,” said Tequian Latimer.

Another student, Amanda Guy, had a similar change in opinion about picking up a book.

“At first I didn’t like reading. (With the balls) I enjoy reading more, and I remember more things that I read,” she said.

Flores was always an energetic learner in school, and she latched on to the yoga ball idea for herself early on. She has sat on an adapted yoga ball chair at her desk for seven years, she said.

This semester, she used the teacher fundraising site donorschoose.org to raise funds to get 20 balls for her students.

Within weeks, she got the $800 she needed to buy the balls. Now, another teacher at Jewett School of the Arts, Lois Addair, is using donorschoose.org to get yoga balls for her third-graders.

She’s about $140 away from having enough to get 20 balls for her classroom.

And Flores is attempting to raise enough funds to move her classroom outside into camp chairs on pretty Florida days. She needs about $1,000 more to reach that goal, according to the donorschoose.org page.

“A classroom doesn’t need to be four walls and a bunch of desks,” she said.

For Flores, part of teaching is figuring out how students learn, and adapting your classroom to best serve students, she said.

“If I can make them enjoy being able to walk in the door, to look forward to walking in the door, that’s half the battle,” she said.


Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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