Most adults can’t sit still and focus for an hour-long meeting. Why do we imagine students can last all day, glued to their desks?
Standing desks, popular with a growing number of office workers who claim all-over health benefits, may be the right answer for fidgety, off-task students and their frustrated teachers. According to new research and a handful of NEA members who have alternative desks in their classrooms, educators who enable students to burn energy from their seats can reduce discipline problems and increase learning.
Classroom management is a lot easier, said Jennifer Emmolo and Jaclyn Ginex, two West Caldwell, New Jersey, teachers who for the past two years have rotated their third graders through a small number of grant-funded AlphaBetter standing desks. “We’re not dealing with the nitpicky stuff—kids not being where they’re supposed to be, kids talking when they’re not supposed to. It’s a much calmer environment,” said Emmolo.
The two also noted their students have more stamina for learning: their 40-minute daily reading workshop isn’t a struggle for some attention-challenged children anymore.
None of this surprises Texas A&M University associate professor Mark Benden, who said, “You can’t operate the brain without the body operating at its peak, and our bodies are definitely not operating at their peak when they’ve been lethargic for a while. Your blood sugar is affected, and you get in a stupor.
“You think better on your feet!”
Unfortunately, a combination of factors has confined students to their seats more than ever. Since 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in a near-endless parade of high-stakes standardized tests, many school administrators have cut recess and lengthened the school day. Stressed-out teachers feel pressured to have their students be “on task” every minute. More recently, state budget cuts haven’t helped. Only 3.8 percent of elementary schools in the U.S. offer the recommended amount of physical education, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Meanwhile, the percentage of young people in the U.S. diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has jumped from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, told the Washington Post this year that she blames the amount of time kids are forced to sit while in school. “Fidgeting is a real problem,” she said. “It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day.”
Get Students Moving
The kind of standing desks in Ginex and Emmolo’s classrooms have built-in “fidget bars” at knee level that allow students to silently pump their feet and rapidly swing the bar, out of sight of their classmates and teachers.
But other teachers have saved money—the standing desks can cost between $200 and $400 depending on the model—Fidgeting actually helps students to focus, researchers say, and those tapping feet or bouncing bottoms may have a particular benefit for students with ADHD. In a 2009 study of preteen boys, University of Central Florida professor Mark Rapport found that the boys, especially those with ADHD, fidgeted more when a task required them to store and process information in their “working memory.” Rapport told the Orlando Sentinel that just as adults drink coffee to stay alert during a boring meeting, ADHD kids jiggle and wiggle to maintain alertness.
Similarly, Roland Rotz and Sarah Wright, authors of the book Fidget to Focus, explain that “fidgeting is… our body’s natural way of activating our under-stimulated brains to facilitated focus.”
While adults, especially teachers and education support professionals have many ways to get moving during the day, by walking around their classroom or simply pacing in front of a white board, students have few.
Standing up in Texas
For the past three years,Texas A&M’s Benden has been collecting data about the effects of standing desks on students in College Station, Texas, schools. His findings are based on the observations of Texas A&M graduate students who record incidences of “active engagement” and “inactive engagement” He has found that students at standing desks are more engaged in learning than their peers at “classic” desks; they pay more attention to their teachers and exhibit fewer disruptive behaviors; and they also burn more calories.
Interestingly, Benden also has found that the students who previously have shown the most problems with attention and behavior are the most helped And obese students, who typically show fewer “engagement” behaviors than normal-weight peers, actually surpass normal-weight students when they are allowed to work at standing desks. They also burn more calories.
“We have unfairly stigmatized these kids. It’s kind of like, ‘man, he’s not going to be able to learn, just look at him.’ But that is not true,” said Benden. “What I believe is going on is that their little bodies are challenged to keep their minds focused. Basically it comes down to a blood sugar issue—it’s that same feeling you get after lunch when your body is using your energy to digest your food. It’s a competition for resources. You get drowsy. You can’t focus. The very best thing you can do is start moving.”
Benden’s research plan originally called for moving the desks to different grade levels each year, but he ran into a costly snag, he said. “The teachers didn’t want to give them up!” he said.
He has had to buy more.