By Stevyn Guinnip, MSEd, Furniture for Life
Deep in the hills of North Carolina, just outside of Asheville, is a high school called the Academy at SOAR. It is an adventure-based school that offers experiential learning to support high school students with ADHD and other behavioral challenges. I visited their campus recently to see how they were doing in their newly redesigned math classroom. This was their first year to offer standing workstations and active seating to their students, so I wanted to observe firsthand the impacts that active design may be having on student behavior and learning.
When I first arrived, Julie Lambert, the Dean of Academics, greeted me with a warm smile and contagious laugh. She exuded patience and warmth and was everything I would want in an administrator helping my child through a challenging stage of life. Julie proceeded to introduce me to a few of the teachers and show me around the refreshingly simple, calming, and charming school.
As I listened to the teachers’ experiences, I understood why they had an interest in creating active learning stations. The students at SOAR were there because they required special accommodations that a traditional classroom couldn’t provide. Before they implemented the active classroom, Julie said, “I’d have students who would need to do a little lap around the road and back because they just had to get this energy out somehow.” After introducing the active stations, Julie said, “They are finding ways to expel some energy while still being able to be present in class.”
I saw the evidence of this while I observed one of the classes. Students were standing, semi-sitting, rocking, pivoting, or fidgeting their way through the lesson. The girls, boys, and administrators I interviewed all said they experimented with different positions until they finally found something that worked for them.
According to one energetic male student, this helped him stop focusing on holding still so he could focus on the lesson. Another student I talked with, who had bright blue hair to match her bright personality, admitted that it was annoying to other students when she tapped her foot and couldn’t hold still, so using an active work space helped her fidget without distracting everyone else because the base of the stool was already rounded for rocking, and it has a rubber non-slip pad for safety and noise control.
I learned that the idea for creating active classrooms stemmed from Executive Director, John Willson’s, personal experience. He told me a story about his own son’s struggle with ADHD that began to be a problem in 2nd grade. They bought him a Move stool to take to his classroom, and John said the chair “made a world of difference for him...allowing him to move and stay in the moment and be successful.” When it came time to remodel the SOAR classroom, John didn’t hesitate to incorporate movement-minded workstations.
For many of us who are used to traditional classrooms, fidgeting and movement may seem counter intuitive. A common phrase from teachers is, “Sit still and pay attention.” The children who can do that are rewarded for sitting quietly at their desks and doing their lessons, while other children who can’t sit still have been unable to cope in a "normal" classroom setting. Ironically, they may get their only "allowable" exercise in their march to the principal's office.
My visit to SOAR inspired me to ask questions like, “What if our concept of normal is wrong?” “Is sitting still the best way for learning to take place?” “Could it be possible that the ones who cannot sit still are more normal and in touch with their learning needs than we give them credit for?”
Eric Jensen’s work in his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, provides some answers to my questions. Jensen explains that traditional school settings have historically operated from the mindset of a “Sit and Get” learning style. However, he describes the part of the brain that regulates motor movements (cerebellum) as having over 40 million neurons, most of which are
outbound to memory, attention, and spatial perception. So, by activating the cerebellum, learning is triggered in the brain.
Jensen goes on to say that we now know “the relationship between movement and learning is so strong that it pervades all of life.” Likewise, John Ratey, author of the book Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain , says, “Movement is like fertilizer for the brain.”
Inspired by words like these, all of us can consider how we might incorporate more active learning in our daily routines. And for the students at SOAR, we can catch a glimpse of how much more difficult it is for those students who have been diagnosed with ADHD to attempt to sit still while they are learning. It becomes clear that it is more counter intuitive to ask a child to sit still to learn.
However, despite this growing body of research, our schools and classrooms have yet to catch up. Aside from innovative schools like SOAR, it appears that we have been doing ADHD students, and all students for that matter, a disservice throughout their education by failing to link physical movement to the learning process.
While the relationship between movement and learning is strong, it’s hard to change the pattern of behavior of a whole culture addicted to sitting. Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2017 followed 8000 middle-aged and older adults in the United States for 4 years. They concluded that the average American is sedentary for 12.3 hours for every 16 waking hours in a day. It also found that those with the highest cumulative hours of sedentariness had higher incidences of all-cause mortality. (3)
Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic suggests that there are over 30 chronic diseases attached to sedentary behavior. Unfortunately, this pattern of sedentary behavior begins early in life...in kindergarten where kids spend 6-8 hours per day sitting still. It appears that our schools have unwittingly become the training ground for sedentariness in adulthood.
During the several hours that I spent at SOAR, it became abundantly clear to me that all students — not just those with ADHD — could benefit from rethinking the layout and function of the classroom. As a kinesiologist, I cling to the research and suggest that we celebrate and encourage movement throughout the day. Now that we can prove how detrimental sitting still is to both health and learning outcomes, we can no longer expect our children to sit still and stop fidgeting in school. Instead, we are left with the task of teaching ourselves and our students that movement is good, vital to learning, and vital to a long, healthy life.
Children seem to know this innately, so I encourage parents, teachers, and administrators to get on board to celebrate movement in the classroom and find ways to work with the student’s natural tendencies rather than trying to contain them. SOAR Academy is an example of how busy, moving, normal kids can peacefully coexist with, and even enhance, the learning process. If you have an interest in learning more, this webinar with EDmarket might be a good place to start. You can also explore movement options for your school, classroom, or workspace by contacting me directly at email@example.com or call (573) 590-3881.
Stevyn Guinnip, MSEd, helps organizations rethink traditional concepts about how workplaces and schools should function in a modern, health-conscious society. She has a master’s degree in kinesiology and over 20 years of experience including research for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), corporate wellness, cardiac rehab, business consulting, and launching fitness
programs in both the US and Australia. Currently, Stevyn is the Corporate Kinesiologist for FFL Brands® in Boulder, Colorado.
1. Lou, D. Sedentary Behaviors and Youth: Current Trends and the Impact on Health. San
Diego, CA: Active Living Research ; 2014. Available from: www.activelivingresearch.org .
2. Levine, James A. “Sick of Sitting.” Diabetologia , vol. 58, no. 8, 2015, pp. 1751–1758.,
3. Diaz, Keith M., et al. “Patterns of Sedentary Behavior and Mortality in U.S. Middle-Aged
and Older Adults.” Annals of Internal Medicine , vol. 167, no. 7, 2017, p. 465.,
4. Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind . ASCD, 2005.
5. Ratey, John J., and Eric Hagerman. Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise
and the Brain . Little, Brown, 2013.
6. Education Market Association webinar by Stevyn Guinnip, 2019. Active Design for the
Classroom & The Physiological Impact on the Student