To Sit, or Not to Sit, that is (this month’s) question!
by Stacy Turke, OTR/L — On the Road With @StacyTurke OTR
This month, I’m going to address a question that I was asked by a teacher last year…and last month…and twice today: How can I help my students sit and focus??? I’m betting most of you have asked or have been asked this question yourself!
If you have children, or if you work with children, or if you don’t have or work with kids but you watch or read the news, it’s no secret that our education system is continually undergoing an appraisal and growth process. Educators and administrators are always looking for better ways to teach, better intervention strategies for struggling learners, better methodologies to challenge advanced learners, and better assessment processes to assure the teaching is working. They are doing this daily with what feels like fewer and fewer resources and heavier demands and expectations from governing bodies, all with the common goal of properly and meaningfully educating and preparing our next generation. Delivering and assessing the success of the curriculum is exhausting, just as it is being on the receiving end of all that teaching. Just ask your kids!
School OTs are being called in to classrooms more and more to support kids who are arriving to school underprepared for the demands being placed on them. To some extent, our changing life style is to blame. Families are now spending fewer hours playing in unstructured activities than in the past and kids are spending more time in front of screens and involved in organized activities instead of engaging with toys and creative media like playdough and crayons. Although “Mommy and Me” type groups and screen time can be fun and useful, hands-on, imaginative play from early on is so important for developing the foundational skills that are needed for sitting and learning later in school. Really and truly.
One of the biggest concerns brought to school OTs is that kids are increasingly finding it harder to sit and focus for the amount of time needed during the day. I often joke that the intensity of the curriculum expectations means that incoming Kindergarteners are expected to understand Physics and Calculus as school-readiness skills. And while that clearly is a big exaggeration, we do expect a lot from our young charges! I mean, do you remember “Letter People?” Back in the day, we spent a whole week “studying” one Letter Person at a time between the play time, graham crackers, and nap during what used to be half-day kindergarten. Yep, a half day and part of that time was spent napping! Those were the days, my friends. And it’s not just the youngest kids who are finding it hard to sit and focus. Their older brothers and sisters are also working very hard to focus and attend through the 90-minute reading blocks supported by research and mandated by many districts. Add to this the research that has been all over the news and social media recently about how bad sitting is for health and it’s no wonder we OTs are being kept very busy helping teachers help their students.
So how can we help?
Some questions we should ask are: “Do kids need to be sitting to learn?” “Are there alternatives?” Here are some ideas to guide your answers:
- How about adding in some movement? You know that kids need to move. So rather than fight it, build in predictable movement breaks that your students can count on. Now I’m not talking about a half-hour-long game of dodge ball. You’d say, “that’s ridiculous,” and you’d be right! But a couple of minutes of structured movement can help reset your students and get them ready for whatever is next. For the youngest amongst us, Animal Walks can be a fun way to transition from one spot in the classroom to another and can be done as a whole class. In elementary schools all over they are using internet-based movement activities that can be found at sites like GoNoodle and the Brain Breaks’ YouTube site. On a nice weather day, take your class outside with clipboards for working on a nature study. Send a kid on an errand to the office (whether you need something from the office or not!). There are so many options and none of them need to take too long.
- We know the importance of a well-fitting chair and table for good body
mechanics for writing or typing. But there are many adaptations and alternatives to standard chairs that will allow for good body mechanics while they meet the students’ movement needs and help them stay focused. These options provide opportunities for movement and a change in position while the student is seated. Some of my personal favorites include: Wedge or Round chair cushions which are fun and easily portable from chair to floor, Floor Chairs and Cube Chairs, rocking chairs, and Yoga Ball Chairs.
- Exercise band on the legs of the chairs…seriously! This is so easy: Tie a piece of exercise band to the front legs of the chair giving your student something to kick or fidget with using his or her legs and feet. Honestly, this is a great option for kids who swing their legs often. How to know if you have a student who can benefit from this strategy? Well, if you sit across from the student while working with him or her individually and you come away from the experience with bruises on your shins from all the times you were kicked under the table by swinging legs, then you’ve found a kiddo who might LOVE an exercise band to kick! Trust me, your shins will thank you.
- The benefits of standing desks are supported by research and have become increasingly popular, and not just for adults. This topic has been all over the news in the past year as you will see with a quick Google search. It can be as simple as a table that is equal to approximately the student’s elbow height when standing. You will want to provide your student with something to prop one foot on periodically under the desk. This foot prop can simply be a 3-4″-tall box to take the pressure off the low back and make this position more comfortable.
If you are a teacher and are considering using seating alternatives for your classroom, you will likely want to contact your school district OT for advice. I usually recommend that teachers NOT go all out one way or another initially because no one tool works for everyone. My personal preference is to let students try a couple different tools before determining which method is the best for the class. A third-grade teacher I worked with had one backjack chair, several yoga ball chairs, a standing desk, several tables at a height for kneeling…all scattered around the edges of her classroom. This strategy allowed kids to move when needed and still stay connected and focused. Her room, by the way, was TINY physically, yet she was still able to make it work.
So…these ideas just scratch the surface of helping kids with focus and attention in the classroom. You’ve undoubtedly discovered many, many more. So please add to the discussion! What’s your favorite trick?
(Note: Several links direct you to sites where items discussed can be purchased. Please do not read this as an endorsement of any one particular company or brand.)
Stacy Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 30 years with the same school district in Michigan in what she describes as “my dream job.” Her career has ranged from working in a “center-based” school to working in public and private schools throughout the county, including those in the rural, suburban, and urban areas. She has experience working with students with a wide range of educational needs, to include cognitive impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, physical challenges, sensory processing needs, and many other learning challenges. She expresses her enthusiasm when she says “This career has been fulfilling, always presenting new and interesting challenges, and is NEVER boring!” You can connect with Stacy on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/stacyturke/ and on Twitter at @stacyturke.Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources. Photos that include a link to an originating site are the property of that site and their use should include the link provided.