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The City Journals

Teachers mindful of brain health

Jun 05, 2017 02:14PM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Teachers at Terra Linda Elementary are mindful of the brain health of their students. Principal Karen Gorringe has implemented tools such as Brain Breaks, a "drumtastic" fitness program and even fidgets that help students deal with their stress.

 “These techniques help them to be healthy,” Gorringe said. “We want healthy kids.”

Teachers recognize there is a saturation point when their students can no longer take in any new information. Brain Breaks give their minds quick breaks from instruction while students engage in physical activity.

 “As we switch from reading to math, we take a break to stand up, stretch, meditate or just move and get all our wiggles out,” said teacher Tammy Fulmer. “When we return to direct instruction, they are more alert and prepared to learn.”

Fulmer uses brain breaks about every 45 minutes with her fifth-grade class. She said they are easy to implement at any time during the day when she notices frustration, boredom or fatigue in her students. She uses online resources that provide a quick song, dance, stretch or hand-clapping activity for students to follow.

“In those few minutes, they are increasing their capacity for learning,” Gorringe said. “That’s the key—that two- or three-minute break for their brain and body. The increased heart rate and oxygen from doing jumping jacks, running to the fence or relaxing to music gives the brain a boost.”

Feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork can cause students to misbehave, cry or have anxiety, Gorringe said. Brain Breaks prevent kids from getting overloaded, which reduces frustration, which then decreases instances of misbehavior. Gorringe said the goal is for students to use these brain break techniques to self-regulate their emotions.

Fidgets are a self-regulating tool that have been successful. After researching ways to help a frustrated third-grader, the school provided a fidget—a hand-held mechanism to help with calming, focus and active listening. Gorringe said the student, who is autistic and has high anxiety, has learned to get the tool when he realizes he is getting frustrated or anxious. He used to rock his body and walk around, disrupting the class. Now, his fingers quietly manipulate the fidget, siphoning off some of his energy and reducing his anxiety and urge to move. The fidget enables the student to stay focused and work through the challenge, said Gorringe.

“He is still anxious but not to the point that he’ll misbehave,” she said.

Terra Linda also uses a physical fitness program called Drums Alive! which creator Carrie Egan developed to include drumming, fitness, music, cognition and brain health. Students use drumsticks to pound on exercise balls set in buckets, incorporating full-body movement and various styles of music as they follow the patterns and rhythms of drumming.

 “Drums Alive! gives students a positive, creative and aerobic way of letting go of their stress,” Fulmer said. “They may be struggling with school work, friends, depression, family, health issues and more, but when they are given the time to drum, a lot of these things dissipate—even if just for a moment. Hopefully pounding out their anger on the drums will keep them from pounding it out on someone else.”

Gorringe said there have been improvements in behavior and learning since implementing the Drums Alive! and Brain Breaks programs last November. She knows there are a lot of factors at home that negatively affect student learning.

“Some students’ home situations aren’t ideal,” she said. “We can’t control or combat some of the things, they deal with.” She is hopeful that the life skills these programs provide will give kids a better way to cope with their circumstances.

“I will do whatever it takes to increase the level and capacity and skill of the students,” she said.

Terra Linda will be a pilot school next year for Egan’s complete brain health curriculum.


What about Fidgets?

By definition, fidgets are self-regulation tools to help with focus, attention, calming and active listening. But fidgets have become popular with kids and are being used as entertainment.

Amy Whittaker, LCSW, who works with struggling students at West Ridge Academy, said fidgets are a legitimate tool for some kids.

“They are obviously made for kids with ADHD and anxiety who need to be moving and have a tough time staying in their chair,” she said. Having something physical to manipulate can help these students have better focus. In her classroom, Whittaker has found that fidgets are more effective than traditional coping mechanisms like rubbing a worry rock, squeezing a stress ball, bouncing one’s knees or doodling.

But the problem is that fidgets are no longer a tool for struggling students. They are now a collectible toy, available in various colors and styles—even glow in the dark.

They used to only be available through specialty catalogues for special needs educators; now they are everywhere.

 “The industry has taken them to the next level—they’ve become trendy,” said Whittaker.

Fifth-grade teacher Tammy Fulmer had just one student using a fidget as a tool to help them focus during instruction. Soon more and more fidgets were showing up in the classroom. Spinning fidgets were being spun on fingers, desks, pencils, water bottles and noses. 

“They've become a toy and a distraction,” Fulmer said. “I think that fidgets could be a tool if used properly, but otherwise, they are a major distraction in the classroom. I'd rather have a student that taps their pencil or swings their legs under their desk.”

For this reason, many schools have banned the disruptive fidgets. Whittaker said teachers know which students benefit from using them and which ones are just using them as toys.