In schools today students who engage in antisocial behaviors are a real challenge for teachers and administrators. Too often these behaviors diminish a student’s ability to learn and often interrupt the education of others. Many times teachers and schools apply restrictions to privileges, more seat time, anger management strategies, and suspensions as a remedy for these behaviors. A few months ago I assisted a middle school with initiating an alternative to these traditional approaches for serving kids with a history of emotional, behavioral, and compliance issues. The strategy was based on recent research showing that targeted exercise and physical activity could reduce aggression, increase focus, and improve learning. What is unique about this strategy is that it taps into the brain’s motivational system by using technology - and specifically Exergaming - to promote daily exercise for these students.
After two months of executing this intervention, I wanted to get a picture of the impact exercise using Exergaming had on this special education classroom. I asked the social worker (who also teachers) to give his impressions about how this combination had impacted this classroom environment and these students. Below is his narrative report on the impact and overall effect that this strategy has had on him, his colleague, and most importantly, the students.
As a mental health provider in the public education setting, I have seen, developed, and implemented countless interventions and methods of supports to assist students and families facing emotional and behavioral challenges. The effectiveness and lasting impact of each specific approach have varied in magnitude and are often subject to extraneous or uncontrollable variables in a student’s life. The constraints of trying to find the proper intervention for a given situation, deficit, diagnosis or ailment are often multiplied by challenges with student motivation, a lack of funding, time limitations, poor student attendance, and limited support from teachers/administration/family members.
I have spent countless hours trying to control for these confounding variables in search of the perfect intervention or the “right” approach toward helping students with the most profound and significant behavioral needs. Although I will not make the claim that a magic wand or silver bullet has been discovered to “fix” the challenges in these student’s lives, I can say with a great deal of confidence that the exercise occurring through exergaming has been by far the closest thing to a cure-all that I have seen in 8 years of practice.
I have always been a proponent and strong advocate for experiential and activity-based interventions for all individuals, but especially for those with challenges around emotion-regulation and impulse control. I have seen remarkable changes in individuals with engagement, self-regulation, and self-esteem through interventions such as ropes courses, service learning, and cooperative problem solving. However, I had never anticipated the immediate and robust positive changes that I have witnessed through exergaming in just a matter of weeks.
Students that previously had no outlet for excessive energy or psychomotor agitation suddenly had a positive, prosocial, and popular way to channel their energy without feeling stigmatized or embarrassed for deficiencies in motor skills or coordination. Students that had previously struggled to maintain five minutes of focused attention on a task were soon able to double their time on task due to a small amount of preventive activity. In short, there have been undeniable positive changes in concentration, mood, attitude, and self-esteem across students since the development of our exergaming lab.
Teachers have been able to increase the amount of time for direct academic instruction due to increased student engagement and focus. Plus, it has been an absolute joy to see my colleagues smile, laugh, and engage with students in a genuine and earnest manner devoid of power struggles, stress, and consternation. Students that have internalized messages of worthlessness, skill-deficiency, disability, impoverishment, and being “stupid” have begun to entertain new self-concepts. Students are beginning to realize their worth, competency, and potential worthy of significant, trust, time, and financial investment, or in the words of a student; “Mr. V…, for the first time in my life, someone has trusted me with an Xbox and cared about me enough to get me one!”
School Social Worker
What an inspiring testimonial about how the combination of exercise and Exergaming works for students with behavioral issues. The strategy has definitely improved behaviors, fostered better relationships, and created a feeling of caring for all involved. Most importantly, however, is that this unique approach has given students better access to their own education by increasing focus, decreasing aggression, and improving the overall learning environment. Rather than struggling to have these students, who are naturally looking for stimulation, be anchored to their seats all day, educators need to make sure that part of the students’ daily schedule includes aerobic exercise utilizing Exergaming which will sustain motivation and commitment to this unique strategy.
I hope that people realize, from this letter, the possibilities that exist for kids in similar situations all across the country. If I could wave a magic wand, I would put this intervention in every school that works with kids who learn differently and behave in ways that interfere with their success. We know that using exercise through Exergaming will not fix every issue, but it can open up opportunities to help kids in ways not previously recognized.
The research is clear that exercise improves mood and behavior. What’s novel about this intervention is the introduction of Exergaming as the medium to get students (many of whom are reluctant to be physically active) motivated to actually exercise on a regular basis. Rarely, in my 30 years as a principal, have I witnessed something that has had such an immediate and positive impact on both students and teachers. If you are working with kids similar to those mentioned in this article, I would encourage you to give this intervention serious consideration.