Janesville students exercise minds, backs with stability balls

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Nick Crow
April 6, 2014

JANESVILLE—Every teacher has those days.

The class won't be quiet. The kids are being disruptive. They won't pay attention, and they seem like little balls of energy.

What if a teacher could do something to prevent the outbursts, the slouching and the kicking of chairs?

Some teachers in the Janesville School District believe they may have found the key.

Stability balls.

The big balls traditionally seen in weight rooms or Pilates classes are being used in classrooms as chairs for students.

Teachers believe the balls increase focus, improve posture and allow a release for students' restless energy.

Leah Hellebrand has used the exercise balls in her classes at Kennedy Elementary for four years. She says having an “active bunch” of students one year piqued her interest in trying the stability balls.

“The kids were excited because it was something novel in the classroom,” Hellebrand said. “It's special because you're moving but you stay in one place. I taught the students that this is a tool that we can use to help us think.”

In her research, Hellebrand found that stability balls increase core strength, balance, alignment and posture while also increasing blood flow to the brain, which leads to better concentration, attention and knowledge retention.

“I think it helps with focus because it gives them a little bit of an outlet that would normally be something that could take them off track,” Hellebrand said.

Fourth-grader Kyle Pringle said stability balls are more comfortable for him, and he uses them all the time in his class.

“I think it's awesome,” Pringle said.

Kennedy Principal Allison DeGraff said she believes kids need to be able to move to think properly.

“The more you can engage them, the more they can retain information,” DeGraff said. “It helps with classroom management and behavior because kids can move all the time and not just special times.”

Milwaukee native Lisa Witt is a former educator who founded WittFitt, which specializes in “active seating” in school classrooms. In her time as a teacher, Witt said, she witnessed kids lying on desks, moving a lot and losing focus.

She performed a study of seven motor tests and three classroom behavior tests, giving half of her students chairs and the other half stability balls. She found that 59 percent of students using the balls had positive improvement in at least one area, and all improved in one or more of the following areas:

-- Flexibility/ range of motion

-- Strength/stability

-- Balance

-- Posture

-- Squirminess

-- Ability to stay on task

“We work with students across the country, and it absolutely does make a difference,” Witt said.

Witt's company, based in Hudson, Wis., is now her full-time job. WittFitt has clients in all 50 states, Canada and Puerto Rico.

“Movement will always be something that children need,” Witt said. “We need to move in order for our brain to connect. I think the concept of allowing students to move in appropriate fashion is a concept that needs to continue to be out there.”

Harrison Elementary third-grade teacher Lauren Smith has used exercise balls for three years in her classroom. Thanks to anonymous donors, her entire class is equipped with them.

“We originally got six, and the kids would alternate,” Smith said. “It really motivated those students who struggled with behavior because they wanted to be able to use them.”

Smith agrees that students who tend to act out behave better when they use stability balls.

“They are able to get their energy out,” Smith said. “It's been great. Especially with a winter such as the one we have had this year.”

Students normally become agitated and stir crazy when they have indoor recess due to snow or cold, Smith said. Since her students have begun using exercise balls, they use the balls to burn energy throughout the day and as entertainment during inside recess.

“Parents have told me that their kids come home talking about how much they like to use them,” Smith said.

Kids also want to be in her class because they get to use the balls, Smith said.

At Harrison, all third-graders are able to use the stability balls at some point because  students switch classrooms for different courses.

Evan Thompson, 8, said he hopes his teacher next year will be persuaded to make the switch.

“When we get tired and need a break, it is nice to stop and take a bounce break,” Thompson said. “It makes me feel like I have a little free time during the day.”

Harrison Principal Jessica Grandt-Turke said the balls increase her teachers' instruction time.

“Anytime you can hook them in and engage them, we're all about that,” Grandt-Turke said. “I love it. I love watching it. It's a great thing to see.”

Grandt-Turke said she supports her teachers when they have creative ideas.

“They are the ones who take the initiative to talk to the PTO or apply for the grants to get things for their classroom,” Grandt-Turke said. “I'm open to any ideas like that.”

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