Special Needs Students Find Academic Success with Bean Bags

5 February 2016
Special Needs Students For years, educators have been trying to discover why a sizable population of students has trouble learning in school. But it turns out that the answer may lie in the environment traditional classrooms provide. Sitting on hard chairs attached to small desks for the duration of the day may work for some students, but for many others, this situation directly translates into learning deficits, which lead to poor-quality work and bad grades. Researchers have discovered that alternative seating can be the difference between night and day for these students, and one city has already put the theory to test by replacing traditional chairs with yoga balls, exercise bicycles and bean bags. Recently, The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s leading newspapers, reported on the initiative in Brampton, Ontario, which is aimed at helping high-needs students achieve academic success.

Beginning the Day in Brampton

In Brampton’s experimental classroom for high-needs students, each morning begins with the children sitting in a circle on a blue-carpeted classroom floor. The students are all between eight and ten years of age, and one by one, they pass around the talking stick, taking turns answering the same question asked by their teacher, Shivonne Lewis-Young: “How are you feeling?” On a typical day, the answers range from apathetic to mundane to profound. Some students say nothing more than they are feeling normal today. Others make observations about their desires, such as being hungry, upon which they are given permission to grab a nutritional snack from a box in the corner of the room. Sometimes students are feeling strong, negative emotions, including sadness, anger, and frustration. When this occurs, Lewis-Young tries to persuade them to open up about the reasons for these feelings, but she never pushes them too hard. If they do not feel like talking about it now, she will discuss their feelings with them privately later in the day.

Addressing Students’ Emotional States

The children in Lewis-Young’s class have all been categorized as high-needs students. Many of them have been clinically diagnosed with psychological or physiological disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or one of several anxieties or mood disorders. Others have exhibited learning disorders or behavioural disorders that not only keep them from learning but also cause them to disrupt traditional classrooms. Some of the students have been sent to the principal’s office multiple times for disruptive behaviour, and some have even been suspended from school. Lewis-Young believes that these children do not have to be left behind simply because they cannot function in a traditional school setting. She has chosen to face this challenge by replacing the traditional classroom with one that better meets the needs of these particular students. The rows of unforgiving wooden, metal or plastic chairs and desks have been replaced with comfortable, ergonomic bean bags for schools and specially made stools, both of which give each student a little wiggle room rather than forcing them into a stiff, unmoving position for the duration of the day. An exercise bike is also available to help kids who need desperately to expend some energy, and when that doesn’t work, yoga and dance sessions take place to relieve the tension. In addition, the overhead lights have been softened with filters to create a soothing atmosphere. The theory behind this new classroom setup is that the emotional state of the children must be addressed above everything else, and this helps them to self-regulate their behaviour and calm themselves, making them more receptive and willing to learn. So far, anecdotal evidence has shown that the initiative is working successfully, and new research is now illuminating us as to how and why. Jeff Kugler is an education consultant and was once director of the Centre for Urban Schooling at the University of Toronto, and he confirms that Lewis-Young’s combined third and fourth grade class at Massey Street Public School is taking the right course of action. The research he points to shows that keeping children with special needs in a traditional classroom-only reinforces the differences between them and the other students. When variety is added to the class, these kids have improved chances of experiencing academic success.

The Shanker Method of Self-Regulation

The project at Massey Street Public School to attend to the needs of unproductive students was just launched this school year. Lewis-Young and Michelle Philpot, who teaches a similar class across the hall for students in the second and third grade, developed the initiative. The pair of forward-thinking educators say they were inspired by the book Calm, Alert and Learning, which was written by Stuart Shanker, a professor at York University. Shanker also runs the MEHRIT Centre, an organization dedicated to teaching parents and educators how to help children self-regulate their behaviour to facilitate learning. The book is an overview of Shanker’s teaching method that stresses self-regulation, which is known as the Shanker Method or Shanker Self-Reg. This method is comprised of five concrete steps: reframe, recognize stressors, reduce stress, reflect and respond. Lewis-Young and Philpot were intrigued by the thought of teaching kids to cope with stress, and they discussed how physical changes in the classroom could be implemented with the occupational therapist retained by the school board. Armed with this knowledge, the two drew up a proposal and presented it to the Peel District School Board. The board approved the proposal, and now there is talk about using Lewis-Young Philpot’s method to improve the educational process for high-needs children across Canada.

Massey Street a High-Risk School

Massey Street Public School is regarded as having a somewhat high risk on the social risk index. Which is a measure of several variables known to produce a population of students with a high probability of failure. Among these variables are unemployment, household income and the education level of the surrounding community. During the 2014-2015 school year, students with behavioural problems were sent to the office a total of 386 times, which is considered very high for a school with only 393 total students. Lewis-Young has been teaching for 11 years, and during that time, she has continually searched for new methods of engaging students who are uninterested in academics, display emotional or behavioural issues or are otherwise at risk of not graduating. Like many similar educators, her passion was born of her own childhood issues. When Lewis-Young was in the second grade, the teacher was leading the class in a segment about penguins, but instead of penguins, she wanted to learn about dinosaurs. The teacher disallowed this notion, and she did not engage in the segment and ended up not completing the project. She had additional problems that forced her to struggle through school. This led Lewis-Young to wonder whether it really mattered if students were learning about penguins or dinosaurs at a particular time. She now believes it is more important for students at that age to be engaged with something that is helping them learn rather than forcing them to learn a particular subject, especially one as trivial as dinosaurs or penguins. “I was also an out-of-the-box student myself, and I know that I would have been successful in school instead of struggling if I had been given the choice,” said Lewis-Young. “It’s very powerful when kids feel like they have a choice and a voice. It builds trust and mutual respect.”

Traditional Classrooms Adopting Approach

Lewis-Young’s class consists of 23 students, and Philpot teaches a class of 21 students. Kathy Kozovski, the principal of Massey Street Public School, confirms that they were all chosen for the program because it was apparent they would not succeed in traditional classrooms. Although the classes may seem disorganized and lax, Kozovski stated that this is only in appearance. In actuality, the classes have a structure in line with the primary goal of keeping students alert and calm, and so far, fewer of these students are getting into trouble. The method created by Lewis-Young and Philpot is gaining a great deal of attention, especially from other teachers at the same school. Some of them have already incorporated a few of the physical components into their classrooms, such as the stools and bean bags for school. In addition, teachers from other schools in the district have begun to take notice and have asked to visit. “We passionately believe that setting up an environment like this can be successful for all students,” said Lewis-Young. “Even if you’re in an affluent area, those kids will have success too, because you’re teaching them to regulate themselves. You’re teaching them collaboration. You’re teaching them trust, responsibility, and empathy.” It has long been known that bean bags are extremely therapeutic for children with autism. This is because they have a disconnect between sensory experience and the world around them. Many children suffering from autism find comfort in the sensory experience provided by bean bags, and a similar response has been found with students at Massey Street. Bean bags provide a modicum of freedom, but at the same time, they are one of the most ergonomic and supportive types of furniture available today. Hopefully, they can be introduced to classrooms around the world to keep children with behavioural problems in school, receiving the education they need to graduate and lead healthy, productive lives.
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