Originally Posted Online: March 16, 2013, 11:05 pm
Last Updated: March 16, 2013, 11:29 pm

Exercising minds: Stability balls in the classroom help students focus

Comment on this story

By Elena Pena

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Third-grade students at Logan School had to sign a contract with teacher Dacia Gaul, stating that they would follow rules, in order to sit on stability balls during class. Gaul wrote a grant to get the balls.

MOLINE — When 8-year-old Tony Poston walks into the room, he sees 27 exercise balls neatly stacked on tables, ready for a long day of bouncing and moving. No, this is not a fitness club, but a classroom full of students at Logan Elementary School.

"I like to bounce, but I know that I sit on the ball because it helps me focus," Tony said.

Dacia Gaul, a third-grade teacher at Logan, brought the "learning in motion" concept into her classroom three years ago.

"I heard on the news how some people were using exercise balls as chairs in the workplace," she said. "I thought they would be great in the classroom as well."

But before she pitched the idea to the principal and the school district, she studied the concept. In her research, Mrs. Gaul found that schools were using exercise balls to improve students' attention and concentration.

She said studies have found that use of stability balls:

-- Improves learning through movement.

-- Promotes "active sitting" without much disruption.

-- Improves posture.

-- Increases blood flow to the brain and the entire body.

-- Strengthens core and back muscles.

-- Improves balance and coordination.

After learning of all the positives, she approached principal Marabeth Robertson, who is now retired from the Moline School District, with the idea. Mrs. Robertson was able to immediately buy enough balls for half of Mrs. Gaul's class. Students were paired up by weight and height to share the balls.

Mrs. Gaul went through training with Wittfitt, a consulting company and maker of the stability balls. The company tailored its training to the classroom environment and student needs.

The balls average $40 each, or about $1,300 for a whole set. Mrs. Gaul was able to get enough stability balls for her classroom through a grant she submitted to the Moline Public Schools Foundation. "Without the grant the foundation provided, I would not have the classroom I have today," she said.

She said her biggest accomplishment in administering the "learning in motion" concept was the noticeable improvements in her students, which gave her the data she needed to apply for the grant from the foundation.

Three times per year, students in the Moline School District take Measures of Academic Progress tests.

"Since incorporating the balls, each class has impressively shown growth, meeting or exceeding expectations on the MAP test," Mrs. Gaul said. "Notably, these two years have been better than the years that my students have taken the test without the use of the balls. Of course, every class is different,but in my opinion, the use of the stability balls has played a role in my students' academic successes.

"Plus, the kids enjoy them.They take pride in being from our class."

Since Mrs. Gaul's classroom is the only one at Logan with the exercise balls, many students look forward to getting to third grade. "I thought it was really cool and wanted to be in Mrs. Gaul's class when I was in second grade," Alisha Grimstad, 9, said. "The ball helps me not slouch and learn."

New student Kyle Vaughn, 8, came into Mrs. Gaul's class about two weeks ago. "I saw the balls and thought the class was going to be fun," he said. "Now I think that sitting in a chair all day may hurt."

Before Mrs. Gaul's students are allowed to sit on the stability balls, she sends a contract home with each student that explains the benefits, risks (such as falling off the ball), and the rules to be followed in the classroom. The parents must sign the document, and the students also must sign a contract that stipulates that their movements will not be disruptive, their feet must always be on the floor, they must not write on or puncture a ball, and they must not touch anyone else's ball.

"Most parents are on board with this concept," Mrs. Gaul said. "Once they hear the theory behind the use of them, as well as my own personal experiences — positive academic and behavior outcomes — they are all for it. In the past three years, I have only had one parent object to the use of the ball as a chair."

Mrs. Gaul said some changes are not immediate, but she did notice quickly that children who seem to be very active manage to stay on task for longer periods of time when using the stability balls. "I saw postures improving, now referred to as 'learning posture' in my room," she said.

"I believe that movement in the classroom is a key element of a successful school day," she said. "I also incorporate yoga, brain breaks and cross-brain activities. I felt the balls would be a nice addition to these things. They engage your core more, which in turn increases blood flow to the brain, thus having increased attention and focus skills. They are, in my opinion, all-around beneficial."

Not all teachers may like the "learning in motion" concept.

"Some teachers do not like the bouncing that occurs throughout the day," Mrs. Gaul said. "I don't mind it. It gives the kids who need it a little outlet for some of their energy."

That energy is what Evan Richards, 9, said he feels he needs when he takes a test in his classroom. "I get really nervous," he said. "When I bounce on the ball, I don't freak out, and I do better on my test."