Just over 10 years ago, I gave a presentation at the Melbourne Regional Conference for MYSA. I had returned to teaching after some time working for a private company that had developed an exercise based program for people with learning difficulties.
It was interesting to be on the other side of the teacher’s desk, listening to the frustrations of both parents and young people and to see the positive changes that they made with the program. In the past, many of these young people (and their parents) may have been students who had undiagnosed learning difficulties and were often the ones most likely to be sent to the principal’s office with “behavioural issues”.
The presentation was titled The Physiological Aspects of Brain Function and Behaviour in the Classroom. I enlisted the help of a couple of teacher friends who had also done some work with alternative therapies and were ready to help me make this an interactive presentation and push some boundaries. The room was set up with 8 to a table and the obligatory conference mints were in good supply as was a selection of brightly coloured balloons.
All started quite normally…..
Firstly I identified some common classroom behaviours and asked the audience to then consider if they had students that exhibited them. Many responded in the affirmative. I then asked them to reflect on the idea that a physiological reason for these behaviours.
Did anyone have students that constantly tipped their chairs? Once more hands were raised. The student is most likely to be doing this to stimulate the Vestibular system.
What about students that slouched in their chair or over the desk? Yet again the audience indicated with a show of hands that they had students like this. The slouching is a stimulus for both the Vestibular and somatosensory systems and in addition, the student may have poor core muscle tone.
For the student who reads better when lying down (think of the Primary School reading corner with bean bags), they are stimulating the somatosensory system by having more touch receptors engaged.
At this point, one of my friends began to tip on her chair, just often enough to visibly irritate some of the people sitting near her. I asked the audience for feedback on how they would deal with such behaviours and most indicated that for safety reasons, they would ask the student to cease the behaviour, and in some cases would issue a detention notice for bad behaviour. I then shared with the audience that I carried a “wobble board” into my classroom and students who had exhibited such behaviour were encouraged to stand on it for a minute or so when they felt the need to tip their chairs.
Students who wander around the classroom are needing to stimulate their vestibular, oculomotor and proprioceptive systems. This was the signal for my other friend to get up and start wandering around. She circled the tables and took mints from one table and gave them to someone sitting at another…. I “ignored” her and carried on….
When a student is easily distracted by movement or sound, it is likely that they have a hyper sensitive oculomotor or vestibular system. For those who constantly tap a pencil or a foot or leg, it is possible that they are stimulating their somatosensory system.
And what about those scruffy uniforms? Rather than handing out slips for uniform infringements, consider a hyper sensitive somatosensory system. Tags at the back of the neck, ties undone…all uncomfortable stimulants for a sensitive student.
Since giving the paper, there has been a greater awareness of students on the Autism Spectrum. One of the key characteristics is lack of eye contact, and forcing eye contact may cause distress as it overloads sensory perception. These students can process much better if they are not forced to interpret facial gestures and social cues. Lack of eye contact can also be associated with some cultural traditions and is something to be aware of.
The vestibular system is extremely important. It filters most motor responses to the brain and the oculomotor system is linked to it. Studies by Harold N Levinson & Barbara Phelong, discuss the importance of inner ear function and learning and further studies by the University of Melbourne have discovered that frequent ear infections impact on the student’s acquisition of language.
So what to do about these behaviours, now that it is probable that they are a result of physiology rather than “being naughty”?
For excessive movement, can you find an excuse for the student to go to the office or library? Give a time frame for the errand and discuss this option with the relevant staff, so that they know to expect the student. Encourage the student to do as much sport as possible, including trampolining, tae kwon do or tennis. Students with this issue will often seek out or prefer to engage in non team activities.
For the chair tipper, it is suggested that parents invest in a fit ball for the student to use when on the computer or watching TV.
The easily distracted student may be dehydrated, overtired or hungry. There may be issues at home that are taking their attention away from the learning environment.
Check that the lighting is working well. Often the flickering of a fluorescent light, and what is imperceptible to many is a nightmare or very distracting for someone with oculomotor sensitivity. Similarly an overload of external visual stimuli can be very distracting and recent studies have shown that “less is more” in the way of posters and the like in the classroom. If the student is easily distracted by sound, then create a quiet space for them to work in. Headphones plugged into some music that is playing at a low volume will help them to focus on their work.
To further encourage more focus during class time and in conjunction with the understanding of the possible physiological causes of the behaviour, include rewarding non disruptive behaviours on the marking sheet (rubrics) for assignments. This is a bonus for students who are always on task!
And you might be wondering about those balloons… each one on the table was a different colour and shape. Some were easy to blow up and others a little harder. Some took quite a bit of persistence and I’m sad to say that some participants didn’t try at all….