Julia Steiny: Refuel Kids’ Attention with Short Movement Breaks


By Julia Steiny

In a technology class at the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI, second and third graders are learning to change fonts on their laptops.  They look droopy, so I ask how they like the class.  They love it!  “Computers are so fun.”  “So cool!”

But the languid body language doesn’t match.  It’s the end of a period; they’ve been glued to screens.  So they’re fine with putting the electronics away and quickly arrange themselves into a formation that looks like back-up dancers at the ready.

Cynthia Sime, their regular teacher, leads them through a one-minute “energizer.”  Together they do a spoken-word doo-wop with a made-up word that sounded to me like Aroostasha sha sha sha.  The kids use the last four syllables to mark beats, as their hands slice the air from left to right.  It repeats as Sime adds a new physical challenge prior to each four-beat chant.  “Hands together! (hands smack together in front of their bellies).  Legs out! (jump into wide stance). Elbows in! (elbows whip back).  Knees bent!  Bottoms up!” (butts stick out.).  And the last challenge she adds is “Tongue Out!”  With that the nonsense word sounds like total garbage, so when they’re done, kids dissolve into giggling.

Then, without asking, they settle right back at their desks, alert and ready for math.  The buzz in the air is palpable.  When Sime gives a first direction, they’re on it.

One minute of movement, release and a bit of fun tees up high-quality attention for this happy teacher, who isn’t battling restless, fried kids.

Darlene Pugnali, ICS Assistant Director, notes that outsiders often notice and commend the school’s calm and quiet atmosphere.  The quick, structured releases of energy, like the one I just saw, help the kids use the rest of the time for concentrated learning.  Pugnali explains that the school is deeply committed to Responsive Classroom (RP), whose website proclaims, “Teaching students to stay focused.”  They’ve generously put online a large library of these one-minute fool-arounds designed to give kids a jolt of fresh vitality and fun as they transition from one subject to another.

The payoff?  Better behavior, better academic results.

Pugnali says, “We’re always looking for the root causes of misbehavior.  Under what conditions does it takes place?  Sitting too long is certainly one of them.”

Many teachers at other schools say they don’t have time for breaks, recess, or any other down time.  Social Worker Soraya Gomes suggests that if teachers added up the time they’re spending redirecting behavior problems, they’d see it’s a whole lot more than one minute invested in recouping the kids attention.  “The engagement is so much higher.”

Jean Cavanaugh, Occupational Therapist, bluntly notes that energizers get “so much more out of them in a shorter amount of time.”

In Ben Keefe’s class, fourth-graders sit on a rug studying literature.  Using a cue indiscernible to me, teacher and kids pop off the rug to do what looks like a squats exercise.  He sings “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” one syllable at a time, at irregular intervals, as the kids mirror his knee bends.  The rhythm gets faster, the squats more rigorous. It looks exhausting.  The kids plop down, ready to go back to examining their book.

Keefe is considered the energizer school champion.  He says that he himself went nuts trying to sit through his graduate courses for his Masters in Teaching.  “So here I am with 10-year-olds, thinking it’s got to be far worse for them.”  His class takes a break every 20 minutes, and if he goes over time, the kids tap their wrists to indicate to him that they’re due a break.

They’re not learning if you don’t have their focus.

While Keefe is the champ, everyone likes pick-me-ups for transitions.  Still, Pugnali says, “I remind them gently that if the transition is coming in 15 minutes, and you’re losing your kids, don’t wait.  If they’re restless, stop in the middle of a lesson for one minute to get them back again.  One minute of movement can buy you 13, 14 good minutes of attention.”

ICS’ big claim to fame is its dual language program with strands in both Portuguese and Spanish.  Teachers bring energizer-like games and songs from other countries as a way of immersing the students in their kid-culture — a totally fun lesson in social studies.

ICS’ academic achievement hovers just above and below state average.  This is a feat, given that 38% of the kids are fresh-off-the-boat English-language learners, as compared with 6% statewide.  Fully 60% are eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator), compared with 47% statewide.

Too often schools just burn out their kids’ attention and then get irate when they misbehave, space out or resist.  Our education system takes dynamic young bodies, sticks them in a box called a school, and insists they sit for hours at a stretch.  It makes no sense.  It’s like a college professor teaching to a class of students checking Facebook the whole time.  The channel for learning is just not open.  Focus and attention need to be cultivated and used wisely.  ICS has it down.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny