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Free to Fidget — These Maine Classrooms Encourage Movement to Improve Learning

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
A student fidgets on a "wobble stool" inside Susan Chase's classroom at the Piscataquis Community Secondary School in Guilford.

In classrooms, there has long been an assumption that students need to be still, calm and attentive to learn. But more and more, researchers are finding that attitude could actually be harming many students.

Teachers and students in Maine are trying to change that attitude by transforming what their classrooms look like.

Walk into Sue Chase’s special education classroom at the Piscataquis Community Secondary School in Guilford, and the first thing you notice are the lights. Giant, spherical LED lanterns hang from the ceiling, replacing the harsh, fluorescent lights that are standard in most classrooms.

“Because those bother some of my students,” she says. “The noise and the flickering.”

Traditional classroom seating has also been replaced.

“These stools, I purchased this year,” Chase says, pointing toward the center of the room. “And those other chairs, the comfy chairs, I purchase a few every year.”

Some seats are made of bouncy bungee material. Others are soft, with pillows and cushions.

In the middle of the room, a student wiggles around on something called a “wobble stool.” It’s a stool that lets a student shift their body up and down and side-to-side as they work.

Chase says all of this design is intentional, to let her kids move so they can stay on task.

“And I see a big difference with them,” she says. “They’re less fidgety. Or they can fidget, but it’s not as distracting to them and to other people.”

“Historically, parents and teachers, if they see somebody fidgeting, the natural reaction is to tell them to quiet down. And to sit still,” says Julie Schweitzer, the director of the ADHD Disorder Program at the University of California, Davis.

Schweitzer says there has long been an assumption in schools that if a student is fidgeting or moving around, they’re misbehaving. But her research has found that for students with attention disorders like ADHD, fidgeting is actually an important cognitive process that helps them perform better.

Schweitzer says allowing that movement from students — including through new kinds of furniture — can boost attention and learning.

“I think it’s something that those of us working in the fields for decades have noticed,” Schweitzer says. “That there are some teachers who are clued in to see that movement isn’t so negative.”

But while teachers may want to change their classrooms, finding money in the school budget to pay for it is a different story. Schools rarely have the funds to pay for these new kinds of seats.

Chase says her colleagues rummage through yard sales and flea markets to find the furniture they need. And teachers go online, too.

On the crowdfunding website Donors Choose, many Maine teachers are trying to scrounge up funds to buy new seating like wobble stools. Chase says it may cost money, but it’s necessary.

“I do spend a lot of money,” Chase says with a laugh. “But it’s something I feel is important for my students. We’re not expected to do this. But it’s what some of us do.”

And even if you do find the equipment, Schweitzer says there are limits. A yoga ball can quickly become a bouncy distraction to the whole classroom if it’s not used correctly.

“That interferes with others’ learning,” Schweitzer says. “And that’s where it becomes more of a problem.”

Some students say they’re glad to have more choices. In an English classroom at the Piscataquis Community Secondary School, 7th-grader Eric Jacobs runs from table to table, tapping his pencil and shifting his feet back and forth. He says new kinds of furniture here, like standing desks and whiteboard desks, help keep him on task.

“I’m usually pretty twitchy. So I use the standing desk to stay in one spot so I’m not twitching so much,” he says. “And I like to use the whiteboard desks because I like to draw little doodles while things are happening.”

At Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, a group of students has started a microbusiness where they sell handheld, plastic “fidget” devices that students can click or spin in class, if they’re stressed.

Sophomore Leahannah Ridley helped start the project.

“We want these kids with anxiety and stress who fidget with their hands, that’s why we made the fidgets,” Ridley says. “To keep the noise down.”

Recess used to be the way that those students could move around and be more ready to learn in class. But Schweitzer says that as recess keeps getting cut in many districts, this new technology could be the way for students to channel their energy.