Valley’s Students Sit or Stand in Class in Any Number of Ways

  • Elizabeth Waterman, 10, takes a math test on her tablet computer as her fifth-grade classmates bounce on their stability balls at Thetford Elementary in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Other alternative seating options are available in the school, including couches, beanbag chairs, carpet squares and standing desks. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Fifth-grader Connor Gaine balances on his stability ball as teacher Abby Harrington works out a math problem on the board with the class at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The majority of the class sits on the balls rather than on chairs. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Abby Harrington works with Oscar Reo as Adi Alsup and Ty Christensen play War with fraction cards and Caleb Crossett enjoys a banana during snack time at Thetford Elementary in Thetford, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Most of the students in Harrington's fifth grade classroom sit on stability balls instead of chairs. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2018

In Abby Harrington’s fifth-grade class on Thursday morning, no one slumped over on their desks. No one leaned back in their chairs, or slid down in their chairs or squirmed around in their chairs — because most of the roughly 20 kids in the Thetford Elementary School classroom had no chairs.

Instead, they had stability balls, a form of alternative seating that school special educator Kristen Hansen described as “basically yoga balls with udders.”

Typically, in-school stability balls have been geared toward students who have trouble sitting still throughout the school day, the fidgeters and wigglers who tend to concentrate better when they can move around, Hansen said in a phone call last week.

“Especially for students with ADHD, it works well for them. … Sitting for too long, for kids with excess energy, is excruciatingly painful — for them and for myself.”

But many Upper Valley educators, including Harrington, feel that a student doesn’t need an official diagnosis to reap the benefits of going chair-free. Stability balls, for example, encourage constant, low-level physical activity and are thought to build core strength. This is the second year stability balls have been in general use in her classroom.

She and Hansen both said that the balls seem to improve students’ mood and energy levels. “Ideally, they keep (students’) bodies engaged enough so that their brains can stay focused on what they’re doing,” Harrington said.

In practice, of course, every child — and every class — is different.

“This year, I noticed a lot of bouncing,” Harrington acknowledged, which turned into a lesson on how to treat classroom equipment as tools rather than toys. “It’s not like I could call it a magic bullet, like this is the year the class became perfect. … Sometimes, if they’re very wiggly, they’ll find weird ways to wiggle that you wouldn’t really think of. But if a kid is going to be more comfortable wiggling, we want to give them that option.”

A number of research studies have suggested that stability balls can improve attention, reduce hyperactivity and increase time spent on-task for students with difficulties in these areas. And a 2011 study at the University of Kentucky found that teachers who’d tried both chairs and stability balls reported a preference for the latter. While the argument for using them classroom-wide is based mostly on anecdotal evidence, most of Harrington’s students who were interviewed for this story were happy to corroborate that evidence.

“I like them a lot,” said Dempsey McGovern. “They’re more comfortable (than chairs) and they’re fun to move around on.”

One of the only downsides? “Sometimes when you rub your foot on it, like this, it makes a squeaking noise. But it’s OK,” he hastened to add. You get used to it.

During a math assessment on Thursday morning, Dempsey was one of a handful of students who scattered around the room to take their tests. Cooper Hebb nabbed the green-and-blue-striped loveseat in the corner, with the pillow on it that said DREAM BIG (Harrington’s students get “couch days” on a rotating basis). Dillon Vance went for a special cushion covered in soft rubber spikes, which are meant to provide sensory input that can help calm anxiety and support attention. Dempsey grabbed his stability ball by one of its small rubber legs, and dragged it over to a table in the back of the room.

“I like them. It makes me feel more relaxed,” said Adi Alsup, during a class break after the test. “Some people are antsy or have a lot of energy, so it’s good for them.”

She pointed out Harrington’s own “special chair,” a backless seat in the shape of an ergonomic saddle. “We’re not allowed to sit on it,” Adi said, as she divided up a deck of fraction cards between her and Ty Christensen on its surface. “Sometimes we use it as a table, though.”

Oscar Reo, a student of Harrington’s who was active on his ball throughout class, said that while he sometimes wishes his stability ball had the back support of a traditional chair, overall he prefers his ball because it provides so much freedom of movement. “I’ve fallen out of my chair like 30 times,” he joked.

Stability balls have bounced their way into a number of Upper Valley schools in recent years, including Dothan Brook School in Wilder, Hartland Elementary School, North Charlestown Community School and Charlestown Middle School, Sunapee Central Elementary School and Tunbridge Central School, according to school officials.

But bouncing isn’t the only alternative to sitting, at Thetford Elementary or elsewhere: Over the past three years, Ottauquechee School, a pre-K through fifth-grade school in Quechee, has introduced “flexible” seating in all of its classrooms. Sunapee Central offers standing desks, pedal desks (which allow a student to turn a set of bicycle pedals while she works), special stools that allow for twisting and rocking and balance boards, all for general classroom use, said administrative assistant Carrie Gross. Hartland Elementary offers many of these options, too, as well as “scoop” chairs and beanbags. At Dothan Brook, chair alternatives include wedge cushions, wobble cushions and low desks with floor cushions.

“We find that students are often better able to attend when they are utilizing a workspace that feels comfortable,” Principal Rick Dustin-Eichler wrote in an email last week.

Many stability balls cost around $20, though this price varies depending on size and brand. While standing tables and desks can cost several hundred dollars a pop, they can also be improvised for a fraction of the price by attaching regular classroom desks to a set of “Walmart or dollar store” bed or table risers, said Aaron Cinquemani, principal of the elementary and middle schools in Charlestown, adding that many of his middle schoolers choose to work at these makeshift standing tables. Meanwhile, many elementary school students — including virtually the entire first-grade class — use accordion-like benches that are springy and require balance.

“We want to embrace the research about the direct connection between physical movement and the brain’s ability to access things,” Cinquemani said. “We know where kids are at developmentally, so let’s meet them there. … Kids are born into this world and naturally explore it, explore their surroundings, in a physical manner. So how can we capture that and embrace it?”

He added that many of his classrooms still use the traditional desk-and-chair setup, “so it’s also about what teachers are comfortable with.” And some students prefer sitting in a chair, and seem to think “stability ball” is a bit of a misnomer.

“I just don’t like how much stability balls move around,” said Piper Leiban, one of two or three students in Harrington’s class who use a chair, during snack time. Despite the rowdiness all around her, Piper was sitting very still at her desk, quietly engrossed in a book. “It’s not easy (to tune out the noise),” she said, “but I’ve taught myself how. I can even think on the bus.”

Adrian Kutter-Walker, who also sits on a chair in class, concurred. “I don’t like them that much,” she said. “They’re too squishy. … Some aren’t that squishy, but some are really squishy.”

For Dillon Vance, though, the squishier the better.

“What I’ve learned,” he said, “is that every ball is different. Some are harder and some are softer, and people like different ones.” A few students have written their names on the balls they’re especially fond of.

Ty, who’s made use of Thetford Elementary’s standing desks in the past, likes his ball so much that he brings it from classroom to classroom with him. “I’m so used to it now that it feels weird when I sit on something else,” he said. “I fidget a lot in my chair. It helps a lot.”

After thinking about it for another moment, he added, “Well, I stop bouncing when I’m writing because it makes it sloppy. But the rest of the time, when I’m just listening, it’s good.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.