Originally published Jan. 21, 2019 in the Rockland/WestChester Journal News.

By Kimberly Redmond

Kids in the Suffern Central school district may just be a hop, skip and jump away from doing better in class.

In the corridor leading to the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms at Sloatsburg Elementary School, a colorful sequence of decals are affixed to the floor, creating a pathway.

Second-grader Leia Egan does jumping jacks along the sensory path in the hallway at Sloatsburg Elementary School in Sloatsburg on Thursday, January 10, 2019. (Photo: John Meore/The Journal News)

On a recent weekday morning, second-grader Sophia Rinaldi followed the path, leaping from one lily pad sticker to another and then onto a quick round of hopscotch. After that, the 7-year-old did some jumping jacks and wrapped up with a few wall push-ups.

Sophia said she was having trouble sitting still at her seat that morning, so her teacher suggested she “go out into the hall.”

“I feel much better now. I’m more relaxed,” she said.

These days at Sloatsburg and Viola elementary schools, when students are fidgeting, unfocused or having trouble sitting still in class, teachers can send them out to a “sensory hallway” and through the path, which takes less than a minute. The idea is that youngsters will burn some energy and return ready to learn.

Ellen Stone, an occupational therapist at Viola who worked on the pathways, said that any type of movement can help kids settle down and refocus. “But this is about awareness of specific types of movement that impact the nervous system,” she said.

She said sensory exercises are particularly helpful for kids who have processing issues, stress, anxiety and ADHD.

“It’s designed in a way to hit different parts of the brain,” Stone said. “Students use their muscles and breathing and spatial awareness to get focused on the path. Afterward, they walk away reset and refreshed.”

Second-grader Leia Egan said she had been feeling tired in class. After taking a turn at the pathway, she perked up.

“I’m 100 percent awake now,” she said. “The teacher will sometimes say ‘It may be helpful to go out into the hallway.'”

Less than a month after these “sensory hallways” were unveiled, educators say the small steps have brought about some big results.

Stone said plans are underway to add them to two other Suffern schools: RP Connor Elementary and the middle school. Additionally, the idea has generated interest from other school districts, such as New Rochelle and South Orangetown, which just launched one at William O. Schaefer Elementary School.

“In the past, a teacher might say ‘Johnny is having a difficult time sitting still and he’s being disruptive,’ so we’d go and observe, and then make a customized movement break program,” said Debbie Halsch, Sloatsburg’s occupational therapist, who helped create the hallway.

But in the past, a student may have felt singled out, she said. Now all kids are using the hallway, even when walking to lunch. It’s a new opportunity, Halsch said, for students to understand how their body feels different while doing physical activity and afterward.

“They can come out into the hallway and do five jumping jacks or take five deep breaths, and start to learn how to regulate and learn what’s going on,” Halsch said. “It’s a tool to help them be more present and understand themselves.”

Give me a break

Sensory hallways are part of a larger movement to get students, well, moving.

Fewer than one-third of children in the U.S. are active to a healthy level, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s defined as having 25 minutes of high-calorie burning physical activity three times a week. And the percentage of kids who meet the goal has been falling.

The decline has been attributed to a few factors: more time on smartphones and computers and watching television; fewer physical education classes; less participation in sports; and more time in cars instead of walking or biking.

New initiatives to get students moving at various points in the school day are known as “brain breaks,” “energizers” or “brain boosters.” The common goal is to help students refocus their learning.

Research has shown that physical activity can improve student focus and behavior and increase academic performance:

A 2013 University of California study found that physically active students pay more attention and do better on standardized tests because activity stimulates blood vessels in the brain.

A 2013 Institute of Medicine study concluded that kids who are more active “show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests that children who are less active.”

As research emerges, Halsch said educators have started to realize that regular movement is “a necessary thing.”

“We’ll give teachers tips for adding movement into the day,” she said. “And you don’t have to stop the academics. If kids are working on spelling, a teacher could have them do jumping jacks as they spell out words. It’s about incorporating it with lessons.”

Kristine Pullman, a second-grade teacher at Sloatsburg, has been doing brain breaks with students “for at about seven years,” so she knows the signs for when it’s time for a reboot.

“Usually, if they’re not sitting still, or getting up or calling out a lot,” Pullman said. “After recess and lunch, they’re usually really hyped up, so I’ll do a five minute guided meditation to calm them down.”

The movement continues all day.

“We’ll do things like calisthenics, squats, desk push-ups and finger movements before handwriting,” Pullman said. “Or, activities that revolve around academics, like movement with math lessons. It helps them become more focused throughout the day.”

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