Teachers find students who complete at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise before school are more ready to meet their toughest academic challenges.
By studying the physiology of brain development during activity and pairing that with academic assessments, teachers have developed a formula for success. From Paul Zientarski and Phil Lawler in the early 2000s to University of Illinois-Urbana researcher Shih-Chun Kao’s 2016 findings, PE teachers are helping students boost their academic achievement.
“We wanted to give them a huge jolt of oxygenated blood flowing through their systems before they go down there,” said Oskaloosa PE teacher Betsy Luck, who implemented a before-school activity period designed to send students to their toughest classes alert and energized.
The Early Birds Get…Better Assessment Scores
More than a decade ago at Naperville (Ind.) High School, Zientarski revamped his PE program specifically to reverse a trend that saw students struggling in their reading and math classes. After studying how human brains develop, he and Lawler saw an opportunity. Their plan was simple, yet effective:
- Create a PE class that met at the beginning of the day, immediately prior to math and English classes;
- Implement heart rate monitors to allow students to monitor their effort level;
- Require students to spend at least 20 minutes exercising at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity level.
The results, tracked from 2005 through 2011, showed significant improvement in reading and math assessments scores for students participating in the Learning Readiness PE program compared to students who didn’t. Following workouts designed to maximize heart rate, students transitioned to their core classes in a better learning state. Students in the PE class scored 52-56% better on their reading assessments and up to 93% better on math assessments.
IHT Spirit System Teachers Create Morning Programs
Luck and Nancy Blake, the PE teacher at Goose Bay Elementary School (Wasilla, Alaska) implemented their own morning programs to help boost student scores and behaviors. Though their students are younger than those Zientarski and Lawler worked with, the results remain consistent.
“Several years back, there was a big dip in the assessment scores for our incoming sixth-graders,” Luck said of her middle schoolers. “We’ve seen the scores start to come back a little bit so this has been a really positive thing.”
Luck’s students wear the IHT ZONE wrist heart rate monitor during their PE classes and during the special before-school session that’s scheduled before a morning academic block that includes math and English. The before-school program encourages students to move for at least 15 minutes and follows The Daily Mile template, though running a mile isn’t mandatory.
“They don’t have to run,” she said. “We just want them out there and moving. They seem to enjoy it.”
For Luck, the morning program proved essential because she only sees her students for PE every four days. Creating more time for the students to be active has helped prepare them for academic success as well as get everyone into the school day on equal footing.
“ sixth-graders, to get those jitterbugs out so they can go down there and focus,” Luck said.
Morning Movers Program Includes Social, Emotional Components
Blake sees her Morning Movers program as a chance for elementary students to practice key social skills while they enjoy active time before school. Her program mirrors what Luck is doing in Oskaloosa, only with different age-level expectations.
Students wear the ZONE heart rate monitors during the Morning Movers program and have already embraced the technology.
“This gives students a science lab on their wrists,” Blake said. “It’s a little magnifying glass into their own body. The colors make all the difference.”
While 2nd and 3rd graders may not understand what their actual heart rate means, they can gauge their activity level by the color on the ZONE monitor: blue indicates low-intensity; yellow indicates moderate and red indicates vigorous activity. Blake then monitors how students are doing throughout the day.
“I’m shooting for 20 minutes in the heart rate zone before school and see if it impacts their behaviors, impacts their academics, or impacts their feeling of connectedness to the school,” she explained.