An all-encompassing approach to student wellness that uses heart rate technology to motivate students keeps Irving Elementary School (Waterloo, Iowa) among the healthiest in the state.
The school’s day-long focus on health and wellness earned it the Healthiest State K-12 School Award twice. Cory Arensdorf, Irving’s PE teacher, and Kristin Meany-Walen, Irving’s mental health coordinator, developed the strategy called Initiative 360 that incorporates Social-Emotional Learning, physical fitness, nutritional health, and sleep.
“We have wanted to encourage health overall,” Arensdorf said. “People are aware that when you get healthier, you will feel better, but that was all about physical activity. It’s more of encompassing the whole wellness. We need to know what health is. It’s everything. Students can’t just be physical. They have to feel good about who they are before they can learn the lessons of being healthy and taking care of themselves.”
Connecting Students with Essential Skills Using Heart Rate Monitors
Arensdorf and Meany-Walen’s strategy combines heart rate technology with social and emotional elements that empower students to focus on their health.
At the beginning of the school year, Arensdorf introduced the IHT ZONE wrist heart rate monitor – purchased with the prize money included with the healthy school award – to his students. Most students wear monitors during their PE classes, where students get real-time feedback that motivates them to stay active. The monitors, in tandem with IHT Spirit System software that works from Arensdorf’s computer:
- Show students by color – blue (light), yellow (moderate) or red (hard) – how hard they are working during class; and
- Deliver a summary email that details the student’s heart rate throughout the session.
“I had experience with another heart rate monitor,” Arensdorf said. “They were good heart rate monitors but they just didn’t give the students that immediate feedback. I knew once I had , I knew how much more of an education the kids were going to get. The color coding is the difference. I love that the kids get the email automatically. That automatic email gets them the actual information.”
Some students – primarily students with behavioral challenges – also wear the ZONE monitor all day to learn how to manage their emotions. Under Meany-Walen’s direction, students learn self-regulation techniques that they implement if they notice their heart rate spiking when they aren’t exercising vigorously.
“They don’t have many coping skills other than anger, so when something happens to them, they go straight from zero to 100 and can be destructive,” Arensdorf said. “We didn’t get to do a whole lot of lessons, but just the fact that these students had the opportunity to wear it, that they had the privilege was motivating and having some effect. The students were so excited to get to wear them all day that their behavior improved just from that.”
Creating a School Dedicated to Healthy Living
While he focuses primarily on physical activity and physical fitness, Arensdorf’s always considered SEL key to student health and well-being. In 2018, he began working closely with Meany-Walen to develop a strategy and curriculum that could re-shape the school’s approach to student health.
The strategy focused on teaching students how to find a passion for health and wellness.
“We teach the why,” Arensdorf said. “That’s the important thing. It’s not just games and exercise. We want to make it fun, enjoyable, and exciting. We take activity and turn it into a health lesson.”
Arensdorf changed the way he explained activities and rules. Some of his PE activities use tagging games where students who get tagged must leave the game. To return, they must complete an activity. A simple change in wording increased student’s willingness to complete the activity and return quickly.
“My students get plenty of sodium in their diets, so I created a lesson at the beginning of PE,” he said. “We turned a jump rope activity into a game we call the sodium snake. If it bites you, then you are out of the activity and you get to do a healthy activity before you can come back in. It’s big that you have to teach them that they GET to do a healthy activity and not that they have to do something. It’s a simple lesson that inspires them to learn why it’s important to take care of their bodies today.”
Using Activity to Reinforce Essential Emotional Lessons
The curriculum reinforces the physical activity by bolstering students’ emotional connection to the school.
“There are four crucial Cs, and if they can accomplish these, then they can succeed,” Arensdorf explained. “Connected, courage, capable, and count.”
Meany-Walen and Arensdorf want students to feel connected to their learning environment. The connection provides a level of comfort, which promotes engagement. They want students to have the courage to try what’s being asked of them without fear of failure. They want students to know that they are capable of succeeding at every step in the process. And they want students to know that they count, that their effort is noticed and appreciated.
“Our focus is both PE and SEL and we needed to put that together because it is symbiotic,” Arensdorf said. “The curriculum is based on whole-body wellness. Most importantly, it’s finding the passion in each person in a physical or mental capacity.”