Behavior Difficulties? Instead of a Time Out, Try This Intervention

If your child suffers from a condition such as autism or ADHD and tends to have behavioral issues at school, interventions other than strictly those that are “disciplinary” may be needed.

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New research from Harvard University suggests that structured exercise during the school day could help ease behavioral issues in students. When utilized regularly in a classroom dedicated to students with disorders including autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression/anxiety, the team found that kids were 1/3 to 50% less likely to act out in class over a seven-week period.

April Bowling, the lead researcher, notes that children with learning disabilities and other struggles tend to get less physical activity than their peers. They often have difficulty following the rules of organized sports, for example. But exercise – releasing pent up energy – is important not only for physical health, but also for learning and for their relationships with teachers and other children.

This particular study used stationary bikes twice a week for 30-40 minutes in place of a regular gym class which tends to focus mainly on skill-building with only short bursts of aerobic activity. The bikes were hooked up to virtual reality “exergaming” to make it more engaging.

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"On days that the students biked, they were less likely to be taken out of the classroom for unacceptable behavior," said Bowling, who is now an assistant professor of health sciences at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. The benefits were most apparent on the days they exercised, Bowling said, although there were some "carryover" effects on other days.

This study was carried out on a particular set of students with more severe behavioral difficulties, but exercise seems like a good intervention even for those with milder conditions. For example, a separate study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that when more physically active, children showed fewer symptoms of depression.

Bowling said the next step is to test the exercise program in special education classes at public schools. Obviously there are potential obstacles, such as cost and logistics. But, Bowling said, "if we really want our kids to do well, they need more movement during the school day, not less."

Reference: April Bowling et al: Cybercycling Effects on Classroom Behavior in Children With Behavioral Health Disorders: An RCT. Pediatrics, Feb 2017, e20161985

Photo Credit: By Bill Mossman, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii Public Affairs - United States Army, Public Domain.

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