The modern classroom is evolving. Advanced technologies are very quickly finding their way into the learning process but these technologies have been largely focused on ways to more efficiently deliver this information to students. There are, however, new technologies that focus on improving the student’s ability to absorb this information repurposing an old technology in a new way.
Enter the pedal-desk. The pedal-desk, essentially being a sized down exercise-bike with noiseless pedals designed to fit under a desk, offers students an opportunity to move and exercise during the day. Against what may have been considered common wisdom, allowing children the opportunity to move in the classroom may actually help learning. There is a wealth of research showing the long-term beneficial effects of exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, on mental and physical health, but research has been showing that the act of exercise itself can show immediate benefits on many aspects of thinking. This technology could not only prove helpful to the student body at large, but could also provide specific bonuses for children with deficits in these areas like those with ADHD.
The ADHD Brain
Since first identified, the rate of diagnosis for ADHD has skyrocketed, but in time it has settled and it seems to be a fairly common condition with an overall prevalence of roughly 5-7% in the general population (Silva de Lima et. al, 2007; Willcut, 2012). It is a condition that every educator has become familiar with, manifesting in the classroom as impulsiveness, difficulty maintaining attention, and poor motivation. These symptoms are currently believed to be the consequence of a general disorder in executive function, a suite of cognitive processes that includes working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and planning. Though these tasks are highly varied they all share a common origin in the brain: the pre-frontal cortex or PFC.
The PFC has been implicated in planning and decision-making with damage of this area being associated with decreased concentration and increased impulsivity (Wallis et. al, 2002), core identifying features of ADHD. The left PFC is also significantly smaller in those with ADHD when compared to normal brains. This region also has a large influence on the effects of motivation (Wallis et. al, 2002) and the dysfunction in this region (Brock, 2002) could explain why those with ADHD tend to disproportionately focus on immediate rewards versus long-term ones. There, is also growing evidence that ADHD may actually be a result of slower, but ultimately normal, mental maturation (Sripada et. al, 2007). This may play a part in explaining the disparities between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood diagnoses of the condition and why the youngest students in a class are disproportionately diagnosed with the condition (Todd, 2010).
Exercising the Brain & Body in the Classroom
Fortunately, new research has been revealing new avenues to help improve mental performance in children. Some of the newest of these discoveries are the immediate effects of exercise on the mind. Studies have shown that people, after freshly completing a session of exercise, are better able to concentrate and ignore distractions (Scudder et. al, 2013). This finding could be of particular use to those with ADHD as it has been observed that motor complexes of the brain seem to mature faster than the frontal parts possibly explaining their hyperkinetic behavior (Sripada et. al, 2007). In fact, research has shown that the seemingly distracting fidgeting seen in ADHD students may actually be helping them learn and tools like the pedal-desk could provide a useful channel for this energy. Exercise has also been shown to have been shown to improve student memory, significantly improving verbal memory learning in both short- and long-term memory (Piepmeier et. al, 2014) Most surprisingly, however, exercise has also been shown to improve creativity (Schwartz et. al, 2014). Each of these benefits could pay huge dividends in decreasing noted deficits in one of the most important duties of the PFC: working memory.
Working memory is the ability to store and manipulate information and is critical to learning new information. It is highly multi-faceted, and while some of its core elements are difficult to affect, the contributing factors are highly malleable and exercise positively affects all of these. By decreasing distractibility, children are able to focus more on the information relevant to the class; by improving creativity, students can display their knowledge in new and exciting ways.
What Else Can Be Done?
Not every school can afford to stock every classroom with a pedal desk, but, thankfully, there are many equally effective alternatives that can be instated far more easily. Scheduling breaks for exercise in the class for periods of as short as 10 minutes can show demonstrable improvements in academic performance and mood (Howie, 2013). For students with ADHD, extended attention can be particularly stressful and cognitively demanding so the very act of taking a break itself can be very helpful to them (Brock, 2002).
There are in fact, numerous strategies backed by the National Association of School Psychologists (Brock, 2002) that can be employed to improve the performance of ADHD students including peer tutoring and token economies. The inclusion of exercise into the classroom is a very exciting new way to improve academic performance but it is far from the only one. It is just one of many potential steps that can be taken to make the classroom an environment that fits with children and their highly varying needs.
Brock, S. E. (2002). Helping the student with ADHD: strategies for teachers. Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists
Howie, E. K. (2013). Classroom Exercise Breaks and Educational Outcomes in Elementary School Students. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/1208
Piepmeier, A.T., Labban, J. D., Hemming, D. A., Etnier, J. L., & Davis, M.E. (2014). Effects of an acute bout of exercise on memory in 6th grade children, Pediatric Exercise Science, 26(3), 250- 258, doi: 10.1123/pes.2013-0141.
Schwartz, D. L., & Oppezzo, M. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142’“1152, doi:10.1037/a0036577
Scudder, M. R., Saliba, B. J., Raine, L. B., Pontifex, M. B. Moore, R. D., Hillman, C. H., & Drollette, E. S. (2013) Acute exercise facilitates brain function and cognition in children who need it most: An ERP study of individual differences in inhibitory control capacity. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 7, 53-64, doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2013.11.001.
Silva de Lima, M., Rohde, L. A., Polanczyk, G., Horta, B. L., & Biederman, J (2007). The worldwide prevalence of ADHD: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 164 (6), 942-948, doi:10.1176/ajp.2007.164.6.942
Sripada, C. S., Kessler, D., & Angstadt, M. (2007) Lag in maturation of the brain’s intrinsic functional architecture in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(39), 14259-14264, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1407787111s
Todd, E. E. (2010). The importance of relative standards in ADHD diagnoses: evidence based on exact birth dates. Journal Health Economics, 29(5), 641’“656. doi, 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2010.06.003.
Wallis J. D., Miller, K., & Freedman, D. J. (2002): The prefrontal cortex: Categories, concepts, and cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 357(1424), 1123-1136, doi:10.1098/rstb.2002.1099
Willcutt, E. G. (2012). The prevalence of DSM-IV Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A meta-analytic review. Neurotherapeutics, 9(3), 490-499, doi: 10.1007/s13311-012-0135-8.