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Case Study on Exergaming for Kids with Behavioral Issues

21 February 2013

In schoolstoday students who engage in antisocial behaviors are a real challenge forteachers and administrators.  Too oftenthese behaviors diminish a student’s ability to learn and often interrupt theeducation of others.  Many times teachersand schools apply restrictions to privileges, more seat time, anger managementstrategies, and suspensions as a remedy for these behaviors.  A few months ago I assisted a middle schoolwith initiating an alternative to these traditional approaches for serving kidswith a history of emotional, behavioral, and compliance issues.  The strategy was based on recent researchshowing that targeted exercise and physical activity could reduce aggression,increase focus, and improve learning. What is unique about this strategy is that it taps into the brain’smotivational system by using technology – and specifically Exergaming – topromote daily exercise for these students. 

After twomonths of executing this intervention, I wanted to get a picture of the impactexercise using Exergaming had on this special education classroom.  I asked the social worker (who also teachers)to give his impressions about how this combination had impacted this classroomenvironment and these students.  Below ishis narrative report on the impact and overall effect that this strategy hashad on him, his colleague, and most importantly, the students.  

As a mental health provider in thepublic education setting, I have seen, developed, and implemented countlessinterventions and methods of supports to assist students and families facingemotional and behavioral challenges. The effectiveness and lasting impact ofeach specific approach have varied in magnitude and are often subject toextraneous or uncontrollable variables in a student’s life. The constraints oftrying to find the proper intervention for a given situation, deficit,diagnosis or ailment are often multiplied by challenges with studentmotivation, a lack of funding, time limitations, poor student attendance, andlimited support from teachers/administration/family members.

I have spent countless hours tryingto control for these confounding variables in search of the perfectintervention or the “right” approach toward helping students with the mostprofound and significant behavioral needs. Although I will not make the claimthat a magic wand or silver bullet has been discovered to “fix” the challengesin these student’s lives, I can say with a great deal of confidence that the exerciseoccurring through exergaming has been by far the closest thing to a cure-allthat I have seen in 8 years of practice.

I have always been a proponent andstrong advocate for experiential and activity-based interventions for allindividuals, but especially for those with challenges around emotion-regulationand impulse control. I have seen remarkable changes in individuals withengagement, self-regulation, and self-esteem through interventions such asropes courses, service learning, and cooperative problem solving. However, Ihad never anticipated the immediate and robust positive changes that I havewitnessed through exergaming in just a matter of weeks.

Students that previously had nooutlet for excessive energy or psychomotor agitation suddenly had a positive,prosocial, and popular way to channel their energy without feeling stigmatizedor embarrassed for deficiencies in motor skills or coordination. Students thathad previously struggled to maintain five minutes of focused attention on atask were soon able to double their time on task due to a small amount ofpreventive activity. In short, there have been undeniable positive changes inconcentration, mood, attitude, and self-esteem across students since thedevelopment of our exergaming lab.

Teachers have been able to increasethe amount of time for direct academic instruction due to increased studentengagement and focus. Plus, it has been an absolute joy to see my colleaguessmile, laugh, and engage with students in a genuine and earnest manner devoidof power struggles, stress, and consternation. Students that have internalizedmessages of worthlessness, skill-deficiency, disability, impoverishment, andbeing “stupid” have begun to entertain new self-concepts. Students arebeginning to realize their worth, competency, and potential worthy ofsignificant, trust, time, and financial investment, or in the words of a student;“Mr. V…, for the first time in my life, someone has trusted me with an Xbox andcared about me enough to get me one!” 

A. V.

School Social Worker

What an inspiring testimonial about howthe combination of exercise and Exergaming works for students with behavioralissues.  The strategy has definitelyimproved behaviors, fostered better relationships, and created a feeling ofcaring for all involved.  Mostimportantly, however, is that this unique approach has given students betteraccess to their own education by increasing focus, decreasing aggression, andimproving the overall learning environment. Rather than struggling to have these students, who are naturally lookingfor stimulation, be anchored to their seats all day, educators need to makesure that part of the students’ daily schedule includes aerobic exerciseutilizing Exergaming which will sustain motivation and commitment to thisunique strategy. 

I hope that people realize, from thisletter, the possibilities that exist for kids in similar situations all acrossthe country.  If I could wave a magicwand, I would put this intervention in every school that works with kids wholearn differently and behave in ways that interfere with their success.  We know that using exercise throughExergaming will not fix every issue, but it can open up opportunities to help kidsin ways not previously recognized.  

The research is clear that exerciseimproves mood and behavior.  What’s novelabout this intervention is the introduction of Exergaming as the medium to getstudents (many of whom are reluctant to be physically active) motivated toactually exercise on a regular basis.  Rarely,in my 30 years as a principal, have I witnessed something that has had such animmediate and positive impact on both students and teachers.  If you are working with kids similar to thosementioned in this article, I would encourage you to give this interventionserious consideration.