Monteagle Students Lose the Chairs, Bring in the Balls - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Monteagle Students Lose the Chairs, Bring in the Balls

By David Carroll

MONTEAGLE, TN (WRCB)-  It might be the quietest kindergarten classroom you'll ever see.  Five and six year olds at Monteagle Elementary School just doing their work; no wiggling, and staying out of each other's hair. What's different about them?  They get to sit on a ball.  All day, every day. And it's not all work.

"You get to roll around, do fun stuff and exercise!" says 6-year-old Lauren Vanlone.  "It helps us sit up straight," adds 6-year-old Riley Taylor.

From time to time, a little bouncing gets the wiggles out. Any kindergarten teacher will tell you, that's a good thing.  Dawn Foutch, a 14-year teaching veteran, is a believer.  She and fellow kindergarten teacher Robin Colston applied for a UT Extension Office grant after reading about a Mayo Clinic study.  The Rochester, Minnesota medical center reported that students with attention problems focused better when using a stability exercise ball for a chair.  After some classroom tryouts, teachers reported a quieter, more orderly environment for kids from pre-school to middle school.

"The classroom has been quiet," according to Ms. Foutch.  "We've had no chairs squeaking, no wiggling, no scrunching down in chairs.  You can imagine how tough it can be for these little ones to be asked to sit in a stiff chair all day.  It's just not their nature."  Ms. Foutch and Ms. Colston take occasional breaks from the usual classroom fare to encourage the little ones to bounce and stretch.  Almost immediately, after "getting it out of their system," they're engaged in learning again.  And the balls have an additional use for 90 minutes each week, when students take them to the gym for physical education classes.

In the classroom, the balls allow movement, but none of the noise associated with traditional chairs and desks.  And students who tend to be "wiggly" continue to exhibit extra movement, but are able to do so quietly.  The Mayo Clinic study also revealed students had better concentration, improved posture and fewer discipline problems.  That's why Marion County school administrators are taking a close look at the two Monteagle classrooms, considering an expansion of the no-chair philosophy.

Monteagle principal Janet Layne said, "Sitting on the ball seems to keep them focused.  It really keeps them grounded, so to speak."

Mark Griffith, Marion County's Director of Schools, admits he had to be sold on the idea of replacing chairs with exercise balls.  "I was a little skeptical at first.  I had to do some research to see what they were talking about.  But every time I see it, I'm impressed with what's going on in this Kindergarten class.  I wish I had one of those to sit on in my office."

As for the old chairs, they're so unpopular, they're hidden away in a corner of the classroom, used as punishment.  If you misbehave on your ball, you get the chair. And everyone would rather have a ball.  Ms. Foutch says after one month, no one has had to give up their ball, even for a minute.

And as an added bonus, the classroom teachers get a large ball for "circle time" use, and a another ball to use at their desk, although as Ms. Foutch says, "Kindergarten teachers don't get a lot of time to sit.  But when we do, grading papers or doing one-on-one work, that ball sure is good for my back."

Principal Layne hopes to expand the usage of the balls into other grades in the near future.  As part of the grant agreement, the school is doing a study, comparing the students' physical conditions, discipline referrals and learning abilities before and after the balls were installed.  And she notes, "Other schools are hearing about this program, so we'll be having a lot of visitors here to see how it works.  We're excited about that."

And she says, "I'm impressed with a number of things.  Some of these children you're seeing, who are so well-behaved and interested in their work today were not so focused a few weeks ago.  There's a real difference.  One teacher's aide came in the other day, and she couldn't believe it was the same class she'd seen before!"

Director Griffith praised the teachers for taking the initiative to research the program, and apply for the grant.  "This just shows what teachers can do when they have the energy and the desire to take education to the next level.  I'm really proud of what's going on here at Monteagle Elementary School."

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