Special Report: Molding a middle schooler’s mind with movement

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"Heartrate basically improves brain function is what it boils down to and because of that, that should increase scores in the classroom," Teacher Zach Pense said.

MOUNTAINBURG, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — At Mountainburg Middle School Brain Academy (MMS), exercise is built right into the school day.

It’s part of the school’s Dragon Fitness Training where students are required to move during three set times throughout the day.

Zach Pense coordinates the program for the school. Pense says every day, students in grades six through eight, as well as teachers and staff, start their day with a walk around the track that circles the school building.

Dragon Fitness Training obstacle course

From 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., each grade level takes a turn either on one of the obstacle courses outside or in the school’s gym doing teacher-led exercises.

After lunch is the final training session for the students of the day.

From strength training to cardiovascular workouts, students have a lot of freedom in what they do whether that’s run, flip equipment, or hold a squat or plank.

“Dragon Fitness Training is based on research of the brain that says… kids having breaks and getting their heart rates up improves their classroom performance a lot of times,” Pense said.

These blocks of built-in exercise are in addition to recess the students get daily.

It’s part of the school’s new approach of teaching how the brain is designed to learn, and their physical health plays a major role in that.

“There’s so much great research around how movement impacts learning in the brain,” Liesl McConchie said.

McConchie is a former math teacher who has nearly 20 years of experience training teachers around the world.

She also co-authored “Brain-Based Learning,” a book that uses research to explain how to improve a student’s engagement, learning, and achievement in the classroom.

One big way, she said, is through incorporating movement, like MMS is doing.

Through her research, McConchie found when students are active it increases the oxygen flow to their brain and releases chemicals, like Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor.

She said this improves the attention and memory formation of kids.

“Not only will you see students learning better at schools that have robust movement activities,” McConchie continued, “but you’re also going to see students being absent less.”

Students at MMS, as well as their parents, have been extremely receptive to this routine.

8th grader Mitchell Moxley said, “I enjoy coming out here 15 minutes at a time just getting energy out so I can come back in class and stay focused.”

This mix of education and exercise has been a part of his school day for the last two years. It’s allowed him to branch out of his typical friend group and develop relationships with other students.

He said, “when we come to the gym we are set up in different groups so I’m with different people each time and so I get to meet new people, hang out with different people, make new friends, get closer with my classmates.”

“The kids are focused on each other, wanting each other to do well, they want their team to succeed so they want to work together, they want to encourage each other and they spend time with not just their best friend doing activities, but with the whole group of kids,” said Shari Moxley, Mitchell’s mother.

She said overall for Mitchell Dragon Fitness Training has been, “good physically, it’s been good academically and it’s been good socially.”

With a new program comes expectations for the students.

They’re required to set long-term and short-term goals for themselves, both physically and in the classroom.

“Getting students to know that I can make a fitness goal and I can meet that goal. Well hey, I can make a personal goal and I can meet that goal, I can make an academic goal and meet that goal and so they’re seeing those connections.” Principal Julie Ferguson said.

This correlation between the two is huge, according to Pense.

He said, “physical goals to most kids are a little bit easier than the classroom goals,” and because of this he has seen kids push themselves harder in areas they need improvement.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, is relate physical fitness to the classroom,” Pense said.

It’s this ability of students to reach their goals that MMS is keeping track of to measure whether incorporating fitness into the school day actually works.

Because of the pandemic, the school has had to start fresh with its data collection, according to Ferguson.

In addition to students meeting their goals, school staff is monitoring their classroom performance based on assessments from teachers and those kids who aren’t performing go to intervention.

What Ferguson has seen an immediate difference in is the school’s culture.

“There’s a bond between not just the staff but the staff and students and it’s really amazing to see,” Ferguson said.

Pense said, “kids come in here and they look forward to it every day and after they go back to the classroom they’ve got all their wiggles out and so they’re able to sit down and concentrate on what’s going on there, too.”

It’s not just students who enjoy the new structure of the school day.

“Teachers have been very positive about it. They say the kids come in they’re ready to learn, they’re focused,” Ferguson said.

And when students need that break to refocus during regular class time, there are ways for teachers to accommodate.

They can incorporate what’s known as “brain breaks” where teachers choose an exercise, like a wall sit, and have students do it while carrying on instruction.

According to Pense, since the students have begun their Dragon Fitness Training they have taken what they’ve learned in the gym and classroom far beyond the walls of the school and home to their families.

He said, “we even get kids coming and saying that they’re teaching their parents stuff at home, you know saying I’m challenging my mom and my dad to do 25 pushups.”

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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