By Chris Kieffer
SHANNON – First graders in Lisa Neelly’s classroom at Shannon Primary don’t use desks.
They do not sit in chairs.
Instead, the 18 pupils balance upon round, clear, rubber balls around a pair of tables.
This is the third week Neelly has used the stability balls in her room, funded by a nearly $600 grant she received through the DonorsChoose website. The unique seats give students an outlet to release fidgety energy, she said. They also improve focus and concentration as students work various muscles to stay upright.
“When I first told people, they thought I was crazy,” Neelly said. “It makes a world of difference for students in their approach to learning. It helps with those who are overly active. I’ve noticed they are more alert and interested in learning.”
Pupils bounced up and down early Monday, as they returned from their week-long spring break holiday more restless than normal. Neelly credits that outlet with helping them quickly settle into their normal routine. By lunch time, they were more still as they listened to the teacher lead a math lesson about measurements.
“They came in a little rowdy,” Neelly said. “I said, ‘Get it together,’ and they settled down. There was a little more bouncing than normal, so they took out aggression by bouncing.”
The fourth-year teacher discovered national research supporting the use of stability balls while working on her master’s degree in literacy from the University of Mississippi. A friend of hers, Julie Bondurant, used them in her classroom at Oxford’s Bramlett Elementary and recommended them.
The chairs are different from what one might buy for a gym workout. These are smaller and have rubber legs to keep them from rolling. They are specially made for students.
“I have been pleased,” Neelly said. “Research shows it strengthens core and posture and burns calories. That is important in Mississippi, which has so much childhood obesity.
“We have a lot of children who come to school sleepy because their home life is difficult. When they are bouncing, it keeps them awake and stimulates the frontal lobe, which helps them to pay attention and to learn…I have noticed they are more attentive.”
Students said the new chairs are “fun,” although they had to learn how to sit on them.
“You have to keep your legs in front of you,” said Angel Contreras, 7.
Kaya Ford, 7, said having to balance helps her stay awake and focused.
“The balls are not easy to sit on,” she said. “That is kind of good because we get to sit on them and learn a lot.”
Principal Shelly Brooks said it is too early to measure their impact but she was excited when Neelly asked her for permission to try.
“I read the research, and it is supposed to help with focus and concentration,” Brooks said. “Ms. Neelly thinks outside the box, and she would be the perfect teacher to try that.”
Neelly admits it took about a week for students to understand the new chairs were not toys.
“I told them they had to do it right or I’d put them away,” she said. “That got their attention.”