active seating

As an elementary school occupational therapist, Megan Kelly Petersen has a trained eye for spotting issues that hinder student learning. But she’s also tenacious at finding solutions, especially for kids who struggle to stay focused.

That’s exactly what she’s tackling at Central Avenue School (CAS), a pre-K through fifth- grade school within New Jersey’s Madison Public School District. There, Megan has conducted independent research to see if active and flexible seating can improve student health and overall attention. The results so far:  a resounding “yes.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Like many experienced OTs, Megan witnesses firsthand how students and their individual needs are changing. She has been at CAS for seven years, working to enhance students’ ability to fully access and be successful in the learning environment.

“I work with a wide population of students,” Megan says. On average, she sees about 40 students directly each week and provides general consultation services to any child within the 500-student school. Some of the diagnoses include developmental delays, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD, autism and specific learning disabilities. Additionally, she goes into almost every classroom to review desk-chair height for the optimum ergonomic set-up.

Throughout CAS, Megan has observed a common denominator:  students who struggle to sit still, stay focused, and hone their fine motor skills, like writing. Often, students are sitting with poor posture and continually fidgeting. Megan could see how the school’s predominant one-size-fits-all seating – a hard, traditional shell on four legs – wasn’t working for many students. She described why:

“The chairs come in three different sizes and aren’t always the best fit for each student. The chairs tend to facilitate a posterior pelvic tilt and, therefore, a slouched posture. When students sit in a slouched posture, it impacts their breathing, vision and fine motor skills. Ideally, students should sit with their hips, knees and ankles at 90 degrees with an upright aligned spine. This is the optimal seating position. It allows for proper breath support, proper use of muscles, and lets students use their arms, hands and fingers freely.”

Megan further explained that, as an OT, many of the students she sees have decreased core strength and stability. They can’t independently maintain an upright seated posture throughout the day. “Each time they are told to ‘sit up,’ they have to cognitively focus on their posture which decreases their focus on their work.”

She was already using a variety of traditional tools for her “target user,” students who rocked in their chairs or fidgeted consistently, as well as slouchers. She had tried theraband wrapped around the chair, balls on bases, seat cushions, sensory breaks, foot fidgets and standing desks. However, none were as effective as Megan hoped.

Mission: Find a Better Chair

active seating

Inspired to find a better option – and with support from her principal, Tom Liss, and excited staff members – Megan began researching. Her online sleuthing led to Smith System’s Flavors Noodle chair, classroom seating that moves with, not resists, a student. The chair features a suspension below the seat pan that allows it to tilt slightly in all directions. It’s the trifecta of comfort, back support and encouraging students to use their core muscles. In fact, studies show that academic performance improves when students can move naturally (i.e., fidgeting and shifting) while learning. This sort of “comfort movement” is especially effective for students with attention disorders.

When the opportunity arose for a grant through the parent-run Madison Education Fund, Megan got to work. She applied and received funding for 30 Noodle chairs during the 2015-16 school year. Once they arrived, doling out the chairs was ultimately left to the teachers; Megan gave recommendations on students she felt had the greatest need for better seating.

Survey Nods to Noodle Success

“After we moved the chairs around to find the students they worked best for, the change was immediate,” Megan reported. But she didn’t stop there. She decided to test the impact by conducting a small research study among 18 teachers and 18 student users 10 months after putting the chairs to work.

The results:  Nearly 90 percent of the teachers agreed the Noodle chairs increased attention span and improved their teaching with no chair-related disruptions. Among students, 100 percent said the chairs helped them focus.

According to Megan, not only was the Noodle chair the teachers’ preferred equipment, it was viewed as the most effective tool. They felt that it improved children’s attention and ability to sit for longer periods of time. The only downside? The chairs were so popular, teachers had to help negotiate student arguments about who got to use the chairs and when.

Who Should Select Seating? Students Users

Understandably, Megan’s observations and research have made her an active seating advocate. She says many students, not just those who qualify for OT, need modifications and adaptations to fully access their education. Yet classroom furniture is most often purchased based primarily on budget and simple utility. Instead, she recommends schools look at ergonomics and the needs of current students.

“In New Jersey, we work very hard on inclusion. All of our special education students in the district are included as much as possible. That’s why when purchasing classroom furniture, we must consider attention level, movement seeking amount, muscle tone/muscle strength, posture, fine motor skills, length of sitting time and work expectations.”

Ideally, Megan would love to set-up a classroom filled with active seating solutions, including Noodle chairs, bean bags, ball chairs, standing desks with stools, various-sized tables, and carpets/mats that allow for student movement.

Are “Mega” Noodles on the Horizon?

No surprise, the Noodle chair’s success at CAS has more of its teachers wishing they had active seating in their classrooms. That wish has put advocate Megan back in problem-solving mode.

This fall, she’ll use her data to re-apply for a grant and seek additional funding for another 150 Noodle chairs. Given Megan’s tenacity, “mega” (we couldn’t resist!) Noodles could likely land throughout CAS classrooms in the coming year. Stay tuned.