Courtney Fillmore Fort Worth Business Press

A program introducing more frequent recess breaks, as well as character development curriculum, to kindergarten and first-grade students at two Fort Worth private schools has shown strong improvements among students in discipline, focus and academic success, according to a recent study conducted by a Texas Christian University kinesiology professor. The LiiNK Project is part of a collaboration between Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences at TCU, Trinity Valley School and Starpoint Lab School in Fort Worth.

The program is the brainchild of Debbie Rhea, associate dean at Harris and Project ISIS program director, who believes that increasing children’s physical movement and including a so-called positive action curriculum has a dramatic effect on how well they learn.

At Trinity Valley School, the first year of Rhea’s pilot program has been deemed a success. The kindergarten and first-grade classes were observed last fall, before the program was implemented at the beginning of the spring semester. The results took school administrators by surprise.

The children looked forward to each recess and demonstrated social growth and development through the change in peer interactions from pre- to post-assessments, said Rhea in a news release. Children were more disciplined and focused in the classroom after starting the extra recesses, and there were significant decreases in misbehaviors during recess and off-task behaviors in the classroom, she said.

“The results were significant as far as being able to capture how well students focus,” said Gary Krahn, Trinity Valley headmaster, in a news release. “We knew there was a possibility that it would work, but I didn’t think it would work at that level.”

Finnish influences

During a six-week sabbatical in Finland, Rhea studied what made that country’s schools and students more academically successful than their American counterparts and which of those elements could be implemented in U.S. schools to improve performance.

Two of Rhea’s most significant findings were that in recent years, the United States has placed less emphasis on unstructured play in schools and on the importance of character development in schools.

When these elements were addressed in U.S. schools, during an independent study, researchers saw improved academic performance, decreased discipline issues and fewer instances of emotional issues.

Studies in Finland, one of the countries bringing these two elements together, found strong evidence that the combination of unstructured, outdoor play and character development produces healthier and more productive children, said Rhea.

Implementing ISIS

Traditionally, U.S. public elementary schools operate with one recess period a day, if that. According to Rhea’s research, these schools have also experienced increases in bullying and other social issues. She believes that by shifting schools’ approaches to children’s learning environments, teachers’ dispositions may also improve along with the children’s academics and character.

Schools participating in The LiiNK Project gave their students three to four 15-minute blocks of unstructured outdoor play, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

“The more movement children have throughout the day, the better they are with attentional focus, behavioral issues and academic performance,” said Rhea. “Kids are built to move, and having more time for unstructured outdoor play is essentially like a reset button for the day. It not only helps to break up the day, but it allows kids to blow off steam and gives them an opportunity to move and redirect energies to something they feel is meaningful.”

“When a student is able to move more times in a day, the brain is actually generating more hormones,” said Rhea. “BDNF is one of those factors that’s able to be produced. As a result of that brain function revving up, the curriculum that they are taking in is able to actually go in and be processed faster.”

BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is produced as a result of the brain being able to generate more of the hormones associated with increased activity level. Rhea compares this phenomenon to so-called “runner’s high.”

In addition to increases in outdoor free time, the project included three weekly 15-minute social and character development lessons, which Rhea refers to as positive action curriculum.

“Positive action is based on the intuitive philosophy that we feel good about ourselves when we do positive actions,” said Sandy McNutt, lower school principal at Trinity Valley School. “A few of the areas we spend time on throughout our days are: self-concept, managing yourself responsibly, treating others the way you want to be treated, self-honesty and improving yourself continually.”

“Our children are learning much about integrity, honor, empathy and responsibility, beginning in kindergarten,” said McNutt.

These additional activities were built into the existing schedule so they did not increase the length of a school day. To do this Rhea looked at the students’ average school day to identify “dead space” time or opportunities to incorporate the content into the existing curriculum.

However, the transition was not without its challenges.

“The first semester of implementation was a challenge,” said McNutt. “Revising the schedule to accommodate 3 recesses and to cover the content was difficult. Over time, certain factors naturally fell into place. Students became more adept at transitioning in and out of the classroom. Students were more focused on lessons, allowing the teacher to teach more content with more on-task behavior.

“The teachers took a hard look at curriculum and expectations, and they adjusted curriculum, giving more time to depth of information. Adjusting, modifying, and aligning curriculum, vertically and horizontally, is an ongoing task. Professional development was provided through Deb Rhea at TCU, and time was designated throughout the school year for teams to collaborate,” said McNutt.

In order to study the program’s effects at Trinity Valley longitudinally, the project will measure change in children starting with kindergarten and first grade, then add one grade per year up to eighth grade, to chart the program’s effects over time, said Rhea.

In the future, Rhea hopes that her findings will assist educators in their quest for stronger academic performance in children by bringing the fun back to learning, increasing the ability to focus/concentrate, and increasing social responsibility in American children.

The LiiNK Project was formerly known as Project ISIS.  

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