Movement sets them free

TRU students look at ways to get boys more engaged in school

The statistics tell the story - boys are losing out when it comes to education.

On a number of counts, the evidence suggests that more young men than women are experiencing difficulties with school.

They appear to be less engaged and eventually drop out before graduation at a higher rate than girls.

Theories and proposed solutions abound, but one common element among experts is the education system needs an overhaul for the so-called "boy crisis" to be resolved.

Two local women in the masters of education program at Thompson Rivers University have come up with one way to address the problem: get kids moving.

Tannis Tate and Jennifer Swan-Rogers teach at the Beattie School of the Arts. Over their decades of collective experience, they came to realize that movement is a key component to learning, especially for boys, and most especially for boys in the autism spectrum disorder.

"To take a child who's moving, who's acting, who's singing, who's pretending and say, 'No.' To make them sit at a desk and not move for six hours for boys, that's tyranny," said Tate.

The "boy crisis" in the education system is big and getting bigger, according to experts.

Chuck Montalbetti, a clinical counsellor who worked as a behaviour consultant for the Kamloops-Thompson School District for 35 years, said he has seen an increase over the past 10 years of at-risk boys struggling behaviourally in regular classrooms.

And it's worse than a mere lack of interest in learning. By some estimates, over the last decade the number of boys diagnosed on what's known as the autism spectrum has increased 20 fold, according to Dr. Norm Friesen, whose supervision facilitated Swan-Rogers and Tate's master studies.

"(Their research) presents new chances for these boys at a point in their lives where opportunities and doors are getting closed rather than opened for them," said Friesen, TRU's Canada research chair in electronically supported learning and teaching.

Tate and Swan-Rogers recently completed two detailed case studies showing how movement education involving the arts can meet this crisis.

They based their research on the work of Anne Green Gilbert, the Seattle author of Teaching the Three Rs Through Movement, Creative Dance for All Ages, Brain-Compatible Dance Education, Teaching Creative Dance and BrainDance.

"Movement in schools, not so new," said Tate. "Movement and conceptual brain compatibility within the school curriculum is very new."
They focused on two boys with diagnoses on the autism spectrum, one in Grade 5 and the other in Grade 2.

Outlining the painful story of their challenges and diagnoses, Tate and Swan-Rogers show how movement frees these boys up while engaging them with the curriculum and their peers.

"There are a lot of pullout programs for autistic kids, but what about actually letting them work with students who can model proper, on-task behaviour?" said Tate.

Friesen said he was surprised to see how seamlessly instruction through movement can become part of the school curriculum.

They can turn a lesson on plate techtonics, the digestive system or reading and comprehension into a vigorous session involving collaboration, creativity and connectivity that encourages children to absorb the information.

"Instead of acting out in our rooms, they're acting in and through their bodies," said Swan-Rogers. "For these students to see their success mirrored in the eyes of their peers makes all the difference."

The students' parents were stunned by the boys' sense of inclusion and success.

"I always knew he had good rhythm, but I had no idea what a leader he had become from doing the movement classes," said one mother, who asked that her name be withheld.

"He was actually showing the others in the class how to move to a certain thing. And for him to be a leader like that makes me want to celebrate it. He's so shy. He doesn't like any attention on him, so for him to lose himself in movement and music, it's very emotional to watch."

For educational psychologists, the notion of using bodies to learn makes sense.

"It's a full sensory integration, which is so important for these kids," said Rita Buisson, an educational psychologist in the Kamloops school division.

The work also had a profound impact on the teachers, who share in their students' emotions and success.

"I asked (my student) if he liked movement education and he said, 'Yes because movement makes me listen.' " said a grinning Swan-Rogers. "Well that's it. I've done my job."

Tate believes she has achieved her pinnacle when outside observers would walk into her classroom and be unable to point out the special-needs students from any of the other students.

"It's not going to solve all problems," said Tate, "but it's a new way of learning that helps. And it helps kids that are normally isolated and alienated and unable to connect, it helps them authentically integrate."

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