University of Calgary

Teacher applies her Master’s research to exercise in Calgary classrooms

UToday HomeJune 12, 2013

By Betty Rice

Michelle Deen has helped special needs students focus on their studies by developing  an aerobic exercise program.Michelle Deen helped special needs students focus on their studies by developing an aerobic exercise program. Photo by Betty RiceAs a special education teacher, Michelle Deen found herself wondering what she might do to make her students’ learning experiences more positive, not only for the students themselves, but for their teachers and their fellow classmates.

Deen, who graduates today with an MEd in School and Applied Psychology, has been working in special needs classrooms for eight years, and is currently in a school that focuses on students with exceptional learning needs, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Learning Disabilities (LD).

Deen knew that students with LD are particularly vulnerable and require additional supports to be successful.But she also knew that many parents of children with ADHD do not want to use medication because of side-effects. So she set about finding another way to help these children be more successful in a school setting.

“Overall, I wanted to find out whether it would be possible to develop a healthy, low-cost, school-wide intervention that could target all children and support their functioning in several domains,” she says.

Recently, a growing body of research has suggested that physical activity performed on a regular basis can alter brain functions underlying cognition and behavior. Deen and her principal decided to create and pilot an aerobic exercise program with Deen’s class to gauge the effects on their behavior and social-emotional functioning.

The program was implemented school-wide the following year and was designed to allow students to participate in 20 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic exercise, keeping a consistent target heart rate during the first period of the school day, with the idea that it would help students focus on learning and support their behavioral and social-emotional functioning.

Deen then spoke with the Faculty of Education’s Emma Climie, an assistant professor and lead researcher for the Carlson Family Research Award in ADHD, about what she dubbed “the SPARK for Learning” program. Climie agreed to collaborate.

Preliminary results indicate improvements in students’ abilities to sustain their attention and inhibit their behavior. Additionally, students have reported decreases in anxiety, internalizing problems, attention problems, hyperactivity, and inattention while teachers reported decreases in hyperactivity and attention problems.

“Michelle began running this program in her school because of a personal enthusiasm for helping at-risk children,” says Climie. “Her dedication to this project has allowed it to expand into the research project it is today and we are excited to see it implemented throughout a number of Calgary schools.

“Michelle is truly passionate about supporting the social-emotional development of children and her commitment to this project and these children has been remarkable.”


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