Movement is NOT a Reward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by Camdiluv ♥: http://flickr.com/photos/camdiluv/4441155157/

Kids need movement. We all need movement.  Recess is a need.  PE is a need.  Energy breaks are necessary.

If I am in a longer session and I need to move, I get up and take a break.  I bounce my legs. I type. This helps me to self-regulate so I can focus more and stay calm.  I wonder how I would respond or how my learning would be impacted if I got up to take a break and was told to sit down and sit still. 

At many schools, students are given energy breaks on a regular basis so students can spend the time in between the breaks being more focused on learning. Throughout the day at our school, you will obsever students walking/running around the school or climbing up and down our hill as we believe in the power of movement to help a child’s learning.

I wonder, however, how often we fail to listen to students telling us they need to move.  When a child is hyper or continually getting out of his/her seat, our first response is often “sit down”.  When a child is tapping their pencil or rocking in their child, we often tell them to “sit still” and  “be quiet”.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that there are times when it is important to not distract others but I also wonder how much effort we put into meeting the needs of students by providing an outlet for needed physical activity.  We have teachers/staff at Kent that promote the use of wiggle seats, fidget toys, exercise balls, and also encourage some students to stand up as a way to help them; I see this as a huge benefit for students. The challenge for teachers and staff is to determine an appropriate balance of movement, noise, and quiet, calm time.  My concern is that we confuse our needs with student needs and sometimes observe behaviours as a choice to act out and misbehave rather than a message of what their bodies need.

So if movement is a need that helps us all, how do we feel about these statements?

  • “If we all behave, we will have 5 minutes at the end to go outside.”
  • “If you don’t sit down, you won’t be able to go out at recess.”
  • “If you don’t get your work done, you won’t get to go to PE.”
  • “Every time you are out of your seat, you get a strike.  Three strikes and you stay in at recess.”
  • “Thank you, Sarah, for staying in your seat and remaining quiet.  Here is a ticket.”
  • “Just ask your PE teacher if you can miss PE class to work on your assignment.”

As a former PE teacher, I realize the unfortunate hierarchy of physical education in schools.  I also realize that students need to get the learning activities completed and movement can also be used as avoidance.   We also know, however, that we all need movement to help us regulate so let’s put ourselves in the shoes of students during a school day and reflect upon seat time and movement time.

Let’s work to create solutions to academic and behaviour problems without looking to PE and movement as a reward or something that can be taken away.  This sends the wrong message about physical education and often ignores what they are telling us – they need movement and other sensory solutions!  Each student often requires different movement needs.  Let’s work to create the sensory conditions for students to get these needs met so they can better focus on their learning.  For educators this is no easy task; however, by working together to implement strategies to increase opportunities for movement, this will not only benefit student learning but also the stress level of staff in schools.

Special thank you to Marc Landry, an occupational therapist from BC, for inspiring this post.

NOTE: Although I disagree with the punitive response of keeping a child in at recess I do know that there are times when this extra 1:1 time with the teacher can effectively help to meet the needs of the child.  We have staff that are often giving up their breaks to work with students to support them in many different subjects… including PE.  As always, we need to reflect upon the needs of each child and try to create an effective learning environment for each student.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. I SO agree. One of my biggest surprises since moving to Australia schools has been the length of lunches and recesses. All students and teachers take a 20-minute break in the morning and they have at least 40 minutes to play in the afternoon.

    …and then there is the land (very expansive after years in Hong Kong) – a field, a playground, courts, grass areas, sandbox… The kids get to really run.

    • Great to hear! I think we do things fairly well in Canada too. We have 20 minute recess and a 35 minute play time at lunch. Too, throughout the day there are energy breaks and PE. I love our field that has a garden, hill to climb, soccer fields, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, basketball courts, 4 square courts… out staff has worked hard over the years to provide so many options for kids to stay active.

      As you implied, the structures of our schedules and school grounds state where we place activity as a priority!

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Chris, your blog post really made me think! I absolutely agree with you that students need to self-regulate, and that not all students can sit down and sit quietly. This year has been a very eye-opening one for me in this regard. I have 5 students that really struggle with sitting still and listening. They really can’t do so. We’ve worked out some options together. Some of them chew gum. A few of them have a fidget toy. We’ve had to find some quiet options for fidget toys though, as drum sticks beating on a desk distracted the other students. We’re working on a balance. We also work in movement breaks, and I try to keep lessons short, so that students can move freely during the work time. This really seems to help!

    The only thing is that if students don’t finish their work in class (and it’s reasonable to expect that they would finish it), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having students finish it at lunchtime. Now I agree with you that many need outdoor time. I’ve worked in options then for them to go outside first, and then work with me while they eat. We even try to find a quieter room where they may be more successful. It’s not a perfect system, and I continue to tweak it, but overall, it’s working.

    What are your suggestions if students do not finish their work in class? If it’s unreasonable to expect that they would, then that’s a different story, but if it’s not, then I wonder about the best solution. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


    • As always, love how you reflect and constantly update your views on teaching and learning. You raise a really good point that I will likely add to the original post so as not to confuse people with my opinion on this. My point about taking recess away or use it as a reward was to link active kids with recess. For example, if a kids will not sit down, it makes little sense to take recess away or bribe them with active time. However, if a child is struggling with their learning and needs so extra teacher time, I strongly encourage teachers to use this time effectively to work 1 on 1 or in small groups with students for extra help. Having said this, staff at our school have taught me that it is important to know the needs of the child. If an active child needs extra reading support the odd recess, it is critical that active time be given throughout the day. If the child is upset or restless about giving up recess we have to ask ourselves if the learning is optimal during this time. The recess for academic support links to the zeros debate as well as if a child has not completed their learning activity, this may be a good time to work with the teacher and a good time for the teacher to better assess the child’s learning.

      As Marc Landy said, each child’s movement needs are different and although it is very difficult to know this, we need to work to try to find out how he/she needs to regulate so their learning environment can be improved.

      Not a black and white issue overall but the key is to look at the needs of each child – something that effective teachers do on a regular basis.

      Great addition to the dialogue, Aviva. Would love to hear if you have any more thoughts on this!

      • Chris, I read your reply earlier this week, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I think what concerns me the most as a teacher is not when students move around or have difficulty focusing, but is it my fault that this is happening? Every time I teach a lesson, I’m constantly looking at the students. I’m trying to “read” their reactions. Are they engaged? Do they understand what I’m saying? Is this boring, and if it is, how could I change things around? How much talking do I really need to do? At what point, can students explore on their own?

        I often find that the students that have difficulty focusing do so much better when they’re more engaged with the material and working in small groups and/or on their own, instead of during a lesson. So how can I make this lesson part better for them? If I can do this, then there won’t be the problems, the students will get their work done, and I won’t be looking at how and when to get them to finish.

        I completely understand that the child that needs to move around really can’t afford to lose recess time, but if they don’t finish their work and they should be done, then I need to find the time to make this happen. I continually re-look at options. Sometimes I get them to go outside for recess and then eat with me and work, and sometimes I get them to move around first, then work quickly with me, and then head outside. It’s not a perfect system, and as you said in your reply, I think a lot comes down to knowing the child.

        Thank you for giving me so much to think about!

        • I think you nailed it… for some students, working with them at recess may not be the best option but we always need to weight the purpose of the time together. If it is important to have that time during recess once in a while, then providing breaks a different times is important. I have worked with kids at recess and have found this very effective, however, as you know and have stated, we should never do this on a regular basis.

  3. Hi Chris,

    We employ a form of ‘energy break’, where the two hour morning session is broken up by a five minute outside run / game, as well as eating a piece of fruit. This strategy is in place primarily to enhance students’ readiness for learning when they are in the classroom.
    We also have recently implemented some new strategies with students that have identified (or suspected) sensory processing difficulties, such as ‘chewy’ toys, weighted blankets, noise reducing earmuffs and an ‘energy room’ (where students can walk, crawl, bounce, hop, run, etc. over a series of gym mats and soft obstacles. All of these strategies are borne out of suggestions by an Occupational Therapist that visits our school regularly.
    Thanks for the post – we need to consider the entirety of a child’s needs, not just those served by work done in the classroom…


    • Sounds likes the direction we need to go! Thanks for sharing – the sensory needs of our kids and the strategies to meet them are slowly moving more to the forefront here in BC. I look forward to seeing the impact this has on our kids.

  4. This thinking and language is so pervasive still. I find it rather daunting to look at, to be honest. How are we ever going to get anywhere with making positive learning environments when we still polarize movement and school ‘work’?

    • Great point that I think speaks for itself… when movement or active time is a break from learning time, maybe we need to reflect on learning time?

  5. Don’t forget about non participating strategies for no proper shoes or strip. that kills me. there is always a way.

    Further to my tweet Chris….
    My wife works as an EA (and a CYC student at UFV) in your neighbouring district and the team she is on targets elementary kids (primary age so far) with behaviour issues. As far as I can tell these kids have not been ‘designated’ and have not got any regular classroom support.

    My wife comes armed with wiggle seats, soft medicine balls (1, 2, 4kg), and an imagination to use them in a ton of different ways when the student needs a pull out.

    What she is finding is that the exercise with the weighted balls seems to engage the student’s bodies (kinaesthetically). As well the exercise sessions are excellent regulators of behaviour: calming those who need to be calmed, and energising those that need to be energised.

    Of course it is all anecdotal, but for some, the combination of exercise on preemptive pull outs and as a strategy for diffusing critical moments can be pretty successful.


    • I think we have so much to learn from EA’s and OT’s on this topic. They have shown great benefit to some students with challenging behaviours and these tools and strategies can benefit ALL students. Congrats to your wife (and you) for all the work you are doing with exercise and education.

  6. A great post, Chris! The concept of not only ‘allowing’ students to move but actually structuring it into their days is wonderful. The most powerful message in this post however is that same old message, different approaches work for different students. If teachers are truly meeting the needs of individual learners they need to know what those needs are. The best line in your post is the one about not confusing teachers’ needs with students’ needs. If student needs are met, not only is their learning optimized they are actually HAPPIER. Hoping that whoever teaches my grandson next year is informed about this as the word ‘still’ is not in his vocabulary 🙂 Thanks again for initiating conversation around the challenges of teaching and learning!

    • Great addition to the dialogue… you have been a great mentor for me to try to meet people where they are seek out the needs and strengths for each child. Thanks again!

  7. Just came across this and thought I would share it here, as I’ve already tweeted this great post.

    “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” ~John F. Kennedy

    So please do continue to allow for movement whenever possible and appropriate, and stimulate that creative intellectual activity so needed in JFK’s time and perhaps even more now!

  8. This is so true! My son’s first grade teacher referred to him as a restless learner, and she understood that movement was part of what he needed to process things. Although she ran a very structured classroom, he was always able to stand, walk around, and just be a wiggly six year old when needed.

  9. I’ve enjoyed reading this post as well as all the comments…as a special needs teacher I too am aware of the challenges that our ‘fidgety’ learners face and can’t help thinking about the idea of ‘classroom design.’ I’d love to see more classrooms add a wider variety of learning areas for our students with couches, beanbags, carpet and pillow areas for lie down writing, standing work stations, etc…I wonder what creative ideas our students would come up with if we asked them for suggestions?

  10. I have to agree with Roxanne’s comment… everyone has to be able to ‘get it out of their system’. As a teacher, we punish ourselves by taking away a child’s recess or lunch break but also, as a teacher, I used that punishment myself. In hindsight, I know it works for the short term but it does have negative effects on both the teacher and student who did need that break. We need to get up and move around; why do we think that the student doesn’t. My grandson needs to move around often and with energy. That isn’t going to change… it’s how he is. Hopefully, he will have a teacher understanding that about him so school will be something he will look forward to. I think parents and guardians may have to become active advocates for thiese kids… help others understand.

  11. Hey Pal…

    Just wanted you to know that I dig this piece. Really well done — and a really important reminder that movement is a need, not a want.

    Hope you’re well,

    • Thank Bill – during the workshop it was one of those Aha moments for me. ALthough I know that movement is a must, I have probably missed a lot of messages my students have sent me when they cannot sit still.

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