Activities and Movement Program Helps Students with Learning Challenges

Boys playing fisbee

How often have you arrived for work, sat down in front of your computer, stared at the screen and tried to will yourself to become productive? If all else failed, you ran out for coffee – or maybe high-test espresso.

Think about middle and high school students whose school day begins on average at 8:00 a.m. Samantha Gizerian, an assistant professor at Washington State University, tells us that adolescent brain clocks are about two hours behind those of full-grown adults. Learning subjects like history, English, foreign language or coding is hard enough. It is exponentially harder when you are only partially awake and aware.

Now imagine that you are a student with learning challenges. That’s exactly what Seaport Academy Director Alex Tsonas did, along with his faculty and staff team. Designed specifically for young men in grades 8-12, Seaport emphasizes experiential learning – with a focus on building strong staff-student relationships.

Understanding that adolescents’ internal clocks put them at a disadvantage for early morning learning – and realizing that Seaport’s students can struggle with affect dysregulation – Seaport created Activities and Movement. Regulation is the way people manage their attention, thoughts, feelings and physical sensations in their body.[i] Understanding that dysregulation compounds the internal clock struggle, Seaport’s solution was based in play, movement and games headed up by regulated adults.

Syncing Mind and Body

Seaport students begin each morning exercising with calisthenics, yoga or Zumba; doing martial arts or boxing; engaging in games like darts, foosball, Frisbee, bocce or baseball – anything to move the body. They receive physical education and Transition Credit for the daily half-hour class.

“The course is born out of the understanding that our students struggle with affect dysregulation, where they are cognitively and emotionally dysregulated,” explains Alex. “That can stem from trauma – many of our students do have trauma history, perhaps as many as 90 percent.” Alex adds that beginning the day with movement is also critical for students with anxiety, stress, depression and other social-emotional challenges.

“The idea is that in order to activate certain parts of the brain it is not enough to just talk to students ... The body and mind are synced,” he states. “Trauma, anxiety, depression – they don’t reside only in the mind, the brain. It’s a body-brain issue, and if they’re not aligned, the brain is not being fully accessed. There are parts of the brain that are literally dark. They are shut down.

“So what we’ve done with this initiative is get the guys active first thing in the morning and wake up those neurological connections.”

Not every Seaport student is well-coordinated, athletic or good at complex physical games, but that is not necessary to get the full cognitive benefit of mind-body coordination. Just as long as students move the body through physical activity, students can regulate and begin the day by accessing, or turning on, these parts of the brain.

According to Melissa Byron, director of student services at Seaport, another outcome of this new course is the power that “play” has. “When you engage students in play through this course (e.g., Frisbee, bocce ball, baseball, etc.),” she shares, “it is another form of connection.” Students have conversations with the Seaport staff about things they might not discuss in other settings.

Activities and Movement is informed by the work of Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., one of today’s leading neuroscientists and founder and director of the Trauma Center at JRI, which is now the independent nonprofit The Trauma Center. He is the author of several books, including The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Treatment of Trauma. Dr. van der Kolk’s work looks at the role that movement plays in helping people, especially children and adolescents, overcome trauma and stress.

For students to be fully present and ready to learn, the “rational” brain must be activated. However, trauma is rooted in the part of our brain, the “animal brain,” that is “devoted to ensuring our survival,” Dr. van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score. Without intervention, the long-term effects of trauma can “shut down” the student’s ability to fully access the rational brain. This is true for even milder forms of stress that can be deregulating.

According to Alex, that means teachers can expertly explain a lesson, but without syncing the body and mind first, students will not learn the material at the same high level that they will when academics and movement are combined.

Beginning each school day with Activities and Movement helps students to self-regulate before they engage in other classes. “You don’t want to wait until students are dysregulated,” Alex adds, smiling. “Seriously, with this class, we are teaching them skills that they can use now and for the future. They can take these lessons with them moving forward.”

Get Moving

The neuroscience upon which Activities and Movement is built holds true for adults as well as for children and adolescents. So when the stress of daily life starts to affect your productivity, get up from your desk and take a walk, or reach for the dumbbell, basketball or Frisbee instead of that cup of coffee or high-test espresso – and get moving!

[i] Dr. Will Henson,