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ADHD, classroom chairs and therapy balls

CMU student researches options for on-task behavior

Contact: Heather Smith

​Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be overly active or have trouble paying attention or controlling impulsive behaviors.

But one school psychology student researcher at Central Michigan University wondered if these children actually could be sitting on a solution to their ADHD.

Abbie Taipalus questioned, "Would sitting on a therapy ball instead of a traditional four-legged classroom chair improve their on-task behavior and academic performance?"

Therapy balls — also known as exercise balls or stability balls — are air-filled rubber balls that range from 20 to 30 inches in diameter. An increasing number of school systems across the United States are using them to improve student attention, but the research into their effects is limited.

Taipalus was onto a great topic to pursue as a thesis paper, and she had the full support of her professor Michael Hixson.

Even the research journal Behavioral Interventions took interest and recently published the work Taipalus collaborated with Hixson and fellow CMU psychology graduate students Robert Wyse and Sophie Fursa.

ADHD is one of the most common childhood neurobehavioral disorders. An estimated 5.1 million children between ages 4 and 17 have a current ADHD diagnosis.

"In learning about how common the balls are in school settings today, I knew the study would be valuable," said Taipalus, of Jonesville, Michigan. "I've always believed in the positive effects of movement and exercise on learning. I knew this study would be the perfect opportunity to learn more about these theories."

She is working as a school psychologist in the Jackson County Intermediate School District as she finishes her doctoral studies at CMU.

It turns out Taipalus and her team found that therapy balls fall flat in helping elementary school students diagnosed with ADHD to stay on task. There were relatively small differences in academic engagement between when a child sat on a chair or a therapy ball.

Project advances ADHD research

It may seem like this was an unsuccessful project. But finding nothing actually pushes researchers closer to discovering solutions for helping children with ADHD, Hixson said.

He explained that there is little research into the effects of using therapy balls in the classroom, and their collective results are inconclusive. Some studies show benefits while other studies show none.

"We want to know what works and what doesn't work," he said.

Taipalus first noticed therapy balls being used as chairs in schools during her first-year practical experience. She immediately started reviewing the research on using therapy balls as chairs. She found only four published studies.

"As a school psychologist, I work with students with ADHD on a daily basis who struggle socially, behaviorally and academically," Taipalus said. "A large number of these parents are choosing not to medicate, which makes it even more important to provide up-to-date research on nonpharmacological strategies to help these students be successful."

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