Brain Breaks & Afterschool Clubs Bring Physical Activity to Middle Schoolers

by

Salud Heroes
Share On Social!

Principal Matt Pope wanted to make a difference in the lives of the children at DJ Red Simon Middle School in Kyle, Texas, just south of Austin. When he found out that Simon students had among the highest obesity rates in the district, he immediately took action to introduce healthy changes to the students. The school eliminated junk food on campus and at concession stands and encouraged students to eat at least one fruit or vegetable during breakfast and lunch. They also implemented a policy to require PE for all, brain breaks throughout the day and—at the request of students—afterschool clubs to keep them active.

EMERGENCE

Students at Simon Middle reach for the sky during one of their many daily brain breaks.
Students at Simon Middle reach for the sky during one of their many daily brain breaks. (Source: Simon Middle Journalism Students)

Awareness: Middle-school teachers face enormous responsibilities—meeting high academic standards, preparing students for real-world challenges, and providing a safe, healthy environment for learning.

With so many tasks keeping educators and administrators occupied, promoting a healthy and active lifestyle during and after school may not always seem like a high priority.

But it is a priority at Simon Middle School in Kyle, Texas, a suburb just south of Austin, where 90% of students are Latino and 85% from low-income families.

“They [the teachers] believe their students’ health is just as important as academics,” said Matt Pope, principal of Simon, which is part of Hays Consolidated Independent School District (Hays CISD).

By spring 2012, there was a growing concern about the health of Simon students. Teachers noticed many kids bringing junk food, and students were not getting a lot of physical activity throughout the day.

Jeremy Lyon, former Hays CISD superintendent, was also becoming aware of the growth in childhood obesity rates throughout the district, so he began to investigate ways to bring healthy changes to schools.

Learn: In 2012, Hays CISD’s state-mandated FITNESSGRAM reports found that 39% of district students were overweight or obese. The district also found that obesity rates were high among white (14%) and African American students (18%), but highest among Latino children (25%).

In 2011, the non-profit organization Children’s Optimal Health (COH) entered into a data-sharing agreement with Hays CISD and set out to learn more about childhood obesity in the region, said Maureen Britton, COH executive director.

“The superintendent of Hays CISD said he wanted this done,” Britton said.

Hays CISD partnered with COH to create maps to show areas where children with BMI levels above the 85th percentile were living, according to this news article from the Hays Free Press.

COH examined FITNESSGRAM data on cardiovascular fitness, patterns of economic disadvantage, and ethnic/racial identification of students, as well as neighborhood infrastructure like parks, recreation facilities, grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, hospitals, childcare centers, and churches.

Now armed with the latest maps at the neighborhood, school, and community levels, COH organized a district-wide summit.

“We always finish with a summit,” Britton said. “The map reports give us a really good view of what’s going on and we’re able to make some good strategic decisions with this data.”

Frame Issue: COH presented their maps at the summit to generate solutions to the problem of student obesity.

One map in particular—showing the proportions of BMI categories of body weight per each Hays CISD middle schools—caught Pope’s eye. The map showed that less than half of Simon’s
students had a healthy weight and, when compared to other middle schools in the district, it had the highest rate of obese or severely obese (37%) students. Additional data showed that 17% of students at Simon were overweight and that 45% of students were not in the cardiovascular Healthy Fitness Zone (see chart for range), as measured by the Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run (PACER) test or one-mile run.

IMG_1317
Students at Simon Middle enjoy one of their in-class brain breaks. (Source: Simon Middle Journalism Students)

“For me as a principal that was staggering,” Pope said. “Because not only was I dealing with the future success of my students educationally, but were they going to live to see their success?”

Pope decided that more had to be done to get kids eating healthier and exercising more. So he pulled together his leadership team to discuss what strategy could work best for improving the health of the students.

DEVELOPMENT

Education/ Mobilization: Before school started in fall 2012, at the school’s annual faculty developmental day, Pope spoke to the faculty of the high obesity rates at Simon Middle.

Simon school officials started identifying a comprehensive plan to increase physical activity among students and faculty.

IMG_1318
Students at Simon Middle are encouraged to eat from the school’s new salad bar. (Simon Middle Journalism Students)

One idea was brain breaks—brief bouts of physical activity that take place during or between lessons in the classroom. Pope arranged for the school’s librarian and drama teacher to demonstrate brain breaks at the faculty developmental meeting, and the whole faculty was asked to participate in brain breaks during the course of their training.

Pope explained to the faculty the importance of student health and how brain breaks help students focus and learn better in the classroom. He said that brain breaks can be implemented throughout the day during and between lessons. Students may be asked to stand up to answer to a question, instructed to do 10 jumping jacks, or asked to touch five chairs and then discuss what they’ve learned in a group.

Debate: “At first no one really thought it would work,” said Teri Clement, a math and science instructional coach at Simon. “And while every decision [change] that’s been made has been huge, the ripple is never as negative as people anticipate it will be.”

Still, according to Clement, because the decision to bring more physical activity into the classroom was introduced as part of the school’s overarching goals and as a way of using a whole-child approach to educate children, the school’s faculty and staff welcomed the healthy changes at Simon Middle.

ENACTMENT

Activation/ Frame Policy: In addition to brain breaks, schools officials discussed adding mandatory physical education (PE) classes and afterschool fitness activities as options to increase students’ physical activity.

Pope wanted to create a master schedule to place every student in a PE or athletics class.

“Looking at the master schedule, it seems overwhelming to schedule 600 kids for PE when we only have 2 PE teachers, but we have many athletic coaches,” Pope said.

Not only did the school’s administration and teachers buy into the need for more active playtime, Simon students also requested afterschool clubs to increase their minutes of weekly physical activity.

According to Pope, Simon students stay at school for an additional hour and teachers are paid a stipend to lead afterschool activities, three days a week, as part of the school’s Wolverine Workshop enrichment club time. In a survey, students were asked about what afterschool activities they would like to see, and most requested clubs that involve physical activity: soccer, kickball, football, tennis, Walk2Run, Ballet Folklorico, and strength and conditioning (activities offered for fall 2013).

In addition, to brain breaks, daily PE/athletics class, and afterschool clubs, Pope and the faculty wanted to create a reward system to reinforce positive behavior and promote additional physical activity, using something called PRIDE points. Students would collect PRIDE points and earn the right to “Fun Friday Activities” after lunch, PRIDE dances, and PRIDE field days.

“We started to switch all of our incentives to being physically based activities,” Pope said.

Pope explained that it was also important for the kids to be eating healthier. So in addition to bringing more physical activity to students, he and school officials explored changes to the school’s nutrition policy, too, including removing junk food from school concession stands.

Change: At the beginning of the fall 2012 semester, Pope and teachers at Simon middle instituted a systems change to improve the health of students through several healthy lifestyles programs. Physical activity changes included:

  • All teachers are expected to initiate a brain break for students every 11-14 minutes.
  • All students (grades 6-8) must participate in PE class or athletics every day (something Pope arranged through modifying the master schedule). In Texas, middle-school students are only required to be enrolled in PE for four semesters.
  • Add more physical-activity-focused afterschool programs.

Nutritional changes included:

  • Students are not allowed to bring junk food to school (see student handbook).
  • Students are required to take at least one fruit or vegetable at breakfast and lunch.
  • Students are encouraged to eat from the school’s salad bar.
  • Junk food was removed from the school’s concession stands.

IMPLEMENTATION

IMG_1311
At Simon Middle fresh fruit leftover from breakfast is available for students to eat throughout the day. (Source: Simon Middle Journalism Students)

Implementation: Simon students and teachers are finding it easier to incorporate more

physical activity into their daily lives, Pope said. Students are getting more physical activity through daily brain breaks and PE/athletic classes, and the school’s faculty is using school facilities to exercise before and after the start of the school day.

“Many of the school’s teachers are leading by example,” said Allison Duran, an 8th-grade math teacher at Simon.

Pope said the students see teachers jogging around the school and they hear about the importance of making healthy changes from their coaches constantly.

“The kids were dying to be physically active. They love it,” said Krystina Brewer, a SIM/literacy instructional coach at Simon.

As for the changes regarding junk food Clement said: “Everyone thought they [the students] were going to revolt, but they didn’t. When I told students that we were going to ask them not to bring junk food, they just did it.”

Equity: After getting started with a few healthy changes, more ideas like the healthy snack table were implemented. Because most of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, fruit leftover from breakfast is placed on the healthy snack table in each classroom. Now students do not have to worry about being hungry in class—they can eat leftover fruit, like oranges, apples, and bananas, from the healthy snack table.

In the future, Pope hopes to get all the staff to stop bringing junk food to school. “That’s the next step,” Pope said. “It’s worth a try…we can commit to modeling healthy behaviors in the classroom.”

In 2012, Simon Middle partnered with the district’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) to host a Family Fun Night. Pope says this ended up winning them a prize from It’s Time Texas for best community project in the state.

IMG_0972
Students enjoy a brain break. (Source: Simon Middle Journalism Students)

Sustainability: A culture of healthy habits is being ingrained in Simon students and faculty, Pope said.

Students have become so used to brain breaks that they often remind their teachers that it’s time for a brain break. At weekly faculty meetings, teachers are introduced to new types of brain breaks. Such uptake is a good sign for sustainability, Pope said.

Additional Links:

Hays CISD taking new approaches to tackle obesity

District to Host Major Child Obesity Summit; Unveil New Fitness Maps

Hays CISD hosts Obesity Summit: District services in the area offer ideas for battling the bulge

Read a feature story about Matt Pope and Simon Middle in this copy of The Triune

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. For more information, visit http://www.salud-america.org.

By The Numbers By The Numbers

40

percent

of Latino kids participate in preschool programs vs. 53% of white kids.

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Share your thoughts