PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In early January, Robin Norsworthy couldn’t quite put her finger on what was missing in her fifth-grade classroom at the Zippel Elementary School in Presque Isle.
The teacher had a room full of students working busily on their assignments, and the work only stopped when they pushed their chairs back to head outside for recess.
It was then that Norsworthy realized what was going on — the noise level in the classroom decreased dramatically when her students no longer had chairs to push across the wooden floor.
It was in January that Norsworthy’s class began taking part in a pilot project funded by the United Way of Aroostook that allowed the students to sit on stability balls in the classroom instead of chairs. Dubbed the WittFitt project, the unique partnership between public health organizations and schools replaced chairs with stability balls in 13 classrooms throughout Aroostook County.
During a recent press conference at Zippel Elementary School and the Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville, officials announced plans to have the data gathered by the original project partners professionally analyzed. The $5,000 project is being funded by The Aroostook Medical Center, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and the United Way of Aroostook. Houlton Regional Hospital and Northern Maine Medical Center are supporters of the project.
Earlier this week, Norsworthy said she and her students had a wonderful experience using the stability balls. After receiving parental permission, she began training the students how to properly sit and move on their new inflated seats.
“The students quickly learned that they were not toys,” she said. “They understood that this was a tool that could help them improve their posture, provide better core strength, improve their handwriting and more.”
The stability balls used in the classroom are similar to the type used at the gym and in the home for stretching and strengthening exercises. The latex-free balls used in schools have legs on the bottom to keep them from rolling.
“When we began the project, we anticipated that the stability balls would improve posture, strengthen muscles, sharpen attention span and ultimately, boost academic performance,” said Reegan Brown, WittFitt project coordinator and community education specialist for Healthy Aroostook. “We collected a large amount of data, but more work needs to be done with it before we can truly understand the project’s impact.”
Norsworthy said her students loved sitting and moving on them, and they were also allowed to bounce slightly on their seats. Students who misbehaved or abused the privilege found themselves sitting on their chairs for a week. At the end of the school year in June, each student had to deflate their ball.
“The students were sad over that,” said Norsworthy, adding that she inflated the balls again in September for her new students to use. “I cannot think of one negative of this project.”
Martha Bell is the Aroostook public health district coordinator working with the Aroostook County Action Program. She said there has been growing interest in the integration of stability balls in classrooms throughout the state and on a national level. Bell said she thinks the data will show the positive effect seen by teachers such as Norsworthy.
The next stage of the project will be having the data gathered in the classrooms professionally analyzed. Healthy Aroostook, the coordinator of the initiative, collected data from teachers, parents and students throughout the project. The data that will be analyzed consists of multiple surveys completed by students, teachers and parents. The surveys assessed students’ posture, attentiveness, ability to stay on task, handwriting, attitude toward school and other factors.
The project partners believe the in-depth analysis of the data will support some of the results that have been noted in other parts of the country. If so, more classrooms may be outfitted with the balls in the future. Final results will be shared with participating schools, project partners and others who may want to become involved.