How Standing Desks Can Help Students Focus in the Classroom

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The rise of the standing desk may appear to be a response to the modern, eat-at-your-desk, hunched-over worker chained to her computer, but history paints a different picture: Hemingway, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all stood while they worked. Donald Rumsfeld had a standing desk, and so did Charles Dickens. Workplaces are moving toward more standing desks, but schools have been slower to catch on for a variety of reasons, including cost, convenience, and perhaps the assumption that "sit down and pay attention" is the best way to learn.

Mark Benden, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M Health Science Center, is looking to change all that. Too much sitting is bad for our health, he said, and students are now facing a host of challenges that may stem in part from too much time in a chair, including obesity and attention disorders. So five years ago, Benden and his team began studying what happened to students when they got out of their traditional seats and moved to standing desks.

Their findings, published in a new piece in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, come from a group of 374 elementary school students in College Station, Texas. Students divided into a (traditional desk) control group and a standing desk group were equipped with biometric monitors - what Benden described as “research-level Fitbits” - attached to their arms, which tracked several measurements, like heart rate and intensity of movement, and then calculated their caloric burn. The desks were designed and built locally at Stand2Learn, an A&M faculty-led startup of which Benden maintains part ownership.

“We quickly realized they [the students] are more active, they are burning more calories, at the standing desks,” Benden said. “And they’re not necessarily standing the whole time. There’s a stool, too, but even sitting in a stool is different from sitting in a chair. It’s really not sitting or standing - because it opens up your trunk-thigh angle, you’re able to breathe better, and you’re able to swing your legs.”

A Stand2Learn standing desk and stool. (Courtesy of Stand2Learn)
A Stand2Learn standing desk and stool. (Courtesy of Stand2Learn)

Benden said they found that children in the study who were overweight or obese burned more calories at the standing desks than their normal-weight peers, a result he found surprising. “It’s interesting,” he said. “When you’re thinking about intervention, the children who are normal weight don’t experience a significant change from being in a seated classroom. But overweight kids get a bigger bump, and they’re the ones who need it the most.”

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In reality, Benden said it’s not about either sitting or standing all the time, but instead about keeping moving. He wants to spread the “gospel of movement,” where kids and adults understand they need to be up and active, free to move around. For the modern student or office worker, standing for part of a day is a good way to keep moving. “We used to be more active, but over time we got conditioned to being inactive,” Benden said. “It’s not normal, and it’s not how we were intended to be. When schools tell children to sit still and be quiet, you’ve almost wounded them. They want to be wiggling and fidgeting and moving.”

The Impact of Standing on Learning

While burning calories is certainly important, the real question in classrooms is whether standing desks improve learning. Benden said he brought in Texas A&M’s educational psychology department through a special grant to study whether students were more engaged with the teacher and with their work when they were standing. The psychologists, who were blinded to the study, sat in classrooms for two years watching students and measuring their attentiveness and engagement using a series of markers like how many times students looked at the teacher, how often they wrote on their papers, and how often they were distracted by a neighbor.

The results of the study, to be published later this fall, were significant: students were more engaged in activity permissive learning environments than in traditional seated environments. And once again, the children who were overweight and obese showed larger improvements in attention than normal-weight children.

“When you look at overweight, and especially obese, children in the study, they were twice as engaged in activity permissive learning environment classrooms,” Benden said. “And that amount of engagement was actually higher than normal-weight peers in normal classrooms. And that just doesn’t happen, this was kind of eye opening.” He mentioned a limited body of research showing that obese students may get lower grades than normal-weight students; the standing desks may have an opportunity to alter that. “Maybe those overweight kids aren’t less capable academically,” he said. “Maybe they just need to be more active.”

Standing Desks in the Classroom

A family of standing desk users at home. (Courtesy of Sandor Weisz)
A family of standing desk users at home. (Courtesy of Sandor Weisz)

Educator Katie Caritey has two standing desks for her 24 second graders, but believes that all her students would benefit from using them. She dreams of having more. The desks were provided by a grant six years ago at Mary Lee Burbank School in Belmont, Massachusetts, and for now students take turns.

“I have found the standing desks to be a fabulous tool for students that tend to be more active, fidgety or even more tired,” Caritey said. “Movement breaks are an essential part of learning in my classroom, and I have found that the best learning takes place when students are able to move their bodies throughout the day, consistently and frequently.”

Caritey’s 7- and 8-year-old students get two 15-minute recesses per day, and 30 minutes of physical education twice a week. Each day, Caritey chooses the students who are particularly energetic or are having a challenging time completing their work to use the standing desks. She also interviewed her students for this story so they could explain how they felt about having them in their classroom. She reports:

“In the words of my second grade students, the standing desks ‘help me concentrate without even thinking about what others are doing.’ They also help because ‘being able to stand or swing my legs helps me calm down my brain so I can think better.’ In the words of a more serious, less active student, ‘I would be perfectly fine without the standing desks, but when I can sit at one, it makes the time go by faster and my work gets finished right away.’  Another child reported that ‘when I get to school in the morning, my brain is tired and not ready for learning yet. When I sit at the standing desk, it wakes up my brain and helps me get ready for thinking.’”

But what if standing desks -- and yoga balls, bicycle desks and movement breaks -- are only part of the solution? What if they won’t fix the underlying problem, that today’s children don’t get enough whole body movement to be attentive and engaged in school?

Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom has railed against what she calls the “constant upright position” in which children spend too much time, limiting their ability to pay attention because their core muscles aren’t developed enough to keep from fidgeting. “It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past,” she opined in The Washington Post. According to Hanscom, one of the keys to maintaining attention in school is the development of the vestibular, or balance system, located in the inner ear. “In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions for hours at a time,” she wrote.

Whole body movements like spinning in circles and rolling down hills do much more than burn calories; Hanscom said that they engage the hair cells in the inner ear, helping to develop balance, vision and attention. All three are desperately needed for kids if they are expected to pay attention to learn.

“Standing can be just as bad as sitting,” Hanscom said about students using standing desks. “From an OT standpoint, it’s still an issue -- if you’re just standing, you’re not getting rapid vestibular movement. You need to move your head in all different directions. If you’re standing still, you’re not moving your head left and right.” Until children get meaningful movement, and lots of it -- she recommends multiple hours a day, whether in or out of school -- their attention will not improve.

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Mark Benden doesn’t disagree. “There is no replacement for running and playing. Motor skill development is so critical for young children, and it’s very vital that that happen, no question about it,” he said.

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