Students ditch their chairs

EVERETT – Second-graders in Mark Mains’ classroom bob gently up and down like ducklings on the sea.

They read, write and do their math sitting, not in chairs, but on large bouncy balls.

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

Second-grade teacher Mark Mains chats with Kyle Bodah during silent reading time at Odyssey Elementary School. The classroom switched from conventional chairs to inflatable balls in January.

There are no signs of squirming.

Mains believes the balls improve students’ posture and keep them focused on their work. Excess energy is subconsciously diverted to their feet as they maintain their balance.

“Kids fidget,” Mains said. “They aren’t made to sit still for long periods of time. When you acknowledge that and you try to channel that in positive and nondisruptive ways, it’s effective.”

Mains points to published studies backing his classroom practice. However, it was in his role as a father that he became convinced.

His son, Harrison, sat on a ball as a first-grader at College Place Elementary School in Lynnwood last year. But it was at the dinner table last November when Dad decided to put one to the test.

Young Harrison, who was 6, was talking a mile a minute but not making a whole lot of sense, gesturing frantically and not eating much.

“Go get your ball, buddy,” Mains told his son.

Minutes later, Harrison, atop his plastic orb, was intelligible and focused.

“When I saw that with my own eyes, I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ “

In January, Mains and his students at Odyssey jettisoned their chairs.

His students like the change.

“I thought it was great because we don’t have to sit on a hard platform,” said Dyonte Law, 8.

“I thought it was a cool idea because it would feel a lot more comfortable,” said Keely Hayes, 8.

Of course, Mains said, with the balls come rules and responsibilities.

Students must sign contracts pledging to keep the ball and both their feet on the floor. Their bottoms, too, must remain on the ball and “if you pop it, you chair it,” meaning a damaged ball lands the student in the old standby.

A ball can be placed in timeout for parts or full days for any infraction.

“We have to earn them,” said Kyle Bodah, 7.

Mains supplied his entire classroom for around $75, but therapy balls that might be used in occupational therapy can get pricey.

Two recent studies from the University of Washington have shown promising results using therapy balls with autistic students and those with attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

Felix Billingsley, a professor and chairman of the UW special education department, remembers when one of his doctoral students said she wanted to study the effects of therapy balls on in-seat behavior and legible writing among students with ADHD.

“That’s the silliest thing I ever heard,” he remembers thinking at the time. “Much to my amazement it seemed to have a considerable effect.”

“One thing she hasn’t looked at was their impact on kids without disabilities, but the teachers’ reports suggest it certainly doesn’t do any harm for the kids without disabilities,” he said.

“It’s not going to make a person learn multiplication tables better but it may allow them to have the focus to effectively learn the academic skills,” he said.

Last month, three teachers who work with learning-disabled students at Mukilteo Elementary received a small grant from the Mukilteo Education Association to buy 17 balls.

At College Place Elementary, Kathleen Seymour introduced $3 balls into her first-grade classroom a year ago.

She brings them in gradually at the beginning of the year, starting her students in conventional chairs. She inflates the plastic balls to different sizes to fit each child.

“We practice, practice, practice before we fully implement,” Seymour said.

And she has parents sit on them during conferences.

Seymour hasn’t done any formal studies of her own, but her opinion is the balls make a difference in posture and focus.

“If they have an outlet when their body is hyped up and distracted, they can focus with their mind better,” she said.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or

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