At Clarksville Elementary, movement brings calm, focus

Jon Cayer's second-grade classroom at Clarksville Elementary School is, as he puts it, active.

"They're very bright children, but they're very active," he said.

That might be an understatement.

Cayer matches his teaching style to the energy in the classroom — if students are sluggish, he amps up his own energy, and if they're hyper-active, he mellows out, he said. But a new program Cayer's using in class, one that's being used in other Howard County classrooms as well, offers extra help with getting students to focus.

Cayer's been using MeMoves, a visual program that combines music, movement, patterns and repetition, for about three weeks now, whenever his students need "slowing down or speeding up."

As often as a few times a day, Cayer turns on the program's DVD, and picks from one of three categories: joy, calm and focus. Each category has a sequence of movements, accompanied by either calming or energizing music. Each sequence only takes a few minutes, during which students mimic the movements shown on the screen.

"It's a universal tool," he said. "It affects a lot of people, helping some slow down and mellow out, and helping others self-energize."

MeMoves is the creation of Roberta Scherf and Chris Bye, who head their company in River Falls, Wis. About 800 school districts across the country use MeMoves, Scherf said, which has been on the market for two years.

"When people do this, they're fully engaged — physically, cognitively, visually, auditorally," Bye said. "You're so fully engaged that there's no bandwidth left for distractions."

The result, Scherf said, is a student who is calm and focused, and able to better tap into upper level thinking.

Inspired by daughter

The program was initially designed for students with special needs, said Scherf, who began working on MeMoves nearly 14 years ago when her own daughter showed signs of autism.

"Kids with special needs are often overwhelmed or frozen — even kids considered 'normal', because of the environment we require them to be in, a state of almost constant arousal," Scherf said.

Research in movement, music, repetition and patterns led Scherf to believe that something with those elements could help her daughter, who is now 19. The sequences that became MeMoves put Scherf's daughter "in a safe place, and put in place a filter," Scherf said, and let her focus and learn.

The program has more benefits than the creators realized, Bye said, and can benefit people with mental health issues and traumatic brain injuries.

"It's a self-regulation tool," he said. "Reduce stress, increase function."

Although school system officials are unsure how many county schools use MeMoves, it is used at several elementary, middle and high schools, in regular and special needs classrooms, said Cheryl Stair, an occupational therapist at Clarksville and Bushy Park elementary school.

"We're always looking for activities that can be integrated into the environment, as opposed to pull-out models," Stair said. "We're focused on inclusion, participation for special needs students and Universal Design for Learning.

"In looking at the needs of special needs and general education classes, all students can benefit from these activities. We can build in short snippets of movements that benefit the whole class, not just individual students' schedules."

Back in the Clarksville classroom, Cayer's students file back in after art class, chattering and boisterous. Cayer puts on MeMoves, and the students began following along, making wide circles, squares and other shapes with their moving arms. There were still murmurs and giggles, but after a few minutes, the students were more focused than before.

"It makes you calm," said Hannah Gitelman, 8. "It makes you happy, because it makes you calm."

For more information about MeMoves, and to see the program in action, visit http://www.thinkingmoves.com.

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