Why School Can Be Especially Hard For High Energy Kids

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
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When my kids graduated from their amazing preschool, a play-based learning space with hours of outdoor time each day, my heart broke knowing they would be limited to only 30 minutes (if that) of recess time each day when they started kindergarten. All three of my kids, 8 and 5 (twins), immediately noticed that they didn’t get much outside time when they started elementary school.

This shift was harder for my twins than my oldest. All three kids love to be outside, but my younger two NEED to be outside. They are high energy kids and need the freedom to move and explore. The school day can be hard for kids like mine and those with even more energy to burn.

I often volunteer in my kids’ classrooms, and I can feel the frantic energy of some kids. They struggle to follow directions, to stay focused for more than a few minutes, to not act out. They are literally bursting with kinetic energy that needs to remain potential energy. It’s uncomfortable. It’s almost unfair.

It’s not that these kids can’t listen or learn; they just need the ability to move more. Unfortunately, one teacher can’t always manage the physical needs of all kids in an equitable way. So students who can’t keep it together get in trouble. They are labeled “problem kids” or unteachable. This sets up a cycle of negative attention, classroom disruption, punishment, and low self-esteem.

Honestly, I get it. Being indoors for too long feels suffocating. I have never done well in jobs where I had to sit for too long. I often stood at my desk while working at an office job. I dread conferences and long periods of time where I have to stay focused on either one speaker or one topic. The air gets stale, my mind wanders, and my body gets jumpy. I can stand up and stretch, leave a room, and get some fresh air. In most places, this is encouraged. Learning is hard when we feel trapped. Our kids, especially the high energy ones, feel this claustrophobia too. Except they don’t have the same freedom adults do to make their environment more manageable.

All kids, especially the high energy ones, can benefit from more outside time. Studies have shown that being in nature benefits our mental health and reduces the risk of depression. Being outside makes us feel better. When kids are happier, they are more attentive. Kids need the freedom to run, shake, yell, and jump. And the full experience of exercising all of our senses while outside stimulates our ability to be more creative. Good problem solvers are often people who rely on their imagination and creative thinking skills.

Getting kids to spend more time outside allows their minds and bodies to be active in beneficial ways, so when they do reenter the classroom they are able to settle in.

Taking the classroom outside (or the outside in) improves learning in other ways. My oldest daughter’s classroom has an indoor worm compost system. In the warm months, they take their compost to the school greenhouse, but year-round they are learning ecosystem cycles. And when they are outside, getting their hands dirty in the garden, they are gaining an appreciation of where their food comes from. They are gaining confidence in their ability to learn about their world in relatable ways. They are taking responsibility for the environment and what it takes to care for something from seed to fruit.

When outside, there are many beautiful opportunities for interests to jump from one subject to the next. Kids can explore their environment and make observations—potentially jumping from one texture, plant, insect, or bird to the next in a matter of minutes—until one particular topic sparks a curiosity strong enough to carry an idea into the classroom. Student interest driven curriculum increases engagement and promotes active learning. Teachers will still teach math, science, humanities, reading, and writing, but when kids have buy-in they are more likely to learn. Outside time can promote this.

If more outside time just isn’t an option (though it should be), there are other strategies that can help energetic kids. Teacher Sarah Goodsell Punkoney found that what worked for her high energy students was connection and praise. This helped to build their confidence in a space that wasn’t conducive to their energy. Including sensory inputs like chewable jewelry or discovery bottles can calm anxious or antsy kids too. Simply allowing a child to stand while working can also do wonders.

She included action and play into lessons. “Every time my students heard a specific vocabulary word, they gave an action for that word. For instance, when we learned the word “scientist,” they would use their hands to pretend to pour liquid from one beaker to another one.” It’s not extended recess or access to daily gym class, but incorporating movement into the classroom can help those energetic students stay focused and less impulsive.

My kids do a pretty good keeping it together during the day. But my highest energy kid falls apart at the end of each school day. She has worked so hard to sit, pay attention, and follow directions that she just needs release. That usually comes in the form her spiraling out of control with chaotic physical and emotional needs that are bigger than her. When the weather is nice, I will pack snacks and plan on playing at the school playground after the final bell. Or we will come home and I will send her and her siblings to the back yard for at least 20 minutes.

She’s like a caged puppy some days and just needs to roll around. On other days she is an angry bull, ready to bust out of her corral. Either way, my kid needs to move and 20-30 minutes of recess time just isn’t enough.

School can be exhausting for some kids who struggle to sit still; let them recharge by providing time for movement.

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