‘A focus on the whole child’

Photo of a gymnasiumHealth. Leadership. Maturity. Self-reflection. Adventure.

Children everywhere need these and other building blocks to lead productive, successful lives – and faculty in NIU’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education are working to deliver those strong foundations.

Research and engagement programs already making differences locally are poised to create a broader impact across the country and around the world as research is published and training models are proliferated.

At the same time, says interim chair Paul Wright, the efforts reflect NIU President Doug Baker’s “triangle offense” as students work side-by-side with faculty in projects that propel academic content into real-world applications.

Students who work alongside faculty eventually can tell potential employers that they designed, implemented and refined programs, Wright says. They also “hit the ground running” by maintaining school-university collaborations, collecting and analyzing data and managing others.

“Much of what we do promotes physical health, but the programs take a very holistic approach and focus on the whole child,” Wright says. “We actually do a lot across these programs with social and emotional development as well as cognitive and behavioral changes.”

Jenny Parker and Jim Ressler
Jenny Parker and Jim Ressler

Shoes on the Court

Students of Jenny Parker and Jim Ressler can’t complain that their professors “don’t understand what it’s like to teach school now.”

Parker and Ressler improve clinical experiences by participating themselves.

Determined to improve the quality of student-teaching programs, they spent a year planning the implementation of a model that increased interactions among NIU faculty, physical education majors and DeKalb Community Unit School District 428 students and teachers.

They next chose Clinton-Rosette Middle School as their base of operations – “We can walk there in eight minutes,” Ressler says – and identified its PE teacher (and NIU alumna) Jen Montavon as their strategic partner.

“When it came to put the things we put on paper into practice, we went to Jen first. We said, ‘We want to do more than we currently do,’ and we conducted a needs assessment,” Ressler says. “Does she need more support? Does she need more equipment? What things can make her life a little easier, and how can we help?”

NIU’s duo began teaching PE to seventh-graders during the last class period of each day, “creating and modeling PE best practices, including implementation, mentoring and formative professional development.”

The next day, Montavon would teach essentially the same lesson, modifying it “up” for eight-graders and “down” for sixth-graders.

“We would plan together and rehearse with her what we were going to do – basically a dry run,” he says. “Afterward, we would debrief for 15 or 20 minutes – how it went, how Jen was going to modify it, what were some of the barriers we met, why we made some decisions.”

During the spring semester of that year, Montavon began co-teaching the seventh-grade class with Ressler and Parker, who were simultaneously bringing those instructional models to their undergraduates at NIU.

“The connection to our students is, ‘This works with middle-schoolers. I just taught this lesson yesterday.’ Or, ‘It went horribly. They chewed us up and spit us out,’ ” Ressler says. “It’s been an overall positive experience.”

By the fall of 2015, the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education will provide a specific clinical component within every semester of the program. Montavon, meanwhile, is a guest speaker in NIU classrooms.

“When you talk about engaged scholarship, I think we’re nailing it,” Ressler says. “We continue to blur the model for teacher education where theory happens on campus and practice happens in a school. We find ways to marry those ideas, and that can be done through our feet in schools and their feet on campus.”

Paul Wright
Paul Wright

‘Project Leadership’

Some of the boys struggle to earn decent grades. Some misbehave. Others are shy. Some are the bullies. Some are the bullied.

But they’re all pretty good kids, says Wright, who three years ago joined the partnership with Clinton-Rosette launched by Parker and Ressler.

Young adolescents “who are just sort of falling through the cracks” are offered after-school physical activity and life lessons. “These are not super-tough kids, but kids who are more likely to regress or disengage,” Wright says.

The program began with martial arts, traditionally a popular choice.

“I was very surprised to find that it was not a big hit,” Wright says with a laugh. “That was the first time ever. I’ve been running programs for 10 to 15 years, and I’d been batting .1000.”

So Wright and his KNPE students asked the boys: What should we play? Sure enough, they got suggestions – and, soon, they got results.

“The point is to work with the kids on life skills, such as how they conduct themselves and how they treat others,” Wright says. “It doesn’t really matter if we do that through volleyball, martial arts or soccer.”

Following the afternoon bell, the group – usually eight to 12 boys – gathers to hang out, decompress and enjoy snacks provided by District 428. “It’s relational time,” Wright says, “very loose, very informal and very intentional. This is a club, and they belong.”

Recommendations from the boys continue to drive what happens next. Who’s the captain for the day? Who’s going to lead the warm-ups? What skills will they review and practice?

After the physical activity is complete, they regroup to debrief.

“We ask, ‘How did the day go?’ and then open it up for feedback,” Wright says. “We think about life skills – setting goals, leadership, whatever we focused on – and then ask them to reflect on how they did as individuals. We get into these kids’ minds: ‘How did you do? How is that important in other parts of your life?’ ”

Results are obvious, he says, both among current and former participants.

“A couple kids who started with us in 2013 are now in high school; they had told us they wanted to come back and stay involved if they could, and they have,” Wright says.

“They’ve stopped by to visit several times, and have told the kids that, ‘This stuff really matters. You really need this stuff.’ Not only are they seeing relevance and transferring it to high school, but they’re coming back and sharing it. They’re becoming role models and leaders by promoting ideas of leadership and self-empowerment.”

Laurie Zittel
Laurie Zittel

Healthy habits in the classroom

Good health habits – namely, diet and physical activity – must start early to combat a U.S. epidemic of sedentary lifestyles and obesity.

A group of professors from NIU, including two from KNPE and three from the School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences in the College of Health and Human Sciences, are working to make that a reality.

“TAKE Action for Healthy Preschoolers: Teaching about Activity and Kids Eating” was launched by Beverly Henry, So-Yeun Kim, Josephine Umoren, Laurie Zittel and the recently retired Linda Derscheid.

Their partnership is with Two Rivers Head Start, which has 14 locations across northern Illinois, including one in Sycamore. Federally funded Head Start initiatives aim “to help break the cycle of poverty” through comprehensive child development programs.

“Our focus has been to impact the healthy behaviors of young children, specifically preschool children at risk,” says Zittel, a professor of kinesiology. “We examine the confidence and knowledge of Head Start teachers relative to physical activity, motor skill development and nutrition, and we work with teacher to develop plans to deliver lessons to the kids.”

Researchers and their graduate students discuss with teachers what might be barriers to teaching Head Start children about nutrition, physical activity and motor skill development. They then work with teacher to develop lesson plans and to model meal time behaviors and movement lessons for the teachers to adopt.

Graduate students also equipped children with accelerometers to measure their physical activity; “We can say, ‘This is how active your kids are. This is what we can do to change behaviors,’ ” Zittel says.

To spread the message beyond NIU’s service region, they have presented their research at the Head Start National Research Conference on Early Childhood.

In contrast to typical education interventions which include “drop-in” exposures or pre-set curriculum, this innovative model considers the teacher’s readiness to change.

“There is still work to be done. Teachers may not be as confident and knowledgeable we thought they were in the area of mealtime behaviors and physical activity,” Zittel says. “Some of the teachers are very confident and very knowledgeable; we hope they’ll model for the other teachers.”

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