New study shows active breaks in the classroom benefit children with intellectual disabilities

Classroom-based active breaks can increase physical activity, reduce sedentary behaviour, and may also benefit the working memory of children with intellectual disability, new IPAN research shows.

The pilot study is the first to investigate the effects of classroom-based active breaks on cognitive function, sedentary behaviour and time on-task in children with intellectual disability attending special schools.

Lead researcher Dr Emiliano Mazzoli, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University said while it was well-established that typically developing children benefit from classroom-based physical activity strategies, very little is known about whether the same approach can help children with intellectual disabilities.

“Children’s physical activity levels are at historical lows, and for children with intellectual disability it is even bleaker,” he said.  

He said previous research has found that, compared to their typically developing peers, children with intellectual disabilities are less likely to meet the physical activity recommendations of at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day, are less fit, have lower motor skills and are at higher risk of developing obesity and chronic conditions (including diabetes, cancer, or heart disease).

Dr Mazzoli said there was growing evidence that physical activity has cognitive benefits in typically developing children, particularly in relation to executive functions.

“Executive functions allow us to respond in a non-impulsive manner to a variety of life situations—for example, paying attention during a lesson, problem-solving, being patient, using judgment to make safe/healthy choices, and building positive relationships with others,” he said.

He wanted to see if similar effects could be seen in children with intellectual disability and neurodevelopmental disorders. 

The research team recruited 24 children aged between 8 and 12 years with mild to moderate intellectual disability and associated neurodevelopmental conditions (such as autism and ADHD) from special schools in Melbourne.

“Our findings suggest that active breaks in special schools may be an effective approach for reducing sedentary behaviour and increasing physical activity in these children,” Dr Mazzoli said.

The study also indicated positive results for working memory, but further research is needed to confirm this finding.

Prior to the trial, teachers underwent training. They were offered a variety of active break ideas, which allowed them to select and perform the activities that best suited the children’s needs. Equipment such as visual cards and balls were provided, as well as suggestions on how to adapt the breaks as needed.

The research team listened to teachers’ opinions on the intervention to understand more about other factors associated with the implementation of this approach in special schools.

“We found that active breaks are feasible for teachers to deliver and don’t require much equipment or space to implement, although the various needs of the children need to be considered in the development of active breaks,” Dr Mazzoli said.

“Considering the physical and cognitive disadvantage that children with intellectual disabilities and neurodevelopmental disorders face, early interventions are urgently needed.

Dr Mazzoli is now working on the adaptation of Transform-Us!—a school-based physical activity program originally developed by IPAN researchers for primary school children— so that children with disabilities are also accommodated in the program, giving them more opportunities to be active throughout the day.