The Whole Child

What is the most difficult task in integrating health and physical education with other subject matters? Why?

I think the most difficult task in integrating health and fitness education into other subjects is realizing the importance of such behavior. For far too long, our society – particularly the intellectual elite – has dismissed the physical and concentrated largely on the cerebral. It is not a unique observation to say that many educators treat education as an industrial process, where knowledge is poured into children’s heads. Fortunately the pendulum is swinging back towards center and current educational thought emphasizes child-centered and whole child teaching. In this vision of education, the decisions as to what if efficacious starts with the child. The question is how to optimally prepare our students for becoming creative, productive, successful, healthy, open hearted adults. This inquiry leads quickly to understanding a need for the re-integration of body and mind in the classroom. To teach a child, we need to take care of their intellect and their physicality simultaneously.

Two books I think every teacher should read are Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls. The first book explains the research and practical results that show the critical connection between body health and fitness and brain health. Physical exercise not only builds a strong resilient body, it is essential to balancing the neurochemistry of the brain. The second book discusses a number of research based, child-centric strategies for helping children engage successfully in their own education. It emphasizes the need for relevance and novelty in lessons and the very high level of need for physical activity in the classroom. Complementing these two books is Brain Gym, a series of mental/physical activities to refresh, focus, and activate learning.

Unfortunately, mainstream education values classroom control above nearly everything. A teacher whose classroom appears chaotic, even if her children are excelling at performance criteria, will be viewed at best with suspicion. Control seems to be the primary fear of many educators. “Losing control of the class” is perhaps the biggest fear and biggest sin. The price of this is lower performing classrooms overall and a major equity problem for the large minority of students with strong physical needs and/or less powerful self-control mechanisms. The simple fact is we are educating our children unnaturally and many cannot or will not endure the discomfort.

It should be noted that this apparent indifference to the physical spill over into health in several ways. First, this indifference is clearly broadcast to most of our children on most days. Is it any wonder they too grow up not valuing the physical? Second, they certainly receive little formal training in health and there is little in the culture to support healthy decisions in the absence of such formal training. Third, being trapped in classrooms like egg laying hens does nothing to teach them of the joy of physical health and activity. Fourth, what PE we have often offer taxes their meager capabilities, leaving most with the sense that physical activity is unpleasant, hard, and something beyond their genetic ability. Finally, they are taught to subordinate health to other things society deems more important, two leading examples being achievement and convenience. Is it any wonder that so many Americans settle for fast food meals as they ricochet through their hectic lives?

Having decided to go contrary to the culture, a classroom teacher who wants to integrate health and fitness into her classes is left on shaky ground. She will be seen to be out of paradigm and she will have little support, in most cases. It is a bit of a leap into the dark. She must integrate lessons on health and fitness, at the cost of other core instructional activities, and she must take the time to address the fitness/activity needs of her students. Some argue that crisp transitions between activities is key to better student performance. Industrial logic suggests that more time on task is more learning. A health sensitive teach will add physical/mental refreshers into transitions, lengthening them. Fortunately, research and practice both confirm that hammering core subjects constantly is inferior to a balanced schedule. Study after study confirm that less time on core subjects balanced with more time on PE, recess, art, and music leads to increased performance in core subjects. The leap into the dark will bear fruit, we know that. So what is left is braving the social stigma in the school community. This is where quiet dedication and a willingness for non-judgement information sharing can help the teacher and, perhaps, change the school environment for the better. It may not, the teacher may feel she is constantly battling her peers and administrators. Then it’s time to look for a more convivial work environment.

Discipline, Part Three

I’m intrigued by your idea of having children who act out write you an apology letter on the spot. I write this speaking as a former boy who spent a lot of time in trouble in school for “disruptive behavior.” If statistics hold true, roughly 3/4’s of your discipline will likely be directed at boys. Your average boy will be far more physically active than your average girl (hence the discipline ratio) and, at least in the lower grades, less capable of both the fine motor skills and verbal skills necessary to easily write you an apology. It was humiliating enough to be in trouble for reasons I only dimly understood. To then be tortured by having to write, of all things, an apology letter would be doubly bad. Obviously, you’re free to do whatever you think is best in the classroom, but I’d like to suggest a slight variation. Perhaps you could allow the disciplined children to choose the media in which they expresses their apology. Letter, artwork, poem, even a song or dance might resonate better and have a stronger effect on long term behavior. I’ve never tried this and I wonder what some of the implications of an ‘apology dance’ might be, but I can tell you I was gritting my teeth at age fifty-one just thinking about being one of those kids. It’s worth a try, I’d say.

As long as I’m advocating for boys, I’d like to add a couple of quotes:

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” – Friedrich Froebel (Froebel Web, 1998-2009, para. 2)

“Boys get unfairly labeled as morally defective, hyperactive, undisciplined, or ‘problem children,’ when quite often the problem is not with the boys but with the families, extended families, or social environments, which do not understand their specific needs as human beings and as boys“  – Michael Gurian (Gurian, 1999).


Froebel Web. (1998-2009). Friedrich Froebel created Kindergarten. Retrieved February 22, 2010, from

Gurian, M. (1999). The good son: A complete parenting plan. East Rutherford, NJ: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Boys, Part One

There is a problem with boys in our educational system.

Among other disturbing statistics, males enrolled in college as a percentage of the total has dropped steadily from 70% to 42% between 1949 and 2006 (Sax, 2007), boys receive 70 percent of the D’s and F’s on report cards (Kauchak & Eggen, 2005, p. 97), 73.4% of children diagnosed with a learning disability are boys (I Teach I Learn, n.d.), and boys make up 80% of discipline problems (Gurian & Stevens, 2005, p. 22). In the state of California, from 2003 to 2009, consistently across all grades and years, 8% fewer boys than girls scored proficient or better on their California Standards Test English Language Arts exam (California Department of Education, 2010).

Michael Gurian said it very well, “Boys get unfairly labeled as morally defective, hyperactive, undisciplined, or ‘problem children,’ when quite often the problem is not with the boys but with the families, extended families, or social environments, which do not understand their specific needs as human beings and as boys” (Gurian, 1999).

What are those specific needs? That is a subject much larger than the scope of this post. However, in general, boys have more need for physical movement and are interested in different subject matter than girls. Developmentally, they tend to be slower and/or different in many regards, especially as it relates to lateralization and language and emotional processing.

We cannot and should not change our learning expectations. There is much room, however, to change the classroom environment and add new teaching tools to our inventory to better accommodate the way boys learn.


California Department of Education. (2010). Standardized testing and reporting (STAR) results. Retrieved February 19, 2010, from

Gurian, M. (1999). The good son: A complete parenting plan. East Rutherford, NJ: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Gurian, M., & Stevens, K. (2005). The Minds of Boys. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

I Teach I Learn. (n.d.). Gender as a factor in special education eligibility, services, and results . Retrieved February 19, 2010, from

Kauchak, P., & Eggen, P. (2005). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional  (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men . New York, NY: Basic Books.

Literacy and the Male Brain

From the Gurian Institute:

Literacy and the Male Brain: The Path to Success

 I received this powerful email from Dr. Norman Johnson.  I hope you will find its perspective a helpful one as you advocate in your communities and in policy debates for our boys and girls both.  Thank you, Dr. Johnson.

-Michael Gurian

 Dear Michael,

I saw an article in the media regarding how much boys have become victims, especially Black boys, in regard to being so far behind girls in literacy.  I was glad to see that the Gurian Institute is helping to move the dialogue forward, into areas of NEED rather than victimology.  Of course, boys in general tend to be behind in literacy (one and one half  years behind girls on average, with the Black boys’ average deficit tending to be wider), but how we talk about it does really matter, I believe.

As a Black man in his seventies, a professor, a child advocate, and a Gurian Institute Trainer, my perspective is this:  when boys/men had no or few school competitors, boys tacit language and literacy issues went unnoticed therefore unattended to.  You may remember that in the not so distant past, boys and girls may have both gone to school, but girls were tracked into home economics, secretarial science, teaching, nursing and social work. They weren’t even sent into administration for these areas. Consequently, very few girls were in the academic fast track with boys.  When educational quarantines on girls got lifted (circa 1960), girls started to bloom in school. By the late seventies, boy/girl disparities in literacy started showing up.  Now, decades later, educators, parents and others are asking:  “What is going on?  Why are boys so far behind?  Did boys all of a sudden become dumb?”  This is especially asked about school failure rates for boys of color.

Boys did not become dumb.  Competition revealed, however, that the language and literacy platform on which schooling is and always has been built actually favors girls.  Competition revealed this, and helpfully so.  Fortunately, we now can understand many of the natural differences through an emerging body of work in neuroscience.  It’s crucial that educators and the educational system take advantage of this science. Your work and the work of the Institute in training teachers in how boys and girls learn differently is important here.  Teachers need to know how a boys’ brain and a girls’ brain acquire language, math, science, and other subjects both similarly, and differently.

Nobody is a victim, and I’m glad you don’t teach that.  But we are in a new era.  Teachers and educational systems that don’t understand the needs of boys and girls will fail large numbers of their students.  I’m glad the Gurian work is leading to increased training in both boy/girl issues, and issues facing students of color.  When teachers understand the brains of the boys and girls they teach, every kid can be a winner in school and subsequently in life.  No boys and no girls need be considered victims.

Thank you,

Dr. Norman Johnson