It is obvious that young children’s physical needs and abilities are different from those of adults. We know that young children are often unable to handle new tasks when their needs for adequate rest and nourishment are not met. Also, children repeatedly demonstrate that they are not able to sit still for very long. However, teachers sometimes forget this last fact and cause trouble for themselves and their students.

Need to Move Around

Devon and several of his classmates in Miss Wheeler’s first-grade class routinely upset their teacher’s day. They simply won’t sit still and listen during group time. They are always getting up and wandering around when they are supposed to be working in their seats. Miss Wheeler constantly reminds them to sit still or to go back to their seats. She just doesn’t understand that most young children have difficulty sitting still for very long.

Next door, in Mrs. Jensen’s first-grade room, children are free to move around between learning centers. There is very little enforced sitting in that room, and very little need for the teacher to reprimand anyone. In addition to movement indoors, lessons often include outdoor activity. Sometimes, a parent helper and Mrs. Jensen take the class outdoors for a gardening session on the school grounds, allowing physical movement as well as some hands-on lessons about plant life.

Miss Wheeler feels like a police officer instead of a teacher, but she thinks it is the children who are at fault. Matching her expectations of the children with their level of development would make her life much easier, as well as eliminate a lot of needless tension for her students.

Children need to move, not only for their physical development, but also for their intellectual development (Planinsec, 2002). Brain research shows that physical movement stimulates the myelinization process critical to development of neural pathways in the brain. The process of myelinization allows young children to gain control over their muscles and their sensory abilities; it also facilitates their cognitive processes (Berger, 1998). Physical movement also assists the delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain, optimizing its performance (Leppo, Davis, & Crim, 2000). An assessment of how girls and boys learn differently points out that movement is even more important for boys and their reduction of emotional stress (Gurian, 2001). Some children with little physical movement experience are delayed in both body and space awareness. The spatial confusions can contribute to reading and writing difficulties (Corso, 1993; Hannaford, 1995), as well as to behavior problems. Some young children are continually getting into trouble because they are not aware of where their body is in relation to other people.

Rather than trying to keep children still, adults help children better by promoting physical activity (Pica, 1997). Physically active children are healthier and eventually grow up to be more active, healthy adults. Increased physical activity is needed to counteract the problem of childhood obesity in the United States (Steinbeck, 2001). In addition, physically competent children tend to have higher self-esteem than less-competent peers. Competence in performing motor skills boosts children’s confidence. Success and enjoyment associated with physical activity affect how children feel about themselves and how they interact with peers. Having good agility, balance, coordination, power, and speed can promote social interaction and peer acceptance. Children with physical disabilities that affect their gross-motor development often share their classmates’ interest in physical activities. Therefore, playgrounds and outdoor equipment should be accessible for children with disabilities (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).

Small-Muscle Coordination Takes Time

Not only do young children have a need to exercise their large muscles regularly, but they also need practice with small-muscle skills. Young children typically are not very adept at small-muscle work (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Both the need for large-muscle activity and the lack of small-muscle ability create problems in classrooms where children are expected to sit at their seats and do paperwork much of the day. Such a schedule focuses on the children’s areas of weakness and, therefore, puts a huge pressure on them.

Individual differences and gender play a role in the development of dexterity. Girls tend to be more advanced than boys in fine-motor skills and in gross-motor skills requiring precision, such as hopping and skipping. Boys generally excel in skills that require force and power, such as running and jumping (Berk, 2002). For most children, it is a fact of physical development that fine-motor coordination lags behind gross-motor coordination. Tyler, who is a fast runner and a great climber, may not be able to tie his shoes yet; and Tera, the best rope jumper in kindergarten, may not be able to make a pencil do her bidding. Placing pressure on these children to perform above their current level of development will result in frustration and feelings of failure. Negative behaviors will surely follow. Matching your expectations to the children’s abilities will avert some potential discipline struggles.

Although you want to be careful not to push fine-motor tasks too early, fine-motor development can be encouraged appropriately (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Ample opportunities for practice, appropriate tools (scissors that actually cut, for instance), and adult support assist children’s fine-motor dexterity. Children with certain kinds of identified disabilities may require adaptations or assistive technologies for activities such as writing and drawing. By the time they enter the primary grades, children are usually much more capable of fine-motor work than when they were preschool age, when it often generates neurological fatigue.

Needs for Food and Rest

Young children also have a need for nutritious food and rest in order to work and play cooperatively at school. Many children today are “misnourished,” with a large amount of their calories coming from non-nutritive foods (Bhattacharya & Currie, 2001). Eating too many non-nutritive foods contributes to our ever-growing rate of childhood obesity, and also affects children’s behavior (Steinbeck, 2001). Too much sugar or a lack of protein or complex carbohydrates can lead to a sugar crash. This crash may affect individual children differently. You may know a child who falls apart completely if he or she has too much sugar or gets too hungry. Some may become impulsive, more likely in boys, while others may become withdrawn or distracted. Girls more often have the latter reaction (Gurian, 2001).

Sometimes Kelsey cannot seem to focus on any of the morning classroom activities, and Dennis, her teacher, figures that she didn’t eat much breakfast that day. When this happens, he allows her to have her mid-morning snack a little early. Dennis is taking into consideration Kelsey’s individual needs as well as the group’s needs. The standard practice of snack time acknowledges the fact that children in general can’t eat much at one time and can’t go as long between meals as older people can.

Scheduled rest time at the preschool level acknowledges a need at that age, but formal rest periods tend to disappear once children enter kindergarten or first grade.

Yaisa attends the before- and after-school child-care program at Lincoln Elementary. She gets to school at 7:30 in the morning and doesn’t go home until 5:30 in the evening. Sometimes she gets crabby and picks a fight or bursts into tears for no apparent reason. Fortunately, her teacher understands that when Yaisa acts that way, she needs a break, not a punishment for being difficult. Mrs. Jensen sees Yaisa’s need and encourages her to find a comfortable pillow and a good book in the secluded classroom book nook. After a short rest, Yaisa is able to participate with the group again.

Mrs. Jensen is trying to teach Yaisa and others with similar needs how to take a break when they need it, rather than push themselves beyond their limits. Her classroom offers several soft, secluded spots, and her schedule offers the flexibility to use them.