DeRuiter's journey began in physical education at Kyrene School District in Arizona, and she quickly became recognized for helping lead one of the most exemplary programs in the area. She was recruited to work with the Arizona Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreations and Dance organization, becoming Co-Chair for Awards, and eventually President of AzAHPERD (now AzHPE). Today, Leslie is an integral part of the Action Based Learning Districtwide Initiative in Alief ISD and remains actively involved in writing supporting documents and training on Action Based Learning strategies nationwide.
What sparked your passion for implementing movement into the learning process?
I was lucky, I had some key administrators who let and encouraged me to think outside the box. When I first heard of this concept of combining movement with academics, I went to as much professional development as I could and I couldn't get enough of the information I was absorbing! This was during a time when "movement and learning" was hardly used in the same sentence, but the research was starting to emerge and I was hooked. I was constantly looking for new ways to engage my students in physical activity and have fun all at the same time. If I wasn't at a conference or teaching, I was trying new strategies at home with my own kids and getting [very honest] feedback about whether they worked or not! Through my work with AzHPE, I was introduced to Jean Moize and Action Based Learning (ABL) strategies and I immediately knew this was what was best for kids. I was able to write a large scale grant in 2007 for my elementary school to increase movement throughout the day, and received it! This was an incredible opportunity to do what was best for a whole school. We started with innovative equipment to expand the PE program and set up a semi-structured recess program so kids had different choices of activities at recess. We brought Jean and Action Based Learning in to train our staff about why movement in the classroom was beneficial to our students' learning and academic success, as well as provide them the equipment needed to carry this out. We also held family events to help increase movement with all of our families.
How did you turn your passion into a purpose?
In 2013, I attended the first Action Based Learning workshop for Master Trainers. It was a natural fit for me, and so began my journey as an ABL Master Trainer. This gave me a chance to travel all over the country and train schools on something I am most passionate about – movement and learning.
Two years later, I reconnected with someone who was in my master trainer workshop, who happened to have a job opening in Houston at Alief ISD as an ABL Interventionist. My immediate reaction was, “Wow! I get to do ABL all day?? I said, YES!”
How would you describe ABL?
Allowing and encouraging children to move! ....It sounds so simple, but this is a solution that impacts the WHOLE child, way beyond what we previously understood. There are thousands of studies on the benefits of movement and learning, and Action Based Learning is simply applying this to the classroom.
What does an Action Based Learning Interventionist do?
For the first two years, I split my time between 2 schools and had 1 district day. I worked with some students who have behavior challenges in an ABL lab setting as well as 1-on-1.
I also went into classrooms and co-taught with teachers to help model content lessons through movement. Another part of my job was helping when students had behavior issues. I use movement to change the blood flow in their brain so they became more calm and rational and could make better decisions. My district days consisted of visiting ABL labs at other schools to see how we could support them. The concept of movement and learning became so successful at Alief that eventually, every day became a "district day" which means I can travel to more schools to support ABL, provide professional development to staff, and I still get to work directly with students. There are now three of us who divide up to support the campuses.
I am motivated each day because of the success and improvement that I see in the students, teachers, and schools that I work with. There are definitely challenges some days, but I can honestly say “I LOVE my job!”
Can you give us an example of what an ABL Lab looks like and how it is incorporated into your school?
We have around 44 schools (K-12th) with 41 active ABL labs. ABL looks different in each school, and not all schools have labs. The beauty of Action Based Learning is that these concepts don't have to be practiced in a lab, movement and learning can be practiced anywhere!
But, to give you an example of how we incorporated a lab, I will use one of our high schools, Crossroads. Crossroads is an alternative school setting. While there are fewer kids than a main campus, the behaviors can be BIG.
There was already an ABL lab in place, called it the “Brain Room”. However, the lab wasn't being fully utilized, and I was tasked with bringing ABL to life at this school. When I saw the room, I saw how much potential it had and how much impact this could make on the struggling students in our school. I immediately got to work!
Take us step by step into how you got it up and running...
My first step was to immediately begin training the staff. We rearranged the Brain Room to maximize the room and technology and make it more of a classroom. Principal Wickliffe held PLC staff meetings there to model how to use the Brain Room for a whole class. We also chose certain students for a morning group. We had to be careful of the dynamic (as always here) but picked students we thought would benefit the most from being down there before school. Some students need a little energy boost to get them going and for others, it was to get a little energy out. With others, it was a great time to check-in with them and start them on the right path for the day. We switched the “brain room list” up whenever we feel it needs a change or students leave– usually every 2 months or so. We also schedule teachers in the brain room a week at a time. They move in for the week and teach all of their class there. The kids love it! Because it’s a smaller school, we are able to get every teacher in one time fall and spring semester. There are also open weeks during testing or around vacations that teachers can sign up for additionally. But it’s not just the brain room. We have gradually gotten alternative seating in classrooms and continue to help teachers include movement in their classrooms
Why is this so important?
Bottom line is this is what is best for kids. We have all the research to back up using this strategy. Students are more engaged and remember more, which helps their academic achievement. Movement helps behavior by shifting the blood flow in the brain. It is truly amazing to see how fast a student can de-escalate just through movement. It works.
How does this impact the students?
In so many ways. It's amazing..back when we first implemented the brain room, my student's were so excited about it (and thankful to have access to it!), they actually came up with the idea to make a video to share their experience. Here is the video they made:
I can think of so many times, the brain room was a lifesaver for our students. One example that comes to mind, was way back when we first started the lab. A young man, very upset with his teacher and another student, came into my office shaking mad.... and cussing up a storm. He got on a pedal desk and pedaled, and grabbed a koosh ball to fidget with. In a matter of minutes, he was calm and wanted to talk! That was a pivotal moment for me, because I was seeing firsthand that the ABL Lab was doing so much more than helping them academically, it was improving their well being. That was just the beginning of the many aha moments I would experience with my student's in the lab. Today, it's common practice. If they are upset, we get them moving. If they just sit, they just stay mad.
Alief ISD currently ranks as one of the largest and most successful Action Based Learning districts in the nation. What does your ABL program look like today?
We aren’t the only district doing action based learning or kinesthetic classrooms but we were one of the first to start, so we are a little farther along than some others. We started with 6 labs. We now have 44 elementary schools, 6 intermediate schools, 6 middle schools, 7 high schools and 2 alternative schools (1 K-12, 1 9-12). 21 of the elementary schools have 24 labs. The two alternative schools have 3 labs. The intermediate has a fully kinesthetic math intervention room. We have 6 middle school community learning centers and 5 high school community learning centers with kinesthetic furniture. Some schools don’t have space for a lab, so we use hallways and implement flexible seating into classrooms. What truly sets Alief ISD apart is their professional development. New teachers to our district receive 14 hours of ABL training, as part of our district requirement. Additionally, we offer training during staff meetings, professional learning community time and 1 on 1 with teachers who reach out. Our presentations at the beginning of the year and during professional development days have been key in getting into more schools.
How did you get other teachers to buy-in?
Well first, we had to get teachers to attend trainings and family events. The answer…. Pay them! We wanted to make sure they knew we valued them and their time. We knew once they saw the research behind the brain body connection, and understood how drastically this could benefit their students, the buy in would follow. And it did! We have also tied all of our activities to the 12 Foundations of Learning Readiness. These Foundations are also what all the lab stations are based on.
When you first implemented the lab at Crossroads, did you have an "Aha" Moment?
I had two kids that were both freshman, and full of.... energy. Because of this, we made attending the lab a requirement for both of them every morning. If they showed up late, they wouldn't be able to attend the brain room- this happened once or twice a week. We quickly began to notice a trend. There was a huge difference in their mood and behavior, depending on whether they went to the lab that day.
On days they came late, they had a hard time. Classroom outbursts, arguments, and off task behaviors skyrocketed. We made adjustments, and the brain room became such a simple solution to help them regulate and reset their brain and body everyday! It was a drastic improvement. In this case, I think the movement allowed them to reset, and opened up an opportunity for someone to check in on them. Emotions play a strong role in whether students are ready and able to learn each day, and the lab works on both fronts!
P was a junior who was a good kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. He came to the brain room in the morning primarily to wake up and talk. One day during 2nd period, unexpectedly he completely shut down.
We went in the brain room and he started moving, which got him talking. Before long, I found out that he was heartbroken because he and his girlfriend had broken up and someone in class had said something to him. He just needed someone to talk to, but the movement turned his day around and he made it back to class and had a good rest of the day. We stayed in touch when he went back to his main campus and he graduated with plans to start at community college.
T was a junior and a real big kid. He was going back and forth with an administrator in the hall, and getting more angry by the minute. I asked if I could borrow him and of course the answer was yes. You could tell by his clenched face that he was mad.
We went down to the brain room and I just said “get on something and move!” and we didn’t talk. After about 5 minutes, his entire demeanor changed. We started talking, mainly chit chatting, about what he was going to do after high school, what foods we liked, etc. and you could see a total change in his face. Only then did I ask how he could have dealt with the administrator differently next time. We chit chatted a little more and then he asked to go back to the administrator.
About an hour later, the administrator came to me and asked “what did you do to him?”
My answer, "I made him move."
Come to find out, he went back to the office and apologized!!
It’s amazing what a little movement can do.
Any words of advice for others who may be interested in doing this in their own school?
I think the best thing to do is talk to people and visit campuses to see Action Based Learning and Kinesthetic Classrooms in person. There are so many different ways to start up and I really think that it just depends on the school, the budget and the space. Here’s what I have seen at different campuses that have all worked.
Based on data, focus a lab on one grade level to start and then add more at semester or the next year.
Start small and get buy-in. A few classroom teachers at a time add kinesthetic furniture and then add more classrooms.
Start fully at one grade level and then expand.
Training is key. Having key people trained so they know the brain science behind why we want kids to be moving. Students, administrators, parents and other teachers all want to know why. Being able to explain it, helps get them to buy-in.
Closing words of advice?
Don't lose focus on your mission as an educator: Always do what’s best for students.
One of the reasons I love ABL is because it makes learning fun for the students and teachers. This is key!
A huge thanks to Leslie DeRuiter for sharing your story and continuing to inspire us to improve the health, wellness, and education for children around the world! To hear more about this story, or to request more information on this program:
ABL Lab Program: www.abllab.com
ABL Online Academy: www.ablacademy.com