Learning Challenges

A Mom Designs a Desk to Help Her Fidgety Student Focus

When my son was strapped to his classroom desk because he couldn’t sit still, I knew something had to change — and quick.

Sitting still wasn’t an option for my young son. Like many children, especially those with learning differences and special needs, movement allowed him to focus on schoolwork. The experience of helping my son meet his educational goals inspired me and my husband, Jack, to develop a specialized classroom desk that allows kids to switch between sitting and standing at a moment’s notice, without any adult help.

At the age of seven, my son was diagnosed with dyslexia. He had nervous energy that could only be released through movement. In school, his legs moved restlessly, and the stress of trying to calm down the movement only made it worse. I was shocked to visit his first-grade classroom one day to see my son strapped into his desk with makeshift seat belts.

It was heartbreaking, and surreal. He was trying so hard to meet his teacher’s expectations, but he couldn’t fit the mold they were forcing him into. He needed a setting where he could move when he needed to, in ways that wouldn’t disrupt the class.

My husband and I found a school that recognized the benefits of movement. We enrolled our son in the University of Chicago Hyde Park Day School’s Northfield campus. The school teaches bright students with learning disabilities. The school’s director, Casey Crnich, understands the needs of children with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and other conditions to release energy through movement. The school’s faculty accommodated those needs whenever necessary.

But there were some drawbacks. The school had some adjustable desks, but adults — not the kids themselves — could only change the desks from sitting to standing mode using special tools. A few standing desks were placed at the back of the room, but a child needed to collect his materials and walk through the class in order to stand. This was disruptive to the classroom. Plus, kids were self-conscious about using the alternative desks.

[Free Download: How Fidgets Improve Student Behavior & Focus]

As a product manager for The Marvel Group, a Chicago-based designer and manufacturer of office furniture, I saw an opportunity to provide Hyde Park School students with a desk that served their needs. Our company offered to make a significant donation of new desks to the school – desks that would be designed with input from Hyde Park teachers and students.

“We had no preconceived notions about what the desk would look like,” says Crnich. “We passed out blank sheets of paper and had everyone brainstorm about the features and functions they wanted. Then Marvel developed prototypes that everyone had the chance to try out for at least a week. They used our feedback to improve the design.”

The desk we finally developed, called The Marvel Focus Desk (marvelfocusdesk.com), emphasizes adaptability, organization, and ease of operation, with the goal of promoting student independence. The most important feature is the height-adjusting lift mechanism that a child can easily operate, without help, whenever the urge to stand arises. The Focus Desk also incorporates teachers’ wish-list items, including attached color-coded hanging files to keep papers organized, rolling casters to make seating rearrangements easy, dedicated storage areas, and foldaway carrel walls for test taking and quiet study.

The desk helps the child to stay organized and to self-regulate when an adjustment is required. A classroom filled with these desks allows movement to become a normal part of the day without any disruption to the learning process.

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The benefits of this accommodative class structure are apparent in the case of my son. Now 17, and getting ready to start college in the fall, he accepts that some people learn differently than others. I hope that my husband and I created something that may change the way classrooms look in the future.