When it comes time to get the second-graders back on track in Chanda McDonnell's class, the kids stand up and get moving.
It's all done with the help of a DVD that, with music and motion, helps quiet the students at St. Bridget's School in River Falls, Wis. Often, it's the students themselves who ask their teacher for those few minutes with the program, called MeMoves.
The video itself is simple: On the screen, people of all ages and ethnicities, from young children to grandparents, are shown one at a time, slowly moving their arms in different patterns and keeping rhythm to a mesmerizing beat. There are three different sequences -- joy, calm and focus -- and it is the latter that McDonnell typically uses in her classroom.
"The students know the sequence so well and they all have their favorite people to follow. It just settles them down so quickly and gets them ready to go back to work," said McDonnell, who discovered MeMoves when she attended an autism conference last year.
Prompted by her own family
Roberta Scherf, founder of MeMoves, created the first version of this multi-sensory program when her daughter, Rowan, now 17, was young. Scherf, who lives in River Falls, said her daughter "was here, but not here," uncomfortable being held or making eye contact, and having difficulty retaining information and expressing herself. Tests produced a diagnosis: autism spectrum and sensory integration disorder.
The combination of the soothing music and fluid movement that Scherf would do with her daughter for less than half an hour daily unlocked a door inside her.
"In a month's time, she went from not being able to read single letters to reading words and then chapter books. She began to make eye contact and spoke more fluently and easily," said Scherf. "Her life changed."
Scherf was convinced that if MeMoves (called SmartMoves in its original incarnation) could make such a difference for her family, it could do the same for others. Now she and MeMoves' president, Chris Bye, also from River Falls, regularly travel the country attending workshops for educators and families to talk about the program.
A teacher at an inner-city school in East St. Louis, Ill., sent them a video clip of her classroom using MeMoves. In just a few minutes, a large group of highly energetic elementary students become calm and attentive as they mirror the movements happening on the classroom screen. In the video, even the tone of the teacher's voice changes and softens. When the session is over, the students quietly return to their desks.
"When we've shown this clip at educational conferences, we've seen teachers literally watch with their mouths open because they cannot believe the difference MeMoves brings to this classroom," said Bye.
There is no narration in the video, which is geared for ages 3 and up, nor are there loud noises or instructions to click to another screen. In part, it is this simplicity that caught the attention of the Parents' Choice Foundation, a nonprofit guide to toys and media for children, based in Maryland. Last spring, MeMoves received a Gold Award in the DVD category.
"In a world that is so overwhelming, what they have created can really be transforming," said Claire Green, the foundation's president. "It's captivating and gives children an opportunity to just calm down and focus. We found it to be elegant in its simplicity."
The video has been effective with children with and without special needs, as well as with seniors. Several nursing homes have used the video with patients who have dementia.
"Every subsequent activity becomes easier and more effective because focus has been attained," said Scherf.
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer. Have an idea for the Your Family page? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Your Family" in the subject line.