Oct 25

A Case for Chewing Gum

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Oct 25, 2012

An opinion piece in the New York Times that came out a few days ago advocated for allowing children to chew sugar-free gum in school as a way to improve dental hygiene and reduce cavities in children. The research looks pretty good on the positive impact. Before you wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong blog (no, we’re not blogging for dentists now)…there is a connection to behavior lurking in here….a few in fact.

A clear one is that children’s unmet medical needs have enormous impact on their day to day functioning in the classroom. A PEW report from July 2012 states that over 15 million children go without seeing a dentist each year in this country. Untreated dental problems can lead to chronic pain and discomfort, which in turn can have major implications for children’s ability to attend to, focus on and participate in school activities.

The connection that struck me, however, was the correlation between gum chewing and focus. I was fortunate as a teacher to work in two schools that allowed children to chew gum. For many kids, the oral stimulation provided by chewing gum for short periods of time improved their ability to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. Not all kids got gum (because not all kids needed gum to focus) and kids did not get gum all the time. Allowing kids to self-select avoided: “why does he get to and I don’t” challenges; and helped develop kids’ metacognitive abilities: “when do I most need help staying focused?” Once the novelty wore off, discussions and negotiations about when and who were allowed to chew dissipated. There’s an easily built in check-system: If we find gum on the floor and desks, we can’t have gum. Not a threat, but a reality check.

Of course, I understand that in some schools this is simply a non-negotiable. There are other techniques that teachers use to allow students an opportunity for motor or tactile stimulation during the day. Some of my favorites are a rubber band around the wrist (again, not a solution for all kids or classrooms), a Velcro strip under a desk to rub, tension balls or silly putty, and elastic bands around the legs of chairs for leg fidgeting.

What strategies do you use to allow kids motor and tactile stimulation during the day? How do you negotiate the use of these strategies in your classroom? Write in, we'd love to hear.

tagged attention, gum, health, motor stimulation, strategies
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