Today host Lori Boll speaks with David Geslak and Amber Pantaleo, Founder and Vice President of Exercise Connection, an organization that uses evidence-based solutions to empower those who support individuals with autism and other disabilities to teach exercise successfully. Coach Dave and Amber share the research and evidence based practices to support learners and share how just 10 minutes a day of exercise can make a tremendous difference and set our students up for successful learning.
Resources Mentioned in Today’s Show
SENIA Happy Hour Podcast w/ Coach Dave: Autism & The Power of Exercise
David Geslak – As a personal trainer and fitness coordinator at a school for children with autism, Coach Dave experienced first-hand the challenges of teaching exercise. By understanding that students with autism learn differently, he developed a system that has become a breakthrough in effectively teaching exercise. He is the founder of Exercise Connection and is a published author, researcher, keynote presenter and, in partnership with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), he created the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate. As a pioneer in the field, Dave’s commitment and methodology have been embraced around the world by the autism community, professionals, and Universities. He was also a finalist for ACSM’s Certified Professional of the Year (2020) & IDEA’s Fitness Leader of the Year (2022).
Amber Pantaleo – As a former special education teacher, Amber was challenged with her District’s requirement of 10-minutes of physical activity per day, outside of PE. Knowing the benefits of exercise for those with autism–improve emotional regulation, social skills, language development, and academics–Amber proactively added exercise into her students’ classroom routines. Supported with evidence-based practices, Amber successfully embedded exercise through reinforcement, behavior management, and movement breaks. Now the Vice President at Exercise Connection, Amber’s expertise helps to develop inclusive solutions that level the playing field for everybody, empowering educators and therapists to successfully teach exercise.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
[Introduction music plays ]
Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Hello, everyone. Today I speak with David Geslak and Amber Pantaleo and they are the president and vice president of Exercise Connection which empowers those who support individuals with autism and other disabilities to teach exercise successfully. Both David and Amber have quite an extensive background in special education and today we spoke about evidence based practice in teaching exercise to those on the spectrum and basically all children in a classroom and how movement can support their learning. So it was a great conversation and I know you’ll learn a lot. Amber and David will both be speaking at our virtual conference and later on in the podcast, they’ll be giving us a little sneak peek into what we will be learning about from them at the conference. So now onto the show. Well, hello, David and Andrew and welcome to the podcast.
Thanks for having us.
Yeah, excited to be here.
Lori: Yeah, again, David for you because you were on our podcast, fosh, right back when we first got started with this about three years ago, maybe.
David: Sounds about right.
Lori: So, yeah.
No, always, we’re always loving to spread the mission and share and how we can help teachers and professionals, help their students or clients make that, that exercise connection.
So, Amber, because we’ve, we’ve talked to David before, we know a little bit about his background and I’m going to put the link to David’s in my podcast in our show notes.
so Amber, can you tell us a little bit about your background and experience in the field of education and with students with autism?
So my background is in special education.
I’m a former teacher and I’ve taught special education in both instructional self contained settings as well as Janet co taught.
fourth through sixth grade.
So I had students who, you know, had a wide, a wide variety of different, disabilities and, and skill sets, including autism, but others as well.
And, before my first teaching job though, I started with exercise connection as an autism, fitness instructor, teaching, group exercise classes with coach Dave.
That was kind of my intro to autism and exercise, which I was then able to later bring into the classroom.
And so it’s coach Dave.
Is it not David?
Good to know.
Good to know.
Well, that’s because I, I may have shared in one of the podcasts or I’ve shared a lot of people know the story.
But yeah, it’s just be, I’ve become known as Coach Dave and that is really attributed to one of my clients with autism who, who I had to, he thought I was a doctor walking into his home and I wasn’t dressed like the doctor and I said, I’m not a doctor, I’m coach Dave and it’s stuck in a sense that works awesome.
So how did you become interested in promoting physical activity as a tool for enhancing engagement and learning in your classrooms?
Amber Well, as a first year teacher, I was very by the book.
And so when I was starting my year, I was looking at our district instructional time allotments, you know, I saw 50 50 minutes for reading, you know, X amount of time for math.
And then to my surprise, I saw 10 minutes of physical activity.
I was like, whoa, this is the first time hearing of this.
And so I had asked, asked around some veteran teachers, you know, what do you do for your 10 minutes of physical activity?
And most people had no idea what I was talking about.
It was not something that, you know, while it was in that district time instructional time allotments, it wasn’t being followed.
However, since I had been working with exercise connection and teaching those group fitness classes, I was able to bring in those inclusive strategies and some of our tools, exercise buddy and our visual exercise system into the classroom, to provide that structured 10 minutes of physical activity.
And of course, when we first introduced that, you know, the kids loved it because it didn’t involve desk work.
So once we saw how well they responded to it, we started strategically using exercise in other ways, you know, for reinforcement, enhanced self regulation.
and just really got to see the benefits that exercise had directly on learning and behavior in the classroom.
And this is, is, is this in a gen ed classroom, special ed classroom?
Both it was in both.
So my students were with me for their core academics.
They did receive, physical education in the gen ed, once a week, but that 10 minutes was supposed to be outside of pe, outside of recess, a structured 10 minute movement activity in the classroom.
I, it’s always really interesting as an elementary school teacher myself back in the day.
And then again, as a special educator, I was surprised how often teachers didn’t include any sort of activity in their classrooms, even like minor stretch breaks or get up and move.
So, what kind of, scientific evidence do you have that,, promotes, I guess the brain and, and the importance of physical activity in the classroom, David.
So I think, thanks Lori.
I think one of the biggest things that Amber and I referenced many, many times in regards to the research is one that was done at a Rutgers University in 2017.
And they found specific to those on the autism spectrum that 10 minutes of low intensity activity was able to, we, I’m gonna say this and then Amber is gonna gonna share her insight.
But by the research it says that is able to lower self stimulatory behavior for the following 60 minutes.
And the reason that I say Amber is gonna kind of probably follow up with this is because we are very a tune with the ableist tone that la that research is bringing into those with disabilities or those with autism.
So I I’ll kind of let Amber kind of share that and then I’ll get back to the research.
So, I mean, the purpose or the impact of that research study, you know, 10 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise produces positive benefits.
The impact is the fact that it, it helps to enhance self regulation, which was observed by reductions in that self stimulatory behavior, hand clapping and echolalia.
But the purpose is not that we’re, you know, we would encourage the need to stop those behaviors because we know they serve a function but just it sheds, it helps shed light on the fact that exercise can also, you know, help with self regulation and have positive, effects for everyone.
We, we all know exercise is good for us.
For all the students in the classroom.
And, and I think going back now to get into the ee even further into why that’s so impactful is to Amber Point.
We know that exercise is good.
But many people, especially the non, you know, the the novice person in exercise more is better, right?
So there’s no question, we want to get all of our kids or ourselves moving more than 10 minutes, right?
In 60 minutes and every day.
But in reality, especially for those on the spectrum or let’s say other Amber out there who are tasks like that’s not reality, they’re not gonna get them to, to exercise for 60 minutes in the first week, in the first month, in the first year, even sometimes let alone at high intensity.
And here’s why I say that a lot of the research while is critical and still valuable for future development of research shows that it was done on let on individuals who needed less support on the spectrum.
So they were able to do more high intense act activities.
But for those in the classroom, for those just starting in physical activities or physical education, the reality is, and from both Amber, Ii’s experience low to modern intensity is realistic expectations and that’s what we want to stress to the, to the pe or the A pe professionals, to the SPD teachers or to the parents that, hey, if we get them to do 10 minutes, there is potentially some benefit here.
So pat yourselves on the back, reward your students, then we can build on that.
But if we start thinking that 60 minutes high in every day or week, then it, it’s just not in, in, in my experience, that’s not how we’re seeing success and having those students and kids make the connection.
It’s, it’s building the relationship and, and slowly engaging them in exercise and then yes, we can add more and, and add more complex exercise, add more time, in the, in the, in the, in their, physical activity.
And can that exercise amber when we’re talking about the 10 minutes?
Is it essential that it be a chunk of 10 minutes, let’s say, in a classroom situation when you’re prepping them for a reading class or math class or what have you do?
They need a full 10 minutes of the exercise or can it be like a two minute, three minute brain break to get them prepped?
I mean, we would use both ways within the classroom, you know, sometimes our students would come back from lunch and they didn’t get their full recess because they couldn’t go outside.
And so in situations like that, yes, we needed to provide 10 minutes of, you know, physical activity so that we could help them transition to, you know, our reading block or our math block, whatever was next.
So in those instances, we would, we would utilize that, but we would also just throw in little snippets of physical activity throughout the day.
We could be, yeah, two minutes shorter.
and also trying to incorporate more kinesthetic learning.
So pairing exercise and movement with cross curricular activity.
And I, yeah, go ahead.
Yeah, I was just gonna say, I think this is important just for, for people to know too.
Like we many people think that, yeah, it has to be.
And I’m, let’s just talk neurotypical, right?
60 minutes of activity and it nonstop.
Well, no, to meet your daily level of, of activity requirements, it doesn’t have to be all in one setting right now that research that we just shared.
Yeah, they found through the research and their analysis.
That’s what they found.
10 minutes equal, you know, 60 minutes of better on task behavior or whatnot.
Great at the end of the day.
Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a pe professional just getting them involved is, is the big win.
So, if it is five minutes great.
But don’t let it be like, well, I didn’t, you know, I can’t get him for 30 minutes or we’re not gonna do it.
No, they, they need to move.
We know that and I think research still needs to evolve on, on, on, on more of the 10 minutes and build on that.
But so again, I want people to know even for yourself, any, any and even a movement.
So why do you think that that physical activity is often overlooked in the classroom situation?
I think part of it comes down to, you know, if there were an increased awareness of the benefits that physical activity can have on learning and development in the school setting, I think it would be a higher priority.
That makes sense for sure.
I think that it’s overlooked in a traditional classroom setting.
I now remember I’ve never been in a, I’ve never had a, a teacher role as a sped teacher.
I was in a therapeutic day school as a fitness coordinator.
But I think that it, you know, their curriculum is teachers, right?
And Amber, you know, you can share this more but they have certain responsibilities and things that they have to meet in their curriculum.
So to, to embed exercise and take five or 10 minutes away from that, it’s probably not gonna be the case.
But to Amber’s point, there is plenty of research for neurotypical and even those who are autistic where exercise is shown to improve academic performance.
Now, why is that missing both in a pe or classroom based setting?
To be quite honest, some of it may fall into the, the school systems and structure or their own belief in the power of what exercise can do for their students.
So I’m gonna ask you more questions about, movement in schools.
But before I do that, let’s just backtrack a little bit and learn more about what you both do now.
So, obviously I’m Dave.
but the founder of exercise connection and, you know, when it started, it was working individually or in small groups with, with those primarily with an autism diagnosis and that evolved to related disabilities.
But as I after leaving my position at that therapeutic day school, when I started exercise connection, we, we found that there were more resources needed from training to visual support to the technology aided instruction.
Like we’ve developed exercise buddy to help not only these this population but to help the the professionals and teachers tasked with teaching exercise or physical activities to them.
So I think our biggest role now we’ve created the autism exercise specialist certificate with the American College of Sports Medicine to give professionals that foundational evidence based knowledge of, of where they can start and how to build exercise or physical activity programs in their home, fitness center school classroom.
and then build the the other products to support that with the visual exercise system and exercise body.
So, Amber and I are doing that traveling around the country and around the world in, in, in some instances.
just trying to provide that education so, so they can help the students, the kids in, in their communities.
Didn’t you head to Kuala Lumpur at one point at work at the International School there we partnered with was it was sport Singapore and we were in Kuala Lumpur or no, we were with it.
Wait, no, it wasn’t.
It was Singapore, right?
We brought our autism exercise specialist certificate to their professionals, trained over 100 professionals and offered a parent session as well.
And then you were supposed to go to called the pandemic happened?
And Amber, what is your role there?
So I’m the vice president at Exercise Connection.
And you know, my focus is providing professional development, bringing these inclusive strategies to school professionals and adapted pe and beyond, you know, for special educators, therapists, exercise professionals and different members of the interdisciplinary health care team.
Fantastic, an educational team.
Let’s head back to movement.
So what are some examples of movement based activities that teachers can embed within their classroom instruction?
Yeah, so I’ll start, I think look, one of the things that I think is important as to start this conversation is let many of in the school specifically, many people think schools, physical education, sports and while that is great for many on the spectrum and, and I know many of the people listening to this right?
Sport involves two of the most challenging things for those on the autism spectrum, communication and social skills.
So, in many ways, while all well intended, we’re setting this population up for failure in those settings.
So again, my background is an exercise physiologist and strength and conditioning coach.
I don’t have an adapted physical education degree or physical education degree.
I looked at it from this exercise physiology perspective and when working with individuals one on one.
And I believe, and we believe that and, and we’re seeing this in the schools in the United States when, when you have programs designed in that traditional gym exercise setting, right?
Where let’s think, right?
Maybe Lori, you or your family members, right?
You go to the gym, you put on your headphones, maybe you watch a show right on the treadmill and you spend whatever it is working independently that I believe is more set up for, many on the autism spectrum.
Not all if sports is the motivator, if sports is what is captivating your students and your kids, absolutely do it.
But we need to come up with other strategies knowing that this population is some want to be more independent and we need to provide them those strategies.
And that’s where we believe that exercise is that that type of setting is what can help bring them to be physically active.
And I know that didn’t answer your questions so that an and no, but that’s important, important to know.
So, thank you.
Well, I’ll just share one of, one of my favorite ways of embedding exercise in the classroom was using exercise as reinforcement.
So, for example, in our reading workshop block, you know, we had, there was a lot going on during that block, we had whole group instruction, then we would break out into stations where I was leading some stations, my co teacher would lead a station would help lead stations.
But there were still times where students had to do at work.
And that was always, it was always a struggle to get your students to engage in independent work that entire time.
Right, without being disengaged.
and so I would use exercise to support those transitions, you know, complete this activity and then do the, I would let the students pick, the exercise in a start finish board, you know, 10 arm circles or wall push ups on the lockers.
and so it, and you could just see, the students take ownership then of their learning because they had their schedule and, you know, they felt, you know, they had, they had increased independence, they felt cool because they were doing exercise, like they might see their older brothers or, you know, a parent doing exercise.
and so that was just really cool to see in the classroom.
That’s a great idea.
And, and also on that, of, of exercises to do.
I feel that, you know, when, if, if anyone were to read this study that we mentioned about the 10 minutes, the modalities chosen in that study were a bike or a treadmill.
And then again, this is a research setting.
But the realities for the school teacher, for the physical educator or for the parent is we don’t have money for 1000 $2000 bike or treadmill, right?
So what Amber and I and our team have seen in our quote case studies of working with many, many different individuals on the spectrum is exercises that evolve, limited to no or cost effective equipment.
And we’ve seen those same results of better on test behavior, better calm bodies, right, more regulated.
And those are the things that, you know, we also like to share as we share in our workshops and we share is like look, use a foam roller and here’s a series of exercises that you can do.
Hey, let’s just try a general hip extension followed by a downward dog physician, right?
Just to get or, or here’s the big one.
How about you?
Just let them go and just lay down for a minute and calm their body because in special education and and and at least in the coming from a therapeutic day school, it’s demand, demand, demand for all the right reasons on our students on the spectrum, right?
Do this do that.
Now you’re on this schedule but they really never get a break.
So to give them a moment to just self regulate and calm and then spend a few minutes doing some basic fundamental exercises.
We’ve seen some tremendous results and, and not just us, but when we’re teaching this to professionals around the world, they’re sharing it with us as well.
My higher support needs classroom in Bangkok.
I used to at the end of the day have just a calming time.
They’d lay down in beanbags.
We’d play a nice calming video with music and it kind of set them up to go home just in a, in a calm state basically.
So yeah, could be very helpful and that’s great too.
But think, I don’t want teachers to think like here’s what happened to me and I’ll try to be brief.
I had all my students, one coming from PTOT lunchroom, right?
And they all came into my classroom and they’re all on the spectrum and they were on sensory overload.
Now, this is in the middle of the day, what you said is absolutely, you know, critical and, and they should still be doing to transition them back to home.
But in the middle of the day, they were all on sensory overload.
It turn out.
I turned off the lights, I’ve laid them down and I said, just relax after five minutes, they were more relaxed.
Then I brought them up to their feet and we started doing our exercises.
But that relax if, if I would have went right into exercise, they, they weren’t ready, they weren’t ready.
So I think even as, as educators, physical or just general or sped, we, we have to remind ourselves, we need to sometimes allow that break.
And, and I will tell you this from my personal experience, one of my admin came up to me and said, you can’t teach yoga or do that anymore to me.
And they, and they said to me and I said to them, why?
And she, and she goes because they’re not doing anything because she saw them laying there in passing.
Said to her respectfully, I got 12 kids to do what some people can’t do with one.
I, I got them to have a calm body.
Two weeks later, my letter of resignation was on their desk because this it’s producing.
I was, I was, this is what we wanted for our kids, right?
A lot of the questions from admin can be.
Where is the learning in this?
And you know, it’s important for us to know the research and the everything that will explain to them.
This is where the learning is, it’s helping their brain.
Let’s talk about send a virtual conference.
You will both be presenting there for us and we’re really excited about that.
So can you give us just a sneak peek into what your upcoming presentation might be including, all right.
So my presentation is, excuse me, is leveraging evidence based practices to empower those with autism and physical education.
So the sneak peek, it’s all about evidence based practices.
And, and that may sound to the, to the team and groups listening that may sound.
Oh yeah, that makes sense.
But in reality, what we see in many, not all but many programs across the world is that the evidence based practices that have created success for those with autism in the classroom are not applied in the physical education setting.
And these kids or adults are left wandering and wandering when they get there and it’s not rocket science.
We just got to apply those same practices the way that Jack John Sarah Sally learn in the classroom.
But to put them in a physical education setting, the most unsensed friendly environment, arguably in the entire school, they need them even more.
So we’re gonna talk about what those look like, how we can do it and create and start to give people the foundation in the hour and 15 minutes of how they can do that.
Well, on the flip side, mine is gonna focus on, you know, coming from the world of special education.
We’re, we’re using evidence based practices to support our academic learning targets.
Well, what many may not know and I didn’t know this while I was teaching is that exercise and movement is an evidence based practice.
So how can we use inclusive strategies to engage learners in the classroom with physical activity?
How do the strategies that you’ve mentioned earlier?
How can these strategies enhance the roles of paraprofessionals in supporting students with autism?
One of my favorite.
Oh, sorry, go ahead, Amber.
Oh, I was just gonna start off by saying, you know, as a former teacher, I got very little to no time planning or prepping with my pair professionals who are supporting our lessons, supporting our students.
So these evidence based practices can help support the parents, you know, help them, you know, understand your expectations for the students and which expectations they should be reinforcing or supporting.
So the evidence based practices were a huge help in my classroom for my students and our support staff.
So as some may have heard if you’ve watched the other video, but after being a working with individuals with autism for a number of years, my next role, the role I took was being a para educator myself before that school hired me to be their fitness coordinator.
So I have a big heart for pair of educators.
And that said, why evidence based when we talk specifically about physical education, pair of educators across the world get a bad rap from physical educators.
And the first thing I say to them is you have to recognize if you haven’t been in the classroom go to one but are they, they are more than likely engulfed in visual supports.
And I, then I say, do you have visuals?
Do you have anything?
And they typically say no, that’s first and foremost, if, if that the para educators leave that setting for the minute that kid gets off the bus and where to put their backpack, how to wash their hands, right?
And, and what has to go and then they go to the physical education classroom and there’s nothing they, they may go on their phones, they may just sit there but they don’t know, exercise.
So those evidence based practices and those just visuals in general clearly are beneficial for the students, but just as important to get those pair of educators.
And, and lastly, I think this is also important for, for people to realize, look as a physical, as a para educator.
It wasn’t on my job description and probably isn’t for many that you’re gonna be changing diapers on 18 year olds.
I mean that respectfully like I’m not trying to be demeaning man, but, but it was on my job description and there’s, and let alone many of these parent educators aren’t trained or prepared, not even for that, but for, for many things.
So it’s a system problem.
So anyone who has a para educator in their classroom and their, it’s a blessing.
Let’s be honest to get that support staff.
But to Amber’s point, yes, she doesn’t get the planning time and that sped teachers don’t.
But how do we build those relationships with those Paas?
But maybe give, you know, to recognize what they are challenged with.
sometimes, but, but to, to, to, to make them a part of your class and not just see them as, oh, it’s just a parrot.
No, we have to treat them because they are also not adequately prepared for their role that they play in the schools or in the groups.
Well, we have the utmost respect for our teacher assistants, paraprofessionals.
In fact, CIA offers a certification program for teacher assistants and to give them that adequate training, I think it’s just, it’s so essential and so often our teacher assistants are overlooked in schools.
Looking ahead Amber, what do you hope to see in the future in terms of integration of physical activity and inclusive strategies within the education system for students with autism?
I would say using exercise strategically in the classroom to help meet learning targets and help our students develop healthy and active lifestyles, right?
Because that’s something that they can take into adulthood.
And so if we can use that to support learning and development in our school systems, just think where that can take our students in their future, how can our listeners connect with you for further resources?
listeners can reach out to me directly at Amber at exercise connection dot com and they can also learn more about the inclusive exercise solutions we offer at exercise connection dot com.
Oh, and I will put those links, of course in our show notes for our listeners and make it easy for them to connect with you.
Wonderful Amber coach Dave.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
I think that’s all we have time for, for today.
We are looking forward to seeing you at our virtual conference and learning more from you there and we are excited again to be a part and, and, and work with anyone from and, and, and help them.
So, thank you again for picking of us and make us part of the conference.
Thank you, Lori.
Looking forward to the virtual conference.
Thank you for joining us for today’s show.
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