When Carolyne Cybulski tells teachers at other schools that she allows kids to chew gum in her classroom, their reaction is often abrupt. "They look at us like our brains have fallen out of our heads," said the teacher and principal at Epic School, a small, not-for-profit preschool and kindergarten in Toronto.
Twenty years ago, children caught chewing gum at their desk would probably be sent straight to detention. Even today, gum is mostly banned at schools for fear of sticky messes and bubble-blowing blunders. But a growing body of research suggests the habit may actually be beneficial when it comes to important classroom skills such as concentration, alertness and memory.
Cybulski started encouraging her tiny charges to chew on sugar-free gum a few years ago, after an occupational therapist recommended the strategy for one of her students. The anecdotal benefits have been impressive, she says: Less fidgeting during circle time, increased attention and decreased anxiety.
"Children learn through their senses – and oral activity can be very calming," said Cybulski. "The act of chewing gum also provides constant sensory input to the muscles in the jaw and ears and we find it helps children to concentrate better."
Recent research backs her up. Earlier this year, a study in the British Journal of Psychology found that participants who chewed gum maintained better concentration during the latter stages of a monotonous, 30-minute audio task. The gum chewers also had faster reaction times and more accurate results than the group without gum. Scientists aren't exactly sure why chewing gum improves attention, but have hypothesized it may increase heart rate and blood flow. "This would result in more oxygen and glucose being delivered to the brain," said study co-author Dr. Andrew Johnson, a psychology professor at Bournemouth University in Dorset, England, in an interview. "It's also possible that the motion of chewing helped to maintain attention because participants were moving a little, rather than sitting stationary." Previous studies have also demonstrated that gum-chewing is associated with reduced stress, enhanced mood, greater alertness and improved test performance.
Although all of these studies involved adults, there's no reason kids as young as four years old can't reap the cognitive benefits of chewing gum, said Carol Vickery, an occupational therapist in Calgary. "Chewing gum is soothing – but it can also be quite alerting. Those sluggish times right before recess – or when they're having to sit still for a while – are ideal opportunities to give children gum," she said.
It's also a more socially acceptable habit than sucking on shirt sleeves, fingers or pencils – behaviours many young children exhibit when they're anxious or need extra sensory input, says Cybulski. "To break a habit, you need to replace it with another one," she said.
Gum is also a good tool for children who find it hard to focus in noisy classroom settings.
"It actually helps to dull background noise by activating the Eustachian tube [in the ear]," said Vickery.
So why are many teachers still against the idea of allowing kids to chomp away? "The day that I found it ground up into the carpet was probably the last straw," said Jason Riddell, an elementary teacher at Moffat Creek Public School in Cambridge, Ont., who recently put an end to a month-long gum-chewing experiment in his Grade 5/6 classroom. "When the students were already into a task, they would chew and focus and it wasn't a problem. But during those transition periods, they would get distracted figuring out how to get more gum from their friends or finding a place to spit it out. Some kids wouldn't share with everyone, which led to hurt feelings."
Riddell said he's not opposed to introducing gum in the classroom again. But next time he'll supply the sticky substance for all the kids and will limit chewing to once a week.
As for Cybulski? She'll continue to allow gum in the classroom as long as the kids respect the rules. "We don't want to see it, and we don't want to hear it," she said. "But the benefits are great, the research supports it, and most of all, it helps."
Special to The Globe and Mail