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Physical Activity Interventions for Children with Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Disabilities—A Systematic Review

Ash, Tayla, MPH*,†; Bowling, April, MA, ScD; Davison, Kirsten, PhD*,†; Garcia, Jeanette, PhD§

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: July/August 2017 - Volume 38 - Issue 6 - p 431–445
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000452
Review Article

Objective: Perform a systematic review of the available literature regarding the effectiveness of exercise interventions on children with any type of social, emotional, or behavioral disability (SEBD), with attention to a range of physiological, behavioral, and mood outcomes.

Methods: Six databases were searched using a systematic methodology. References of included studies, as well as relevant reviews, were also examined. The review was limited to studies published since 2000 reporting a quantitative analysis of the effects of a physical activity (PA) intervention on at least 1 behavioral, psychological, or cognitive outcome in children aged 21 and under, diagnosed with a SEBD. Only studies with a control group were included.

Results: We identified 24 eligible studies. Studies varied in design, participant characteristics, and intervention characteristics (single-bout vs repeated exposure, duration, intensity level, mode of exercise). Of the 20 behavioral outcome assessments, there was 1 negative finding, 12 null findings, 5 positive findings, and 2 mixed findings. For the 25 executive functioning outcome assessments, there were 5 null findings, 18 positive findings, and 2 mixed findings. For the remaining outcome domains, 1 of 2 studies looking at academic performance, 3 of 6 studies looking at objective neurological measures, and 1 of 3 studies looking at affect outcomes found positive results. All other results were null or mixed.

Conclusion: Although additional research is warranted to further understand the mechanisms by which PA affects behavioral and cognitive outcome measures in children with SEBDs, PA offers a safe and alternative form of treatment for this population.

This article has supplementary material on the web site:

*Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA;

Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA;

Department of Health Sciences, Merrimack College, North Andover, MA;

§Department of Educational and Human Sciences, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL.

Address for reprints: Tayla Ash, MPH, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 655 Huntington Ave, Building 2, Room 320, Boston, MA 02115; e-mail:

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal's Web site (

The authors have used the terminology “single-bout” and “repeated exposure” to classify intervention length. In the exercise literature, these classifications are often referred to as “acute” and “chronic” interventions, respectively.

Received November 08, 2016

Accepted April 06, 2017

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