Physical exercise has brought dramatic improvements for one primary school, finds Gerald Haigh
We know physical exercise can help children's reading and writing, but many teachers want to know more about what they can do in school - what exercises, when and with which children?
Bentley West Primary in Walsall is one school where teachers have been finding workable and interesting answers. It started in the school year 2000-2001, when the school had an influx ofYear 4 children who needed considerable support with literacy. Dee Brigstock, who was deputy head at the time, says: "Every child we admitted was already on the special educational needs register. Our existing targets for English in that year became defunct, and we had to find ways of enabling children to catch up."
Coincidentally, at about the same time, two teachers at the school went on a course on sensory integration at which Joy High, an occupational therapist, explained how and why physical exercise could help children with their classroom skills and behaviour.
"The teachers realised that when she talked about the children who fall off their chairs, drag their hands along the corridor displays and so on, she was talking about our children," Dee Brigstock says.
Here was somebody with some answers, and within a short time, with Joy High's help, a before-school exercise class was started for under-performing Year 4s, working on activities ranging from crawling and rolling, through ball passing to skipping. Quite quickly - and to the amazement of everyone except Joy High - results began to show. Year 4 teacher Angela Bonser recalls: "I'd taken the English books home and separated out the ones where children had made good progress in handwriting. That night I woke up and it just hit me. 'They're the exercise class!' It was fantastic that I just stumbled on that."
Over that year, almost all of the children in the exercise class improved in both writing and handwriting - often by a whole national curriculum level - between autumn and summer.
That was just the start. Between then and now the policy has been to take the exercise activities into the working day. Every child now has a 15-minute session at some point during the morning, starting with Year 6 straight after assembly. It does not replace or erode the PE curriculum, which runs separately with support from the local secondary school, a specialist sports college.
The sessions are quiet and purposeful. Each activity is short, and the whole is planned so the children move seamlessly from one to the next.
This past July, the Year 4 class that caused the initial concern left school at the end of Year 6. They had moved on dramatically. The difference showed in both their SATs and their behaviour. Bentley West headteacher Glenys King says: "They made better progress than we'd expected, and in fact achieved our highest English score."
Equally importantly, there were some individual victories. "One child in particular who was causing major disruption at home and school calmed down," she says. "He became a mentor to younger children and at the leavers' assembly he stood in front of all the parents and said he knew he'd been difficult and he was proud of the way he'd taken control and improved his behaviour."
The fact that the children know the exercise programme is helping them is a major factor in its success. The school's written evaluation of the project says: "A really important outcome was that children's self-esteem, confidence and attitude to school were very much improved. They knew how well they were doing and became happier children and enthusiastic learners."
To read:A Teacher's Window into the Child's Mind by Sally Goddard, Fern Ridge Press, pound;17.99 (ISBN 0 96153 3250)Sensory Motor Handbook, Therapy Skill Builders, pound;44 (ISBN 0 12785 0724)Sensorimotor Processing Activity Plans by C.H. Sheda and P.R. Ralston, Therapy Skill Builders, pound;16.95 (ISBN 0 7616 47678)All titles are sold by internet booksellers. Try: www.fetchbook.infoBentley West will send exercise ideas for a fee of pound;10 to cover costs. Bentley West Primary School, Monmouth Road, Bentley, Walsall WS2 0EQ. Tel: 01922 720 792
WHY DOES IT WORK?
According to research, an important factor is that some children miss out on crucial stages of physical development. They then have to be "taken back" to revisit those stages and strengthen them. Many Year 6s, for example, cannot stand on one leg for any length of time (try it) because their sense of balance is underdeveloped, and this feeds through to a range of classroom skills. Bentley West teachers talk of children becoming "aware of their bodies" through the exercises.
What can schools do for themselves?
Bentley West was fortunate in linking with an occupational therapist with the right skills and interests. Determination was needed on both sides to cross the divide between health and education. However, Joy High urges schools not to be afraid to experiment. Here are some pointers:
* Begin by committing to the importance of physical exercise - you need management support for this, because something else may have to make room.
* Make your sessions frequent and short (10 minutes every day - and perhaps you can manage without getting changed).
* With young children, do lots of work on the floor - crawling, rolling, animal walks and hops. Joy High believes that too many babies do not get enough crawling to strengthen the upper body.
* Progress to ball and beanbag catching games, balancing, skipping (two turning the rope, others running in) but keep returning to the "floor" activities.
* For expert input, try your health authority. Has it anyone who works like this? Be persistent; there is often a bureaucratic wall between health and education