Exercise routines can address the forgotten issue of school readiness, argues Sally Goddard Blythe
There is a percentage of children who arrive in reception classes developmentally not "ready" for school. These youngsters run the risk of being lost in the system. Some may become academic under-achievers or develop behavioural problems.
This is the finding of a series of studies carried out in schools over the past four years, which highlight the need to take children's physical development into account. The results were presented last month at the 17th European conference of neuro-developmental delay in children with specific learning difficulties, held in Edinburgh.
Twenty-five years ago, school doctors and paediatricians carried out simple developmental tests, to assess balance and co-ordination when children started school. However, about 20 years ago, the emphasis moved towards "evidence-based medicine".
Routine testing had to be justified by showing that if a problem was detected, something could be done about it. At that time, medicine did not have an effective remedy for treating children who were clumsy, had reading and writing problems or who could not sit still.
A growing body of evidence shows that control of balance and motor skills is linked to academic achievement. Not only can these problems be identified, but in many cases there is an effective remedy available in the form of a simple exercise programme, which can be carried out in school for 10 minutes each day.
Devised at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, it involves carrying out a series of developmental movements, based on those normally made by children in the first year of life. Unlike many other popular programmes, such as Brain Gym, the INPP exercises take children back to the very beginning of balance training.
All exercises are carried out on the floor and help to develop proper head alignment with the body (the basis for good posture), ability to use left and right sides and upper and lower sections of the body in different ways (the basis for co-ordination).
Reflexes that support posture are developed and balance and co-ordination are taught in much the same way that a young baby learns to hold its head up when lying on the floor, to roll, to sit, to crawl and eventually to stand and walk. By using natural movements in a developmental sequence, improved co-ordination becomes natural.
Children in the programme have made substantial gains in reading and have developed better reflexes, balance and co-ordination. The programme also helped to identify children who are at risk of under-achieving at school.
Such children are often assumed to be performing well enough, while others attain marginally below expectations and do not qualify for additional support. Many could do better if the physical nature of their difficulties was identified and remedied. Furthermore, developmental immaturity has implications for behaviour.
Pilot studies funded by the Department for Education and Skills's Best Practice Research Scholarships in 2000 and 2001 found that at Mellor primary school in Leicester, children in the exercise group made a gain of 23 months in reading compared with 12 months in the control group over nine months. And at Knowle C of E primary in Solihull, the reading and comprehension age of the exercise group improved by 14 months compared with eight months over a seven-month period.
These trends have been replicated by a study completed in December involving 90 children at Swanwick primary in Derbyshire. Teachers who have used the programme have all remarked that children's concentration, impulse control and self-esteem have improved.
Swanwick reported that "the children enjoyed the discipline of performing an exercise routine at the beginning of the morning. It appeared to both calm and energise them and they were disappointed if their routine was unavoidably disrupted. There is no doubt that, despite continual traffic through the work area (school hall), the session created a tangible atmosphere not often experienced in a busy school setting, which was commented on by several visitors."
When I was teaching the INPP programme to a group of teachers in the north of England several months ago, a retired paediatrician remarked: "Now it would appear there is something that can be done to help these children, it is time for developmental testing to be reinstated and the importance of physical remedial exercises as a part of general education to be acknowledged".
Sally Goddard Blythe is director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology