Scooting ahead to success

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady sees pupils cope better with their work when they take part in exercises that improve co-ordination

Every Friday morning at 9.45 about 10 pupils from Years 7 to 9 at Comberton Village College meet in one of the school's sports halls for special exercises and games. They are members of the sports skills group, a programme that aims to help children with special needs cope better with the curriculum.

For 50 minutes, children with motor control difficulties, poor organisational skills and co-ordination and sequencing problems enjoy specially designed exercises and team games. The activities also foster communication, team work and leadership skills and boost self-confidence.

Jenny Holmes, the Cambridgeshire Sports College's special educational needs co-ordinator, says: "It's very holistic. During the sessions a student might be scooting along on a flat board strengthening their upper body; they may be part of a team and be a leader. Timing, organisation and some numeracy also come into it."

The scheme is now being extended to Comberton's eight feeder primary schools and the college will also be working with another secondary school which will in turn disseminate the programme to their feeder schools.

Drawing on a range of resources (see below) the content of the sessions was mostly the work of Ann Impey, a learning support assistant who had worked on motor control programmes in primary schools, and Julie Bartlett, a PE teacher with special needs experience.

Ann says: "The college would have preferred regular short sessions. But this was found to be impractical within a secondary curriculum, and instead students are withdrawn for one timetabled lesson a week."

Primary schools in the scheme, however, opted for "little and often" - 15- minute sessions four times a week.

The three sorts of sessions are devoted to hand-eye and foot-eye co-ordination and improving upper body strength, lack of which affects fine motor control and the ability to hold pens, text and equipment and co-ordination.

A typical lesson aimed at improving upper body strength begins with a warm up followed by a series of exercises and games. Children race lying on scooter boards - flat boards on wheels - propelling themselves along with their hands, and use a "parachute" - a piece of material shaped like a parachute which they can hold in a circle perhaps moving a ball round on it by varying the tension. Exercises are fun, and the children are clearly enjoying themselves; there's plenty of teamwork and cooperation. Evaluation of the project has proved difficult, says Jenny Holmes, as it isn't easy to identify what is due to the project alone.

"But observations of pupils working in many areas of the curriculum before and after they begin attending the sessions show improved attendance, concentration and self-confidence. Their level of participation in lessons has increased," she says.

The primary schools also reported improvements in concentration, handwriting and organisation. Special needs advanced skills teacher, Irayna Owen says: "Three of the students on the course are now school prefects which says a lot for the leadership and organisational skills they have acquired." One was a boy who came in with severe dyspraxia and distress symptoms. "No one would say it's just due to the sports skills programme, but it's a large part of it," Irayna Owen says.

Setting up such a programme is not easy, say staff. It involves timetabling and staffing, but Comberton and its partner schools have no doubt it's worth it. The college will continue to extend the project through training teachers and support staff in other schools. It is also hoped to increase the number of lessons a week from one to two and to improve assessment criteria to find those pupils who will benefit most from the programme.

* Comberton College will host a national conference on Sports Skills this autumn. Email: Books that have influenced the programme: Developmental Dyspraxia - identification and intervention, a manual for parents and professionals by Madeleine Portwood (David Fulton); Physical Activities for Improving Children's Learning and Behaviour. a guide to sensory motor development by Billye Ann Cheatum and Allison A Hammond; Human Kinetics: movement activities for children with learning difficulties by Bren Pointer (Jessica Kingsley); Take Tim by Mary Nash-Wortham and Jean Hunt (The Robinswood Press).

Information on the Brain Gym programme:

Programme planner

Key points

* Senior management support is vital.

* Keep staff informed about the programme.

* Timing and location are important if children are to be withdrawn from lessons so as to minimise disruption and make sure conflicts between departments don't arise.

* Keep the group small - a ratio of about two teachers to 10 pupils. This way you can make sure all pupils are participating happily and effectively.

* Identification of pupils: Comberton targets those with poor motor control, communication skills, concentration, sequencing and social skills. Pupils are now identified by an advanced skills teacher in PE from the College with primary school staff. College staff also identify pupils through observation in subjects and socially.

* Keep parents informed. One way is to organise a special meeting where the programme is explained and exercises demonstrated.

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