Turn over a new leaf and change attitudes

Gardening projects around the world are improving children's behaviour and teamwork skills. It's time to get their hands dirty

Ed Horne

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When it comes to the subject of behaviour management, several forests' worth of books are available, offering a vast crop of strategies and ideas. While many of these tips have been shown to work, recent research suggests that to improve and manage behaviour, you would do just as well to use those books in their original, cellulose form. For gardens are proving impressive at turning around difficult students.

The evidence is ever-growing. In February this year, an evaluation of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden National Program was published by the University of Wollongong in Australia. Through the programme, which is run by the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, teachers are helped to build kitchen gardens (growing produce to cook and eat) and children are shown in workshops how to use and maintain the gardens.

The study cites improvements in the social behaviours of students taking part in the garden work, with 86 per cent of teachers reporting enhanced teamwork skills and 50 per cent of parents reporting advances in a range of behaviours. Students were better at interacting with people of many ages, developing leadership skills, modifying previous bullying behaviour, managing difficult behaviour and taking a sense of pride in their school.

An earlier study by the University of Melbourne and Deakin University in Australia found similar results, with the programme praised for being an effective tool for engaging non-academic learners and children with challenging behaviours.

"Children in the programme are encouraged to view the school garden as their own space, decorating it with artworks and planning spaces for quiet times and reflection, which they take full advantage of. This, in turn, helps to improve their attitude to school generally," says Josephene Duffy, senior communications coordinator for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.

The success of gardens in behaviour improvement is by no means restricted to Antipodean shores. In the US, a project called KidsGardening run by the National Gardening Association helps teachers to set up their own gardens and offers advice and lesson plans for learning. Youth education programmes director Julia Parker-Dickerson explains that taking children out of the classroom, particularly those struggling with traditional education programmes, has a big impact on how they view school.

"The overall experience provides youths with an outdoor setting that is more flexible than that of a classroom, where they often feel confined," she explains, adding that students are able to take responsibility and have shown more initiative and a willingness to work with and support peers thanks to the programme.

In the UK, meanwhile, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has embarked on arguably the most extensive school gardens programme of any country, through the RHS Campaign for School Gardening. It is working with thousands of schools on garden projects, many of which have led to a similar upturn in behaviour from challenging students.

Middleton Primary for 4- to 11-year-olds in Leeds, England, is one such school. Twenty students at risk of exclusion were chosen to attend regular gardening sessions supported by a teacher, behavioural support worker or teaching assistant. The project was a resounding success. One six-year-old participant had previously accumulated 32 incidents of disruptive behaviour and nine time-outs in a single term. After a term in the project, that had reduced to just seven incidents and only three time-outs.

"Gardening was the intervention that grabbed his and others' attention and encouraged them to perform better," Middleton principal Sam Williams says. "The positive reinforcements they experienced while working in the garden helped them to make a fresh start."

Similar examples of success can be seen elsewhere. Moreton School in Wolverhampton, England, runs a gardening project for 70 children aged 12-15 known for poor conduct. Detentions for these students fell by 42 per cent in six months. Teachers also reported significant improvements in behaviour, participation, motivation and effort. In some schools, meanwhile, installing beehives in the garden encouraged misbehaving students to take responsibility for their actions, improving their overall behaviour as a result.

The common thread through all the schemes internationally is that gardens give students a tangible result for their efforts, an opportunity to demonstrate responsibility and a physical approach that helps them to stay focused and engaged. Gardens also give children the freedom of being outside and provide a break from what they might perceive to be a claustrophobic classroom environment.

The evidence that these elements are effective in improving behaviour is becoming more compelling. The examples given here are just a selection of the scores of innovative garden programmes being used around the world by schools. Hence "garden time" should be an ever more popular option for teachers in tackling challenging behaviour, alongside sanctions, exclusion rooms and other tactics.

Ed Horne is a representative of the RHS schools team. For more information on school gardening, visit rhs.org.ukschoolgardening.

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Ed Horne

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