Teachers are becoming increasingly convinced that that taking part in regular physical activity can have a significant impact on children’s behaviour. Crispin Andrews discusses

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s PE and School Sport (PESS) investigation concluded that physical activity has a motivational impact on children, increasing their self-esteem and general wellbeing. It also found that PE and sport helps children to develop essential social skills such as concentration, self-discipline, cooperation and an awareness of the need to think of things and people other than themselves.

The knock-on effects on work in other curriculum areas and on attitude in general makes PE a particularly appropriate tool for helping children with behavioural difficulties. The earlier children are introduced to the learning and developmental processes inherent in good quality physical activity, the sooner they can benefit.

The QCA identifies the following ways in which schools can use high quality physical activity to impact positively upon behaviour.

Provide activities at break times and lunchtimes

In many schools, the playground is the setting for a lot of unacceptable, challenging behaviour, so offering pupils a range of formal and semi-formal activities at break times and lunchtimes can have a significant impact.

If pupils have something positive to do in the playground, they channel their energy into physical activity rather than getting involved in arguments and fights. They form new friendships, learn to cooperate and become more tolerant of one another.

Find out what activities children in your school would like to be offered in the playground and then respond to their requests. If they feel empowered, they are more likely to participate in and enjoy the activities. Choose activities that encourage pupils from different year groups to mix and work together, such as team-building games or dancing; avoid aggressive team games that might increase tension.

To sustain interest, offer a limited choice of activities at any one time. This works on the same principle as children’s menus in restaurants – the choices are attractive but limited. Pupils know what they are doing, are able to get on with the activity and feel they can succeed.

Reorganise space at break times and lunchtimes

Pupils’ behaviour improves when they feel they have a safe space in which to play freely. Setting up zones for various types of activity encourages pupils to be more purposeful and active.

Allocate and mark out areas of indoor and outdoor space, for example the playground, all-weather pitch, fields and hall, and provide specific activities in each area. Make sure there is supervision. Tell pupils what they can choose from and encourage them to stick to one task at a time.

Make sure there is enough equipment available

If pupils spend less time queuing for equipment and waiting for a turn, there will be less frustration and boredom. With fewer arguments about how long someone’s turn has taken or whose turn is next, relationships between pupils improve.

Put an efficient, fair system for distributing equipment in place. Consider training pupils to manage the distribution and collection of playground equipment.

Encourage adults to support positive play

If pupils see adults behaving in a positive, active way, they are more likely to do the same. Receiving praise and positive feedback from an adult can increase a pupil’s self-esteem and, in turn, improve their behaviour. By taking a more hands-on approach in the playground, midday supervisors are more likely to anticipate and stop incidents of unacceptable behaviour.

Ensure that adults take a positive interest in what pupils are doing. They could organise activities, coach pupils, join in or simply provide general feedback. Train classroom assistants and midday supervisors to act as play leaders and manage activities.

Give pupils roles and responsibilities

Putting older and younger pupils together changes the atmosphere of the playground and makes it feel much more inclusive and supportive. The younger pupils look up to their older role models and want to win their respect by behaving well. With more supervision and organisation in the playground, there tends to be less bullying and other negative behaviour.

Give older pupils roles as play leaders or mentors at break and lunchtimes. They could take responsibility for organising equipment, leading activities, teaching younger pupils games and supporting their play.

Use team-building and cooperative activities

Pupils learn how to cooperate, work together to achieve a goal and get on with one another. Being put in a position of responsibility for, or reliance on, others in a team often brings out the best in them. This can have an impact on their behaviour far beyond the activity itself.

Provide pupils with tasks and challenges that promote cooperation, problem-solving and teamwork during PE lessons or in clubs after school. Outdoor and adventurous activities and parachute-style games can be particularly effective.

Introduce activity breaks in lessons

Short activity breaks in the middle of lessons other than PE can improve behaviour. This works best when the activity is structured and organised and, where possible, is related to the lesson (for example, an active numeracy challenge in a mathematics lesson).

Many pupils lose concentration when they have been sitting down for a long time. They tend to become fidgety and find ways of attracting attention by annoying or distracting others. A short five- to 15-minute exercise break to do something active and exciting gets the oxygen flowing to the brain. They come back to their task in a better frame of mind and ready to behave better.

Success stories

Abbey Park Middle School, Worcestershire
In an effort to improve their attitudes towards learning, 18 Year 6 pupils from a year group of around 80 were asked to take part in an after-school programme including physical activities.

Fifteen of the children were chosen for the ‘PESS Club’ because they had problems concentrating, low self-esteem, learning difficulties and social and emotional problems. The problems experienced by individual children included attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hearing difficulties and obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD).

The remaining three pupils in the group were selected as positive role models because they had shown excellent attitudes to learning and high levels of involvement in school life.

Almost 70% of the pupils already took part in extracurricular clubs and activities, and the school was keen to see if this involvement could have a greater impact on children’s overall achievement.
The activities that were offered included:

  • Tri-golf (with the help of an outside coach). The sessions culminated in an inter-school Tri-golf tournament
  • skipping workshop
  • dance mat club
  • athletics (led by an outside coach)
  • ‘rubbish fashion’ show
  • keyboard sessions
  • arts and crafts, including card-making, découpage and painting on glass
  • cookery.

Pupils were not offered a choice of activities, but simply invited to bring along their PE kit and join in with whatever was on offer.

Groups and pairs were set up to ensure that all of the pupils interacted with a range of other children, rather than staying in their established friendship groups.

As well as taking part in activities, PESS Club participants were given new responsibilities around the school, including serving in the tuck shop, acting as librarians, helping with the school’s play leader scheme, ordering new playground equipment and helping to organise the dance mat club.

Staff found that most of the targeted pupils progressed in leaps and bounds. Their overwhelmingly positive comments on the experience contrasted dramatically with their scepticism – even hostility – at the start of the project. Teachers reported a marked improvement in cooperative skills and noted that the pupils involved developed the ability to think more about others, rather than putting themselves first.

Since taking part in the sessions two of the pupils have signed up to become play leaders and three have volunteered to become peer mentors.

One pupil with an obsessive compulsive disorder has started eating with other pupils for the first time and, after being introduced to Tri-golf through the PESS Club, has been inspired to join a community golf club.

Fair Furlong Primary School, Bristol
Fair Furlong found that improving the activities on offer to pupils at break and lunchtime had a positive impact on pupils’ behaviour, attitudes to learning and attendance.

As a Zoneparc school, Fair Furlong started by auditing pupils’ needs and then established areas for a range of different pupil activities in the playground. These included:

  • areas for quiet activities, with good-quality seating and board games
  • a fenced ballpark for fast-flowing mini-sports
  • areas for more general activity, such as basketball shooting, kingball, catch-up and ‘piggy in the middle’.

The school invested in good quality PE equipment exclusively for use at playtimes and lunchtimes, including a dance stage with music where pupils could develop their own routines. Once a week, Year 10 pupils from the nearby secondary school provided dance guidance and leadership.

Four learning support assistants (LSAs) took on the role of play leader at lunchtimes. School meal supervisory assistants (SMSAs) and LSAs were given a day’s training on how to use the Zoneparc equipment and ideas for activities. The training included strategies for managing difficult pupil behaviour and creating systems to reward good behaviour and encourage involvement in activities.
Providing a good learning environment in the playground by organising the playground into different activity areas enabled pupils to feel safe and encouraged them to play freely in adequate space and focus on what they were doing.

As a result, there were significant improvements in their attitudes and behaviour. A small group of pupils who were disaffected and negative towards both their peers and the school environment developed greater self-esteem. They were happy to describe how the new playground activities affected their lives in a positive, productive way.

The number of anti-social incidents logged in the playground area fell by two-thirds while the number of pupils involved in purposeful physical activity increased significantly. The range of activities available to pupils became much broader and met a wider variety of needs; football no longer dominated.

SMSAs were under less stress and described their work as more fulfilling and rewarding. As a result, the school had a waiting list of people wanting to be SMSAs.

Attendance rates improved significantly, particularly among more vulnerable pupils, and teachers reported that the climate for learning in the classroom improved with pupils approaching tasks with more confidence and concentration. Their enhanced ability to work cooperatively and purposefully with one another generated more on-task time, while minimising distraction.