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West Yorkshire schools physical activity mentoring programme a success


An innovative project using young adult health mentors to boost physical activity and improve behavioural problems in four Keighley primary schools has been hailed a success by Leeds Beckett University academics.

Professor Jim McKenna

The aim of Project HE:RO is to improve the attendance, behaviour and progress of disengaged and vulnerable primary school children, whilst also inspiring all pupils in the school to lead physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles.

In four Keighley schools, qualified health mentors have been provided through Evolve, a social impact company. These are young, active and highly motivated individuals who deliver physical engagement, active learning and pupil mentoring activities in primary schools. They typically work with children (mostly boys), who present complex issues and require additional support at school. They also work with children who have extra needs and those lacking in confidence and/or self-esteem. They do this by putting into place a programme of activities – pre-agreed with the classroom teachers - that are delivered in and out of the classroom, in one-to-one and group mentoring sessions.

Leeds Beckett academics in the University’s School of Sport, Stephen Zwolinsky and Professor Jim McKenna, evaluated the success of the Keighley programme between June and October 2015 by shadowing health mentors through their school days and collecting information through a variety of techniques. These included semi-structured interviews with teaching staff and mentors and observing children’s activity during play, building a picture of their approach and its impacts.

The researchers found the health mentors to be making positive changes in several areas, including becoming positive role models and increasing the amount of contact pupils have with supportive adults who promote physical activity (PA). The mentors consistently managed and improved the behaviour of pupils presenting complex issues, contributing to improving the overall school climate.

Stephen Zwolinsky, Research Officer in the School of Sport at Leeds Beckett, explained: “Unfortunately, many of the unhelpful habits that prevail in classrooms and schools are underpinned by low self-control and low resilience. Project HE:RO addresses how young people can be encouraged to approach learning (self-control) and how to handle the setbacks that are central to it (resilience).”

Teachers readily acknowledge that physical activity (PA) can help prevent and manage a number of chronic health conditions; however it is more important for them that it promotes the acquisition of social skills, develops better concentration in school and displaces anti-social behaviour.

Stephen said: “Many of the teaching staff reported that the children the mentors worked with regularly were often at the centre of disruption in class, which stems from lower self-control. This leads to increased teacher effort and class resentment towards that child.

“Our research shows that, not only were the mentors effective managers of these disruptive behaviours in the classroom, but also, in many instances, they were able to improve their behaviour and educational progress. Additionally, one of the most recognisable benefits that the teachers identified in the pupils working with the mentors related to increased confidence. This increase also appeared to have a knock-on overall effect of producing more positive behaviour in class. Teachers reported that Project HE:RO children became much more engaged in constructive classroom activity because of their mentors.”

Another benefit highlighted by the research was the programme’s ability to introduce young males into a very feminised primary school environment. Whilst not all of the mentors were male, many of the teachers reported that having an extra male presence in the classroom, especially as a trusted role model, was very important for a number of boys. One teacher commented: “The children are very anxious that their time with Evolve happens: it’s that caring role model. It’s something they don’t often see in their lives - a male that is prepared to show that they care in a way that they can accept without being embarrassed.”

Equally just bringing extra staff on board was seen as a great advantage for many teachers, enhancing the number of adults with whom pupils could interact.

Stephen added: “Above everything else, the children and teachers enjoyed having these energetic, resourceful and capable young adults around the school and in the classroom. The children looked forward to their time with them and would ask when their mentor was going to be in that week.”

The extra opportunities for PA were also described as improving the delivery of physical education (PE) sessions overall as not only did the mentors deliver high quality PE sessions they also gave professional development and mentoring to teachers for their own PE lessons.

The research team found that mentors enhanced the PA levels of children throughout the day, independent of time spent in PE. As well as incorporating PA within class time, mentors delivered structured sport and games at break and lunch time to children who may otherwise be inactive at these times.

Stephen said: “Although the additional activity delivered by Evolve mentors was beneficial from a physical health perspective, many teachers and schools reported further benefits as children learnt skills and refined personal coping strategies through activities such as times table football and relating classroom-based scenarios to being the manager of a rugby team. The new-found positivity garnered in the children has allowed mentors to instil a sense of responsibility in them.

“Overall, we found that Project HE:RO has the potential to deliver many short-term benefits that will contribute to longer-term health outcomes and enhanced academic progress in the future.”

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