How physical activity improves behaviour


Joel Beeden, year six teacher, SENCO, sport, mental health and wellbeing lead at Duckmanton Primary School in Derbyshire, takes a look at how active learning can improve classroom behaviour. 

Figures from Sport England show that most young people failed to meet the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise in the last academic year. And almost a third of children (2.3 million) were classed as ‘inactive’ thanks to restrictions during lockdown, not even doing 30 minutes of exercise per day.

The findings have been backed up by parents too. More than two thirds of UK parents have reported that their children became less active during the pandemic. 

The benefits of exercise 

This sedentary living will have taken its toll on children with SEND. The positive impact of physical activity on children is a scientific fact. And it’s not just about maintaining a healthy weight. 

Exercise strengthens bones and organs and improves coordination, balance, posture and flexibility. It also reduces the risk of developing heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes in later life. 

Then there’s the wellbeing side of it, particularly important for children with SEND. Active children are more likely to sleep well at night, making it easier to concentrate and get along with others at school. Not to mention the effect of lowering anxiety levels. 

Physical activity and behaviour

Physical activity is critical for students at my school, which is in a small, remote ex-mining village with high unemployment and deprivation levels. Over half of the children in school receive free school meals and more than a third have special educational needs.

The lack of exercise during lockdown has hit my pupils hard as many live in overcrowded flats with no garden or outdoor space. For children with SEND this has been compounded by the lack of routine and regular support they had before Covid struck. 

We know that low physical activity levels can be a key contributor to challenging behaviour. It can be low-level disruption like talking in class, forgetting books or being late. It can also escalate to ignoring instructions, questioning authority or being abusive. 

As sports lead and SENCO in our school, I can see a direct link between physical activity and pupils improved wellbeing and behaviour. As a result, for some time now our school has been focused on adding more physical activity into our school day. It helped us manage behaviour and improve engagement after the first lockdown and will be a key part of our strategy in helping children readjust to the school routine this time around too.

Active maths and English

A physically active curriculum has been the cornerstone to improving behaviour at our school for some time now. This is not about doing more sport – although that is also important. It instead means getting all children up and moving about during their lessons most days of the week. 

We decided on this approach as we began to notice the positive impact that PE lessons were having on many students. Some of our pupils with SEND who were disengaged and disruptive in the classroom became model students during PE. They loved taking part in the sports activities and were focused and well-behaved.

So we thought why not take the element of physical activity and apply it to other lessons, like maths and English?

We started to incorporate activities into lessons with ready-made active lesson plans from Teach Active, which made it far quicker to adapt to the new style of teaching. 

With this approach, instead of teaching children how to tell the time in class, we can take them out to the football field where they run around hunting for sticks and stones which they use to create a clock face and learn to tell the time. 

Alternatively, we could set up maths trails around the playground. The children follow the trails in groups, carrying out calculations together and running off to find cards with the correct answers. 

An element of competition can be added to the learning experience too. In an English lesson, teams can race against one another to find synonym cards or we play a game of charades in the classroom to help children understand the meaning of words in context.  

Children don’t necessarily realise they are learning when you tell them to run around the playground collecting nouns to create possessive noun phrases in teams, but the results have shown us the learning is definitely sticking.  

A change for the better

After using active teaching throughout the school, we have seen an improvement in behaviour as well as more enjoyment in class. 

This is particularly the case for children with SEND and learning differences, who find the active lessons inclusive and accessible. We can set up certain routines that are helpful and reassuring for some SEND children, like at the start of each maths lesson we do an active learning intro. For our children with ADHD, say, this burst of activity followed by a short period of concentration works well. 

Confidence in maths and English has grown, as has independence within lessons as pupils relish the opportunity to learn through active sessions that they can confidently engage with.

The best measure of progress was a 98% pass rate in the SPAG test in the year before the pandemic struck, so active learning will be central to our approach to improving behaviour and filling any gaps in learning as a result of the lockdowns. It’s working wonders in our school and has improved behaviour among our students of all backgrounds and abilities. 

Joel Beeden
Teacher at Duckmanton Primary School | 

Joel Beeden is an expert SENCO, sport, mental health, wellbeing lead and promoter of active learning. He is a year six teacher at Duckmanton Primary School in Derbyshire. 

Free active lesson plans are available



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