A leading Professor of Physical Activity and Health is calling for greater use of Health Mentors in schools, after a report found they are having a powerful effect on changing the emotional wellbeing and behaviour of children in four Keighley primary schools.
A research study led by Professor Jim McKenna of Leeds Beckett University, commissioned by Bradford Public Health, has found that the work of Health Mentors from Evolve’s Project HE:RO led to previously inattentive pupils doing better in lessons.
By building positive relationships with both pupils and staff, the mentors’ short-term benefits of boosting emotional wellbeing are likely to extend to a healthy future life and higher academic progress for pupils.
A researcher shadowed trained Evolve staff in four Keighley schools for five days as they mentored children using increased physical activity and one-to-one help with learning when needed.
Professor McKenna said: “This project that builds positive relationships works better than anything like it that we’ve seen brought into schools.
“The work of the Health Mentors is having a profound effect on the whole school environment. Although the mentors tend to work with disruptive children, that impact extends to all children. If a teacher has a class of smiling children, this helps the behaviour of everyone in that class. That improves all classroom activity.
“I would like to see the Health Mentoring scaled up into more schools. That would see a notch up in children’s performance by displacing a lot of anti-social behaviour.
“Recent reports suggest that Bradford education is not doing as well as it might and if more investment is made in primary schools, they could see a huge improvement in educational excellence. It would be a great news story for Bradford if more Health Mentors were brought in. They are doing something good in the world.
“Any school might benefit where it has similar issues to those in the Keighley schools we visited. That said, there are many schools that are already very well served for adult ‘presence’. Most, however, are not well served by adults who bring an activity-oriented approach to learning.”
The Evolve programmes are also active in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Nottingham, where they are having a positive impact.
Professor McKenna explained that by improving physical activity and health, and promoting positive behaviour, children learn self-control in the classroom and for the rest of their lives.
“In the short, mid and long term this helps enhance positive behaviours, and prevents anti-social and criminal behaviours,” he said.
“If success only comes in a chaotic way, children don’t learn how to control their
achievements. It is crucial that children learn how to control success in a structured way before the age of 10.
“Some boys don’t have meaningful relationships with male adults, as primary school teachers are predominantly female. Few of these boys had any gifted male role models show any interest in them. Through Project HE:RO they have access to adults they can trust. This results in emotional wellbeing; once that’s in place, then we are in business for better learning.
“The mentors are having a powerful effect in unlocking success and supporting the oasis of learning that teachers are working so hard to create.”
Independent researcher Stephen Zwolinsky observed the Health Mentors, interviewed teachers about their experiences, collected data and identified the impacts of physical activity and social behaviour.
He said: “Project HE:RO supports children’s holistic development. With a particular focus on increasing their contact with supportive adults, mentors energetically promote physical activity.
“Evolve carefully recruits and trains young, active and highly motivated staff. The teaching staff and head teachers I spoke to were all fulsome in their praise for the positive addition to the staffing and the importance of the mentors’ contribution.
“It was fantastic to see how the inspiring role models built relationships with the pupils and made such a difference. I wasn’t expecting to see such amazing changes in behaviour, self-confidence and academic achievement.”
A teacher who was interviewed for the study said of a Health Mentor: “The confidence he has built there is amazing, a real big change. You see a huge difference. The pupil he is working with has massively grown in confidence.”
Meanwhile, a head teacher said: “It’s about meeting the social and emotional needs of the children. If you can’t concentrate, have no confidence or lack self-esteem, then the classroom is a very difficult place. Building that up, for me, is so important before you can start learning.”
Evolve director Graham Morgan said he was delighted with the findings and hoped the study would be taken seriously in Bradford.
“Bradford could take the national lead in bringing children’s health and education together,” he said.
“While we set out to combat inactivity and obesity through active learning, we were not surprised that we are improving basic numeracy and literacy.
“Through the research we now discover one of our biggest assets is improving the emotional wellbeing of pupils too.”
Evolve is commissioned by individual head teachers to provide successful health intervention.
“The NHS spends millions treating obesity, heart disease and diabetes. We can help prevent that,” added Mr Morgan.
“Our success has come from careful recruitment, rigorous training and the excellent rapport our Health Mentors develop when engaging with children.”