How to improve student behaviour and confidence through sport

How to improve student behaviour and confidence through sport

Henry Ford once said, if you think you can or you can't, you're probably right.

You'll recognise this in the classroom if you've ever taught a student who...

  • refused to attempt a piece of work
  • engaged in endless task avoidance instead of getting on with the work
  • walked out of the room entirely when presented with the work

Most often, it's due to a problem with confidence - because confidence leads to resilience.

For some students, this lack of confidence drives behaviour problems.  They'll do anything to avoid making mistakes or risking failure.

So what if we could tackle that lack of confidence?

What would the impact be in the classroom?

Natalie Jackson and her team at Totally Runable use sport to improve student confidence, both outside the classroom and inside.

In particular, she works with girls and uses running as the tool to build confidence in sport and in life. Her team also runs workshops for pupils and school staff - and she campaigns to change the messages girls (and boys) are sent about gender and sport, who they are and what they can do.

Natalie's strategies are practical and simple...

...so I asked her to guide us through her approach, so you can use sports to get similar benefits in your school.


Q. Student behaviour is often linked to a pupil's attitude towards school and learning.  What set you on the path of increasing pupil engagement through sport?  

Confidence is key to so many things. If you don't feel confident you can complete an activity, your engagement will be the first thing to suffer and then you'll miss out.

Then it becomes a vicious cycle - because missing out won't do anything for your confidence.

At school, I didn't have a lot of confidence in my physical abilities and this stuck with me until adulthood.

Then, in 2011, when I worked as director of a law firm, I signed up to (and completed!) the London Marathon - and I realised I was capable of more than I thought.

I wanted to share that feeling with other people and empower them to do the things they would love to do, but for some reason weren't confident about, so were missing out.

That led me to founding Totally Runable and working with girls in sport, where there's still a real issue in confidence and self-perception, which often continues into adulthood.

Q. Tell us about your approach - how does it work?

At Totally Runable we use running as the tool to build girls' confidence both in and out of sport. Our workshops mix physical training with mindset training, encouraging students to apply what they've learned about themselves in running to other areas of their lives.

We also campaign for sport in the media to be more gender equal, and work with schools to help them look at the messages they are sending to girls (and boys!) about gender and sport. 

Often the world isn't sending the most positive messages about what girls can do and who they can be when it comes to physical activity.  But when schools question those messages, the impact can be huge. 

The starting point for that is our Girls and Sport Pledge.  Schools can sign up for free.  They get a sticker and certificate, as well as a resource pack full of ways they can look at the messages girls (and boys) are being sent about what they are able to do.

Q. How has your approach affected the students' confidence and attitude in school?

We know that our courses and workshops change girls' attitudes to themselves and what they are capable of.  Our Girl on the Run courses measure this with a confidence pathway showing the increase in their confidence over the 6 week period.

The thing I like the most on those courses, though, is when girls say they have felt more confident in things like putting their hand up in class or going to collect a certificate in assembly.

Those are tangible differences to girls' lives that they are able to identify straight away. Once they see that, they look for what else they might be able to do, or might enjoy doing. 

Q. How do you work with classes of boys and girls to challenge their attitudes about what women are capable of in sport? And what changes in their behaviour and attitudes do you see afterwards?

We've seen some great results in schools girls' confidence levels improving with an impact on their attendance at after school clubs and participation in physical activity in their school lives.

Linking physical activity to running and confidence has seen a marked improvement in students' maths participation.  As an example, after being part of the programme, one Year 8 girl ran a 5k marathon, and told me at the finish that she hadn't believed she would be able to do it, but now wondered what else she might be able to do.

To get these results, we use real stats about the lack of women's sport on TV and in newspapers (our research found that only 2.9% of sport photographs in the newspapers feature women!)

After building a pupil's confidence with some practical running training, then we work together to talk about how we can all play a part in changing things we aren't happy about, and the ways we might change the messages sent to girls and boys about sport and gender. 

This also affects boys' understanding of their privileged situation when it comes to sport, and also the way stereotypes impact what they feel like they can and can't do. 

Q. To any of our readers interested in improving pupil attitudes to school through sport, where should they start?  What's one simple thing they can do tomorrow to start making a difference?

The easy win for a lot of schools is better participation and attitudes, especially for girls.

Start by looking at what is going on in your school.  So, is there a gender split in terms of physical activity levels in the playground and in things like after school clubs? If there is, you have an easy win in terms of engaging and inspiring girls, by countering the messages they are often sent in society and the media about girls and sport. 

The Girls and Sport Pledge is also a really good place to start.

Schools signing up to the Girls and Sport Pledge are acknowledging that there's an issue in society about the messages girls and boys are sent about sport, and pledging to do more for girls.

What you do needs to be tailored to your school's individual situation, but the Girls and Sport Pledge Resource Pack helps you identify what messages are being sent in and around school, and find ideas to start you off or take you further on a journey to removing barriers and achieving equality in sport. 

The Girls and Sport Pledge has over 75 schools already signed up, and we'd love to have your school on board too if it's something you'd like to be a part of. 

If you are doing more, or want to be doing more, for girls in sport you can sign up to receive your sticker, certificate and resource pack here.

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