Physical Activity, Learning and Dyslexia: What's Important To Know.

Before I really get into this topic, let me make a confession to you.  I am not a fan of competitive sports.  I dreaded physical education at school and I am simply not competitive, at least not on a sporty level.

Why am I saying this?  Well, I want you to know that doing sports at school, generally, wasn’t fun for me.  Competing against others in this context just made me lose motivation as so many of my peers were really good at being sporty.  Over the years though, I have discovered that I am a huge advocate for movement and physical exercise and it’s role in helping us to learn, think and concentrate.

It is really interesting to discover, however, that I love cycling, swimming and enjoy skiing and I love walking across fields in the countryside.  I really enjoy walking around cities and taking in the sights, sounds and smells.  I find that when I am doing these activities, whilst I am being physical, it is like it gives my brain an opportunity to relax and ideas pop out of my head, probably because I have not stressed about trying to have creative ideas.  I relax and the creativity comes along. 

For me at least, it is the competitive side of sports that made me not enjoy sports ( I know that this sounds daft when so many sports are competitive) and thus not engage in those activities wholeheartedly.  Take away that competitive element then I love using mechanisms of sport (such as cycling, swimming etc) to enjoy the wider world, to learn and engage with life.

This blog article is going to explore what benefits physical activity will bring to students and look more closely about how this is even more pertinent to the lives of students with dyslexia or other SEN.

What does physical activity in school give any pupil?

In 2015, The Guardian article ‘Fit For Learning:What research says about the benefits of sport’, it was stated that research shows that one in three children learning primary education are obese and that this has been a driver for a push in schools to elevate physical education to the same status as maths, English and science.  
Research from the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee also found that intensive exercise boosted the performance of teenagers in English, maths and science too.

The Fit For Schools initiative claims that by increasing physical activity in school at primary school ages increases average overall school engagement by 24%.  This is born out in the Guardian article citing the Oasis Academy Blackendale who introduced the Fit For Schools programme to their pupils.  They state that the KS1 results improved dramatically as a result of the programme.
So it would not be a surprise, I suspect, to many of us to realise the benefits of positive physical activity in school but how does it benefit a child with dyslexia?  

A view from a school.

I spoke with Dan Lycett who is Head of Physical Education at mainstream independent school, St David’s College, about this topic.

Dan told me that physical education (PE) in any school is varied in how it is delivered and 
Dan Lycett - Head of PE, St David's College

the reasoning behind the activities themselves.

St David’s College approach to PE is inclusive of all students involved, encouraging them to measure themselves by their own progression not by the standards of others.

St David's implement the games lessons by creating groups that work on their specific skill sets, encouraging this through modified games and differentiated drills.
The link between PE and self-esteem cannot be underestimated, the drop-off and no participation of dyspraxic children, is well documented and through challenging students in a supportive environment St David's are able to see real tangible progress in students.
This has lead students not only to take a full and active part in PE lessons but for them to explore a myriad of sports and activities that would possibly feel prohibitory and out of their perceived reach.
St David’s has also set out a study for next year which will see functional movement classes in KS3 whilst tracking the child’s progress and their own perceived improvement and self-esteem. 

"Students measure themselves by their own progression not by the standards of others."

The results from this should support the belief that PE should be driven by the child’s own journey and that simple interventions can have huge impacts on the child’s engagement and their lifelong participation in sport and ultimately a healthier life.

St David's see year on year how that the delivery of sport in caring and self-paced ways, pays dividends.

Students that arrive withdrawn, loathing PE become rugby players, Fell Runners, Swimmers, gym goers and Tennis Players, immersed in the enjoyment of the game measured only by their own progress.

Sport and PE is not the preserve of the Elite but the springboard for all into a healthy, active and happy life and it is not just a bolt on to an academic curriculum, but essential to the holistic development of the child. 

Dan believes that physical activity in St David's academic environment is essential in empowering students to have the freedom to flourish.

Dan will be publishing his study as well as a series of supporting material in the next year to co-inside with the findings of St David's study into functional movement intervention and dyspraxia. This will give all practitioners an insight into the benefits and mechanics of how best to support students with movement issues.

Why is this important for kids with Dyslexia?

In the limited research that I have conducted for this article.  I am in no doubt that physical education and activity within education is essential to the success of young people academically but also to their health and wellbeing.

If our young people are not feeling healthy and are not achieving good levels of movement throughout the week then I believe that this has a knock on effect in terms of mental health.

If we take the famous American psychologist, Abraham Maslow's, hierarchy of needs into account, for our children to be at their best they need their physiological needs and needs surrounding belonging and safety to be in place before they can progress to fulfilling needs associated self-esteem and unlocking potential (self-actualisation).

With thanks to
With a dyslexic child, there are already issues of self-esteem for many when their dyslexia is not supported effectively. With dyslexia being a language disorder we have to understand that this affects auditory processing and working memory and we have to be able to give our young people opportunities to strengthen those skills with perhaps the aid of kinaesthetic learning.  It is in the area of movement and physical exercise that this can be worked on effectively as a child gets to learn more about how their body moves, how they feel about their bodies and their relationships with their peers.

Whilst I started this article saying that as a child I struggled to enjoy PE, in my adult life I know that I am using interpersonal skills to conduct my everyday activities that have been aided in their development through my experiences in physical education at school.  I know that despite some of the educational challenges that I had at school, it was my relationship building skills that helped pull me through and be successful in later life.  
These are skills that are not only a strength for me, but they would have been honed whilst being active with peers in education.

At the very least for a dyslexic child, physical activity with peers is an opportunity to demonstrate strengths that perhaps can’t be assessed by exam, but the realisation of those strengths can help to build up self-esteem and valuable relationships that can be with us long into our adulthood enabling those young people to be the success that they want to be.

I would like to give my thanks to Tim Hall at St David's College for sharing his thoughts and practises at St David's and would encourage you to click the banner below if you are a SENCO looking for ways to support your dyslexic students and download the free e-book that has been written by the SENCO team at St David's.