Gym programme gets students pumped for school

Issue: Volume 101, Number 16

Posted: 7 December 2022
Reference #: 1HAYUN

A school in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland has trialled a robust gym programme for a group of physically active ākonga to prioritise wellbeing and re-engage them in learning.

Year 10 student, Elroy is helped by Levi Jenkinson, while fellow students and Jamie Gresham (left) look on.

Year 10 student, Elroy is helped by Levi Jenkinson, while fellow students and Jamie Gresham (left) look on.

Deputy principal at Albany Junior High School (AJHS) Demian Shaver and teacher Jamie Gresham have selected a diverse group of about 20 students to take part in a programme designed to re-engage them with school.

“We discussed the opportunity with the students and told them it was something new, innovative and how lucky they were to get this chance,” explains Demian.

“After a time, some parents also came along to watch the sessions, hearing that their students were enjoying it and engaging. Having some common ground like this can be game changing for these students and parents alike,” he adds.

The AJHS team explains how the programme came about and what has made it successful.

Consistency in an inconsistent world

Demian Shaver, a deputy principal

In 2020 after our first lockdown, our students started returning to Albany Junior High School. 

Like all of Aotearoa, we saw change: signs were placed outside local parks for children saying “closed”, local community backboards and rims were removed so people couldn’t play basketball, local community sport was cancelled. All communication came through a screen, there was little to no new human interactions.  

The change was very evident from the start: once loud bustling atriums at school were quiet, students were nervous around each other. Parents were nervous about their children coming to school for the first time since the outbreak and anxiety was at an all-time high.

With anxiety and stress, came behavioural cracks. Students took part in risky activities, reacted badly or extremely to occurrences which were once laughed at, and brought inappropriate behaviours more frequently to school. It was as if students were in a constant state of high emotion, spilling over at each ripple.

One group of students whom we believed suffered the most, were the physically active learners. Without sport, students who may never be on a school’s radar, started showing signs of being at risk behaviourally. 

Coming out of lockdown, I was fortunate to get a chance to try out a new gym, 808, where the workouts push you out of your comfort zone and may seem unachievable, but when you are engaged in them, time and the noise in the head disappears, endorphins are released and at the end of each class you feel successful.  

At one school meeting Gemma Woods (the SENCo at AJHS) and I looked at each other and said what about 808? Going back and forth, discussing positives and negatives we all agreed: Let’s do it! 

Support and engagement

Gemma Woods, SENCo

We started with 20 students coming from a range of ethnicities, attendance rates and learning concerns. Their school attendance rates varied from 52 percent to 93 percent. 

These were the students who we repeatedly discussed in guidance meetings, at staff briefings and there were shared concerns for day-to-day interactions. These were the students that you always thought “there’s got to be another way to engage and support them”.

Teamwork required

Levi Jenkinson, personal trainer

In January 2021 I had an opportunity to create a programme to help motivate a group of students from Albany Junior High School. The programme would be based on helping them achieve better results and higher attendance at school, along with building their self-belief and teamwork skills. 

During that first session I realised that they didn’t know what they were fully capable of. We started off with simple and basic movements: the workout was designed to push them, so they felt slightly uncomfortable. Throughout this workout I saw a lot of the students giving up. Their efforts dropped quickly, and it took a lot of motivation to keep them going.

It was also noticeable that they were only focused on what they were doing and no one else. One part of the workout required them to stay in a squat hold and if anyone stood up everyone had to start again. We had to start again a few times as there was no support or teamwork.

Fast forward to today and the difference is massive. All the students have realised that working together and pushing each other helps them get through any workout. 

They also have a much better understanding of what they are capable of and what they can achieve. Every workout gets done with no complaints and with 100 percent effort.

It really has been amazing to see the growth of these students and hear they are doing so much better in their schooling. You can see a boost in their confidence when they come in. Their respect for the gym, each other and staff members including myself as their coach is now visible and it’s fair to say that these students have created their own community within the gym.

Powerful discussions

Jamie Gresham, teacher/mentor

From this experience I have learned that this programme isn’t just about what happens at the gym, it’s also about what happens on the way to the gym. There are powerful discussions: we talk about personal hobbies, weekend plans and their long-term ambitions outside of school. 

Running this programme on a Friday lent itself to easy conversation starters like “what are you doing this weekend?” and, “how has your week been?” I have found these simple questions open the flood gates, and before we know it, we have made it to our destination with a slightly tighter bond than the week before. 

I’ve seen such a difference in students throughout this whole experience. It started with students who barely knew each other, just working quietly, individually on their tasks. Now, there is a cohesion and a shared understanding that to get the mahi done, they must work together. 

Significant impacts

Demian says that the programme has had a significant impact in many areas including improved attendance, better nutrition habits, positive mindsets and collaboration in the classroom.

“Firstly, it brought relational trust to everyone. When not at 808, students felt more comfortable coming to a staff member during school time and asking for help or discussing personal circumstances.

“As a deputy principal, that is enormous when it comes to dealing with pastoral issues. Tough workouts led to students having to learn more about nutrition. Some of the students started eating better, drinking more water and joining local gyms. This started to create positive mind-sets and friendly competition with one another in a collaborative way. 

“The proud moments though, are when you start to see the support happening between one another when they are struggling. Students learning to support one another at the gym was one thing, but seeing them supporting each other in the school setting was remarkable.

“We saw some drastic changes in students, where they made completely different decisions than they otherwise would have made a few months earlier,” he concludes.

Student kōrero

Elroy does some heavy lifting.

Elroy does some heavy lifting.

How did you feel when returning to school after lockdown, and do you know why you felt like this?

  • It felt really good returning to school after Covid. I found online learning hard, and it was annoying for me. The main reason I looked forward to coming back to school was to see my friends.
  • To be honest, it felt crazy to come back to school at first.
    It was great to see all of my friends.
  •  When I came back to school, I was really nervous. It took some time for me to get my confidence again. I don’t know why I felt this way.
  •  As soon as I arrived back at school, I felt cramped up. I was full of energy and online learning was really hard and frustrating for me.

How did the gym programme help you to re-engage with school?

  • The programme helped me like school again. It was something I could look forward to. It always makes me want to do my best. It helps me focus and try harder. With me having ADHD, it helps me release so much energy. I enjoy doing it with my teachers too! It makes me want to work way harder.
  • It has helped me lots. Whenever I do it, I feel calm and happy. It is such a good distraction for me and it takes my mind off other things.
  • School for me is very difficult. There are so many expectations that people have for us and there always seems to be drama around.
    The programme was like a confidence boost for me. It started helping me with my anger. I could just start to let go and suddenly there would be nothing on my mind.
  • The programme helped me re-engage with school. It gave me something to look forward to every week. It also helped me release a little bit of anger and made me less stressed. Since the programme I have now joined a gym and work out in the mornings as well. This has really helped me.

How do you feel about school now?

  • I like school more for many reasons. Working out has helped me make friends, and I have better relationships with my teachers. 
    It has also really helped me with my emotions. I forget about being angry or sad when I am at the gym. It just seems to make me forget about those things.
  • I love school but at times there is just too much drama. The programme just brings happiness without any drama. It is my happy place.
  • It has helped me with focus. It taught me that I could trust teachers and be myself, and that people would help me. 
  • I enjoy school more. It has really helped my mental wellbeing. 
    It seems to make me more organised in my school work and I know
    I have some people, including teachers, I can trust.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:46 pm, 7 December 2022

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