A helping hand for the quiet ones: Pyramid clubs are giving shy children an after-school lifeline

The clubs help anxious and awkward children make friends and communicate.

Everyone knows about behaviour problems in school. Children with behaviour problems are loud, rude, angry and disruptive. But what about the other children whose behaviour is a worry? Children who are shy, anxious and find it hard to make friends?

There are many more such children in schools than their disruptive peers, but their needs are often overlooked because such children don't cause problems to their classmates, only to themselves.

Yet these problems are serious. Children who can't contribute in class, make a friend, or navigate the rough and tumble of the school day often fail to thrive and learn, and this pattern intensifies as they go on to secondary school, leaving them vulnerable to dropping out, falling behind, or taking up with the wrong kind of friends.

However, for more than 30 years a short and inexpensive early intervention has been helping awkward, timid children overcome their difficulties. Pyramid clubs offer 10 weeks of carefully structured therapeutic group activities that encourage children to gain confidence and manage their thoughts and emotions. Clubs run for an hour and a half once a week after school, and work with children showing the first signs of problems. Research from the University of West London, published in the spring, shows that the clubs have a positive and lasting effect.

The study, reported in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, took 385 seven- and eight-year-olds, from seven schools in Ealing and Manchester, screened them for social and economic difficulties, then allocated them to a pyramid club or to the control group. Three months later teachers screened the children for emotional skills, the ability to get on with their peers, and good social behaviour. Across the board, Pyramid graduates had not only made good personal progress, but had also made greater gains than the children who had not been given any support.

But Charlotte, one of eight Year Three pupils attending the pyramid club running this term at Parlaunt Park School, Slough, doesn't know anything about that. What she does know is that there are visitors in the room that she hasn't seen before, and that the snack that the school kitchen has provided for the club is something she doesn't like. It is all too much. She pulls her hair across her face, pushes her head into her hands and cries.

Other club members are equally withdrawn. The initial snack-time session is hard work for the helpers as they try to get them to talk about something interesting they've done since the last club session. Cody, a blond boy with earrings, says he played in the garden and bumped his head. Janat, a shy Asian girl, whispers that she played in the garden and played on her keyboard. Ben peers through his glasses and says he helped his mum and his sister.

Next everyone gathers around for a game where, with a mask on their face, someone has to act out a feeling, while the others guess what it is. The group warms up, and quickly guesses "proud", "excited", "bored" and "frightened".

"How do you know how people are feeling?" says Paula Fearon, a welfare worker at the school who has been running pyramid clubs for 15 years. "If you can see their face, you can see that they're smiling, but what happens when you can't see their face? That's right. You have to guess from what they are doing with their body. If someone's sad, they might have their shoulders down and be dragging their feet."

"If they're sad, you can ask them what's the matter and cheer them up," volunteers Matthew. "And if they've got no one to play with," says Cody, "you can be their friend."

After that the children make kebabs of fresh fruit to take home, and are so relaxed and busy that they happily chat about their families and about that evening's school variety show. Then they are allowed 10 minutes to play outside on the grass. Independent of any helpers, they organise a game of grandmother's footsteps, and, at the end of it, rush back in and cram and hide under one of the classroom tables. Flushed and laughing, they are completely transformed from the shy children of an hour earlier.

During the final round-table session, each child takes a turn to hold Homer, the club's soft-toy mascot, and say what they like most about Pyramid club. They come up with running, drawing, hiding and making things. "Everything!" says Jake, beaming through his freckles.

The children's difficulties are not dwelt on. Paula Fearon says Matthew has had a stroke, which has left him with speech problems, Ben might have some special needs, Abhay is new to the school and Janat is just very quiet.

What she does know is that Pyramid clubs work. "There was one girl we had, the teacher said she didn't even know she had a Welsh accent until she came here. She'd never spoken before. And we've had about three children who were originally in Pyramid volunteering themselves as mentors for younger children in our peer mentoring scheme." Teachers often collar her to complain that children who've been through her hands "are being naughty now" – a definite sign of success.

And the school head, Tara Moran, who describes the cost of the programme as "peanuts" compared to its enormous benefits, says one parent of a Year Six child told her that her child's pyramid club experience, three years earlier, had been "the best thing about the whole school".

"Pyramid clubs run on a very clear model, which is all set down in a manual that people follow," says Bronach Hughes, emotional health and well-being co-ordinator with ContinYou, the education charity that administers Pyramid clubs nationally. "If they implement the model, they get results." However, much of the therapeutic work goes on almost unnoticed in side conversations around group activities. "Food always plays a big part – both making and sharing," says Hughes.

Pyramid clubs can throw up problems that normal school has not uncovered. "In one club they found that three of the children had lost a sibling. One girl talked about visiting her sister's grave, another had a twin who had died, and one had suffered the death of a teenage brother. All these children had unresolved bereavement issues, yet the school had no idea." But busy schools, she points out, rarely have the time for relaxed conversations, and if a child isn't able to ask for help, no one will know the problems are there.

ContinYou supports and trains club leaders and volunteers. For £9,000 (plus VAT) a cluster of 10 schools gets training, materials, networking meetings and help for a year. Continuing support costs £1,700 (plus VAT) a year per school.

The Pyramid model was developed in the 1970s by a social worker, Kay FitzHerbert, who was struck by the lack of help available to struggling pupils who did not have special needs, or who weren't disruptive in class. Programmes are now available for three different age groups, through primary school and into early secondary school.

Clubs run in more than 40 areas of the country, and the new research adds to previous studies which have shown that pyramid clubs improve children's self-esteem, help them with friendships and relationships with adults, improve their coping and problem-solving skills, and help them do better in class thanks to reduced anxiety and better participation.

Hilary Wilce is an education writer, personal development coach and a trustee of ContinYou

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

**Science Teacher Urgently Required for September**

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Science Teacher Urgently ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?