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

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