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Improving Early Adolescent Girls’ Motor Skill

A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial


Author Information
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: December 2017 - Volume 49 - Issue 12 - p 2498-2505
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001382


Regular physical activity (PA) is positively associated with a host of physical, psychological, and social outcomes in youth (20). Young people should accumulate at least 60 min of moderate- to vigorous-intensity PA daily (40). However, data suggest that most youth do not meet these guidelines, with approximately 80% of 13- to 15-yr-olds worldwide being insufficiently physically active (15). Furthermore, females are significantly less active than males at all ages, and the most precipitous decline in PA is noted in adolescent girls (11,15).

Several recent reviews have provided evidence for the positive and significant association between fundamental movement skill (FMS) competence and engagement in present and future PA (28,35). FMSs are basic skills and have been described as the building blocks of involvement in PA (13). They are typically classified into object control skills (e.g., catching), locomotor skills (e.g., running), and stability skills (e.g., balancing) (13).

Despite evidence that developing proficiency in FMS has important health implications for young people (35), FMS proficiency of many children and adolescents in Australia and worldwide is low (4,17). In addition, low FMS competency in childhood can track into adolescence (6), with those from disadvantaged backgrounds often demonstrating the lowest levels of skill competency (20). Furthermore, girls exhibit especially low levels of object control proficiency (5). This is of great concern because proficiency in object control skills is positively associated with and predictive of future PA levels (6).

Typically, developing children have the capacity to master all FMSs by the age of 10, if provided with accurate instruction, specific feedback, and ample time to practice (13). Therefore, primary school physical education (PE) should provide the ideal environment to assess, teach, and improve these skills (31). However, many students, especially girls, leave primary school without mastering the critical threshold of FMS necessary for successful participation in PA and the sports-based curriculum typical of secondary school PE (17). Furthermore, skill deficits in girls often remain unidentified in high school PE programs (25,26). Subsequently, remediation instruction may be rare, and opportunities to improve may be limited (12).

Low FMS competency observed among girls may be partially explained by factors such as gender bias in sport, cultural background, socioeconomic status, weight status, and family and community support and opportunity (5), but it may also reflect a failure of the “traditional” approach to PE, in regard to skill improvement (8). The traditional approach to PE is characterized by a dominance of elite-oriented, competitive, and multisport activities and has been subjected to a sustained critique by scholars worldwide, because it fails to address the motivational means to engage girls in PE and develop skills, knowledge, and behaviors to sustain a healthy lifestyle (22). Compounding this, although teachers are aware of the low skill levels displayed by their students and acknowledge the importance of FMS assessment and instruction, they have limited knowledge of how to best teach and assess female students to improve FMS performance (25,26).

In regard to pedagogy, it seems that exclusively directive teaching styles may not be the most advantageous for promoting support and motivation, or achieving affective and cognitive learning outcomes, in regard to skill mastery (21). There continues to be an overreliance on teacher-directed approaches to FMS delivery and a void in the implementation of student-centered approaches that encourage skill mastery, such as a competence motivation theory or a mastery motivational approach (14,26,32). Several FMS interventions using a mastery motivational approach have demonstrated positive outcomes in FMS proficiency (21,39). However, despite adolescent girls being an at-risk group for low FMS, the influence of a mastery motivational climate on skill improvement in this demographic has not yet been investigated.

Accurate identification of skill deficiency is a critical step in the cyclic process of skill improvement (16). Despite the low levels of FMS proficiency in older children, adolescents, and even adults, there is a lack of appropriate FMS assessment available (16). In addition, because of complex protocol and time demands, in both the test administration and analysis, traditional FMS assessment instruments (e.g., TGMD-2) (38) are not ideal for use in settings such as in school PE, largely because of the need of assessing a whole class in a limited time frame. Subsequently, many high school PE teachers resort to using levels of participation, attitude, appropriate clothing, and attendance as criteria for assessing students, rather than movement skill–based criteria to assess, monitor, and advance student learning and performance (25).

Current knowledge on FMS intervention effectiveness in the adolescent population is limited, especially those targeting early adolescent girls. Even more importantly, there is a need for approaches that can be embedded into school curricula. Therefore, the aim of this pilot clustered randomized controlled trial was to (i) evaluate the effectiveness of a PE-based teacher-led intervention on early adolescent girls’ FMS proficiency and (ii) report on the intervention feasibility.



The pilot cluster randomized controlled trial involved four schools randomized at the school level into intervention (two schools, four classes; n = 87 students) or control (two schools, four classes; n = 103). All eligible students completed baseline assessment (i.e., FMS), and follow-up measures were conducted immediately after the intervention (12 wk). The design, conduct, and reporting of the project adhered to the “Consolidation Standards of Reporting Trials” guidelines (37). Deakin University Human Ethics (HEAG-H 96_2015) and the Catholic Education Office (2119-Lander) approved this research.


Two PE classes for year 7 girls (n = 200; mean age, 12.47 ± 0.34) from four all-girls schools (two intervention and two control) in Melbourne, Australia, were invited into the study (Fig. 1). Eight PE teachers (four intervention and four control) were (i) involved in the researcher-led early- and post-FMS testing of their students and (ii) completed the teacher confidence questionnaires (preintervention and postintervention). The intervention teachers were trained (training discussed later) and then observed by the researcher at three time points (program beginning, mid program, program end) in regard to program implementation and fidelity.

Study design and flow of participants through the study with primary and secondary outcome measures.


School principals of all-girls schools in metropolitan Melbourne were contacted via e-mail or telephone, and then face-to-face meetings were arranged. A formal letter of invitation, Plain Language Statement, and consent were sent to the principals, and consenting schools were recruited. Subsequently, year 7 PE teachers and year 7 students were invited to participate. Students were eligible if they were in year 7, able to actively participate in PE, and returned a signed consent form from their parents/guardians.


Randomization by school was performed before teacher training and baseline assessments. The schools were randomly assigned to the intervention or a 3-month wait-list control group (Fig. 1). Randomization also occurred at the class level. Each of the four schools involved in the study had six year 7 PE classes. All teachers in the intervention schools were trained and implemented the intervention with all students; however, only two of the six potential classes at each intervention school were randomly selected for assessment.


The intervention included two main components: (i) teacher training followed by (ii) 12-wk FMS intervention delivered in PE lessons by the trained teacher. The structure and format of the teacher training program were framed by the recommendations identified in a recent systematic review on the characteristics of teacher training in PE-based FMS/PA interventions (24) and successful elements of FMS interventions (32). Specifically, the teacher training was multimodal, contained subject and pedagogy content, included onsite and ongoing consultation, and included satisfaction and fidelity checks.

Teacher training program

The training program was designed to enhance the confidence and competence of the PE teachers in two important pillars of effective teaching of FMS—pedagogy and assessment—and to subsequently create a student-centered, motivating learning environment. The teacher training was conducted at each intervention school in term 4, 2015, and included the following: (i) a 4-h face-to-face interactive workshop/seminar; (ii) written resources (i.e., teacher manuals including protocols and procedures, score sheets, example lesson plans, activity suggestions, and lesson planning and delivery checklists); (iii) three onsite teaching observations, with three accompanying 30-min postobservation consultations per teacher; and (iv) regular teacher-prompted ongoing support (e.g., telephone consultation, e-mail support, and feedback provision in regard to program fidelity).

Teacher training content included the following: (i) the background, context, and importance of FMS assessment and instruction in regard to the girls’ FMS development; (ii) the administration and evaluation procedures of an authentic FMS assessment, suitable for use in PE, namely, the Canadian Agility and Movement Skill Assessment (CAMSA) (29); and (iii) a description, rationale, and in-service around a student-centered approach to teaching FMS, which was framed by using the SAAFE (supportive, active, autonomous, fair and enjoyable) teaching principles (30). The CAMSA is a valid, reliable, and feasible motor skill instrument (25,29). It assesses FMS in a dynamic format that requires students to run a total distance of 20 m while completing seven movement skill tasks: two-footed jumping into and out of three hoops on the ground, sliding from side to side at 3 m, catching a ball and then throwing the ball at a wall target 5 m away, skipping for 5 m, one-footed hopping in and out of six hoops on the ground, and kicking a soccer ball between two cones 5 m away. Performances are evaluated using completion time and reference criteria (i.e., “process” and “product” measures) (29). The SAAFE teaching principles (30) are a student-centered approach to instruction that promote a mastery motivational climate (2). The principles are broadly framed by self-determination theory (9) and competence motivation theory (18). Effective teachers are able to manipulate the SAAFE teaching environmental dimensions (i.e., supportive, active, autonomous, fair, and enjoyable) to foster a mastery motivational climate and subsequently enhance opportunity and desire to learn (30). The combined effect of authentic assessment while providing an environment where the students are optimally motivated to learn may enable the teacher to more accurately identify skill deficiency and proficiency and more effectively meet the learning needs of the girls.

Curriculum program

The intervention involved a 12-wk × 90-min PE program delivered during regular PE sessions by the PE teacher. The teachers (i) administered the CAMSA to each year 7 student in week 2 of term 1, 2016; (ii) analyzed the CAMSA assessment data to provide a baseline level of skill for each student; and (iii) used CAMSA assessment data and SAAFE teaching principles to plan, develop, and deliver subsequent PE lessons targeting FMS across term 1, 2016. The teachers implemented their prescribed curriculum content but were encouraged to use the CAMSA assessment data to identify the baseline level of skill proficiency of their students and adhere to the SAAFE teaching principles, to create an optimal learning environment for skill improvement. The teachers completed the CAMSA again at midpoint of the term (approximately week 6) and at the end of the term (week 12). This was conducted as a cyclic form of assessment “for” learning, where the data were used to monitor both teacher and student progress and to modify or refocus teaching and learning objectives where necessary.

Control (wait-list control group)

The girls in the control group participated in their usual 90-min HPE lesson during the 12-wk intervention period with their regular PE teacher. The units covered during this period included softball, soccer, and athletics. The control group teachers then received the teacher training after the completion of the study period.

Outcome Measures

Primary outcome measure: student FMS proficiency

Students’ actual FMSs were assessed at two time points: baseline, which occurred in week 1, term 1, 2016, and at postintervention, which occurred 12 wk later (Fig. 1). Six FMSs (catch, overhand throw, kick, sprint run, dodge, and vertical jump) were assessed using the Victorian FMS Teachers’ Manual Assessment (10). The battery was selected because the reliability and validity of the skills have been established (10), the instrument has been used in FMS research in school settings in children of similar age (19,34), the skills align to those required in the year 7 PE curriculum and to activities and sports the students are most likely to participate in, and the skills closely align to those measured in the CAMSA.

Each skill is composed of observable behavioral components, which together constitute a mature (i.e., mastered) performance of the skill. Students received a score of “1” if they performed the component correctly and a score of “0” if it was not performed correctly. The students performed two scored trials of each skill, and the components performed correctly were summed to create a total score (i.e., locomotor skill 0–30, object control skill 0–36, total skill 0–66), with a higher score indicating greater proficiency. Students were divided into groups of six and rotated through the six skill stations. Video cameras were used to tape each student’s performance in each skill. The lead researcher analyzed all baseline assessments. A total of 10% of the assessments were randomly selected, and an expert evaluator performed a quality control check of each assessment. Both evaluators assessed the full range of skills and were rated on their ability to agree on the raw total for the skills (sum of the six skills). Agreement was assessed by an intraclass correlation (ICC), and the interrater reliability for the total skills was excellent (ICC, 0.93). To enhance the rigor of the study and to ensure “blindness” to intervention status, the roles of the expert rater and lead researcher were reversed for posttest data analysis, and an excellent interrater agreement was attained (ICC, 0.94).

Demographic measures

Parents/guardians of participating students completed a questionnaire as part of the consent process to obtain demographic details such as student age, cultural background, primary language spoken at home, and parent education. Teacher demographic information such as age, sex, years of teaching experience, and qualifications was obtained from teacher questionnaire 1.

Process Evaluation

The following process evaluation aspects were examined: (i) recruitment and retention, (ii) teacher competence, (iii) teacher program satisfaction, and (iv) fidelity to the SAAFE teaching principles. Recruitment and retention was ascertained via record keeping of recruitment success, teacher attendance at workshops, and student/teacher retention. Teacher competence was ascertained from the teacher competence questionnaire, administered to all teachers (intervention and control) at baseline (before the teacher training sessions and intervention). The second teacher questionnaire was again administered to all teachers (n = 8) at the end of the 12 wk (postintervention). The questionnaire was a modified version of The Primary School PE Questionnaire developed by Morgan and Hansen (33) and was used to collect information on the teachers’ competence, experiences, feelings, and practices when assessing and instructing FMS to year 7 students (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 1, Perceived teacher competence questionnaire, The same set of questions was asked each time, and each question was measured on a 6-point Likert scale (i.e., 1, strongly disagree; 2, disagree; 3, disagree slightly; 4, agree slightly; 5, agree; 6, strongly agree). Teacher satisfaction was assessed by items asking about the provision of training, resources, onsite consultation, and ongoing support. The rating scale responses ranged from 1 to 6 (1, very unsatisfied; 2, somewhat unsatisfied; 3, neither unsatisfied nor satisfied; 4, somewhat satisfied; 5, satisfied; 6, very satisfied). Fidelity to SAAFE teaching principles was determined via direct observation of each intervention teacher on three occasions (early, mid, and late intervention) using the SAAFE teaching checklist (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 2, Adherence to SAAFE teaching principles, Each teaching principle was assessed according to three predefined criteria per principle. For example, the supportive teaching principle is characterized by the following: (i) teacher provides individual skill-specific feedback, (ii) teacher provides feedback on student effort and involvement, and (iii) teacher promotes positive interactions between students. Each criterion is assessed on a 5-point Likert scale (i.e., 1, not at all true; 2, rarely true; 3, sometimes true; 4, often true; 5, very true). Scores for each criterion were accumulated to provide an aggregate score across the three observations, resulting in a potential score range of 3–15 per teaching principle. Teachers were aware that they would be observed on three separate occasions throughout the program; however, in an attempt to ascertain a more authentic observation, they were unaware of the observation date and thus could not plan specifically or differently for observation lessons.

Data Management and Analysis

All quantitative analyses were conducted using the statistical software package SPSS (version 23.0), and statistical significance was set at P = 0.05. Descriptive statistics were used to investigate the student sample characteristics. Differences between groups at baseline were examined using independent-sample t-tests for continuous data (i.e., age, baseline locomotor skill, object control skill, and total skill level) and χ2 tests of independence for categorical data (i.e., primary language (English/other), parent education (secondary/tertiary), and cultural background (Australian/other)). Variables with associations of P < 0.20 with object control or locomotor skill were entered as covariates in the mixed model. The less stringent significance level (P < 0.20) was chosen for variable inclusion in the model because variables may contribute to a regression model in unexpected ways due to the potentially complex inter relationships among the variables (1). Mixed models with posttest skill (i.e., locomotor, object control, and total skill) as the outcome variable, adjusting for baseline skill, intervention and control status, and relevant confounders, as well as accounting for clustering at the school and class level, were used to assess the impact of the intervention on student skill.

As part of the process evaluation, descriptive analysis was used to investigate the teacher competence questionnaires. To determine whether there was a change in scores across the intervention period, questionnaire 1 (preintervention) rankings were subtracted from questionnaire 2 (postintervention) rankings. Ranking score comparisons between the intervention and control groups were made to investigate the change in the teachers’ experiences, perceptions, and practices when teaching and assessing FMS after the intervention.


The characteristics of the student sample at baseline are presented in Table 1. The total student sample with preintervention and postintervention measures was 190 year 7 girls (10 absent at posttest) with a mean age of 12.47 ± 0.34 yr. The cultural background of the sample was largely Australian. The primary language spoken at home was English. More than three-quarters of the sample’s parents had a tertiary education, and the remainder had completed secondary education. All teachers (n = 8) were specialist PE teachers, seven women and 1 man. Their ages ranged from 26 to 58 yr, teacher experience ranged from 2 to 32 yr, six of the teachers had a 4-yr bachelor degree, and two had a 3-y degree (plus 1-y diploma; see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 3, Teacher demographics,

Baseline characteristics of study sample (students).

Intervention Effect on Girls’ FMS

There was no association between groups at baseline for age, primary language spoken, locomotor, object control, and total skill. Because parent education (χ2 = 4.10, P = 0.043) and cultural background (χ2 = 1.90, P = 0.168) showed associations of P < 0.20, they were entered as covariates in the mixed models (1).

Table 2 describes the means and SDs for the primary outcome of skill at baseline and postintervention for the intervention and control groups. At baseline, there was no significant difference in skill level between the intervention and control groups, with the participants generally performing at a “poor” standard. Relative to the control group, there were very large effects sizes noted in the locomotor skill scores (Cohen d = 1.6), a large effect size for object control skill (Cohen d = 0.83), and a very large effect size for total skill (Cohen d = 1.36) (1), all in favor of the intervention group.

Primary outcome measure (student FMS proficiency) at baseline and posttest.

Table 3 presents the intervention effects on students’ skill, when adjusting for all relevant covariates, as well as accounting for clustering and the school and class level. Parent education and cultural background were entered into the model as covariates but were removed because they were nonsignificant. The final models show that at posttest, there were significant intervention effects in locomotor skill (P = 0.04, t = 5.15), object control skill (P < 0.001, t = 11.06), and total skill (P = 0.02, t = 7.22).

Intervention effect on locomotor skill, object control skill, and total skill.

Process Evaluation

Two hundred of the 222 students invited to the study consented, and there was 95% student retention rate. All intervention teachers (n = 4) were retained across the study, and all attended the 4-h training session and all three of the individualized consultation sessions.

The intervention teachers’ feelings, experiences, and competence around teaching and assessing FMS improved across the intervention, whereas the control teachers remained stable. The greatest improvements were noted in the intervention teachers’ perceptions around FMS reporting, program evaluation, and FMS assessment, with an average improvement of approximately 2 points (on the 6-point Likert scale) per survey domain from preintervention to postintervention. Intervention teachers also improved their perceptions of confidence when teaching and assessing FMS (improvement of 1 point on the 6-point Likert scale). Furthermore, there was a decrease in the perceived barriers to effective FMS assessment and instruction noted in the posttest responses of intervention teachers in comparison to posttest results of the control teachers.

All teachers were satisfied or very satisfied with the 4-h training workshop and with the amount and quality of resources provided. All teachers were very satisfied with the onsite/ongoing consultation.

Fidelity to SAAFE teaching principles

In all SAAFE teaching principles, there was an upward trend observed from the first to third observation point. It seems that most of this change was accounted for between observations 2 and 3, which occurred after two observations and feedback in regard to the teachers’ fidelity to SAAFE teaching, and two 30-min individualized consultations. At baseline observations, the teachers generally displayed a moderate level of fidelity to the teaching principles (“sometimes true”), with the greatest baseline fidelity observed in the supportive principle (see Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 4, Adherence to the supportive teaching principle, and least fidelity to the autonomous principle (see Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 5, Adherence to the active teaching principle, At observation 3 (end program), the adherence had improved in each of the principles, generally rating one or two categories above for each principle, rating predominantly in the highest two categories (“true” or “very true”). Despite this improvement, the teachers’ adherence to the autonomous principle still remained below all others. See the following:


The aim of this pilot cluster randomized controlled trial was to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher-delivered intervention to improve early adolescent girls’ FMS proficiency and to report on the feasibility of the intervention. The PE-based FMS intervention resulted in significant improvements and large effect sizes in locomotor skills, object control skills, and total skill competency among girls in the intervention group compared with the control group. The teachers were satisfied with all aspects of the intervention program and demonstrated high levels of adherence. Importantly, the intervention teachers’ feelings, experiences, and competence around teaching and assessing FMS improved.

The positive findings of the intervention are congruent with findings from recent reviews demonstrating that interventions can improve FMS competence in both children and adolescents (23,27,32). The current intervention effect was large and similar to that presented in a meta-analysis of FMS interventions conducted by Morgan and colleagues (32). However, all but one of the interventions presented in the review targeted children, not adolescents. The only study in that review to have targeted adolescents’ (boys and girls) FMS (21) demonstrated a small effect size in total skill (Cohen d = 0.06). The present study clearly demonstrates the capacity for skill improvement to occur in older children and adolescence, when the provision of instruction and assessment is optimal.

In the current study, a large effect size was found for object control skills. This is an important finding because a recent systematic review identified that girls perform more poorly in object control skills compared with boys (5), despite object control skill being a predictor for adolescent PA engagement (35). The only other study, to our knowledge, to have specifically targeted girls’ FMS focused on younger children (year 3) (3), and although there was a large effect size noted, the risk of bias for that study was high (32).

The use of the CAMSA (29) as assessment for learning was a central focus of this intervention and may be considered a key component that could assist in embedding the program into curricula. According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education’s National Standard for Physical Education (36), assessment plays an important role in motor skill instruction. Meaningful assessment is more than observation; it requires teachers to possess the skills and knowledge to design lessons in accordance with existing abilities and to provide appropriate feedback for all learners with formative assessments to promote and advance proficiency (36). In the current study, training in, and implementation of the CAMSA, allowed the teachers to more authentically identify the baseline level of skill of the year 7 students. The findings of this study support integrating the CAMSA as a form of assessment for learning into school-based FMS interventions. Therefore, this instrument may be an alternative to the more traditional forms of FMS assessment used in school settings.

This study has demonstrated that quality instruction is of utmost importance in improving FMS competence (13). Adherence to the SAAFE teaching principles created a mastery climate (2). These findings are congruent with other school-based interventions implementing a mastery climate (39) and align with recent studies implementing the SAAFE teaching principles (7). Therefore, strategies such as the SAAFE teaching principles, which operationalize optimal environmental conditions, are strongly encouraged in future school-based FMS interventions, especially those targeting girls.

The positive results of this study demonstrated that a high-quality teacher training program has the potential to enhance teacher knowledge, competence, and skills in FMS assessment and instruction and, importantly, improve the FMS proficiency of early adolescent girls. The fact that this intervention was integrated into the school’s regular curriculum and was teacher led may enhance the potential for program sustainability (30). In addition, the ongoing teacher engagement and measurement of teacher satisfaction and fidelity were used to encourage teacher collaboration, engagement, and ownership, and thus compliance with the program (24). Therefore, comprehensive teacher training, framed by evidenced-based recommendations, should be seen as critical component of future school-based FMS interventions to enhance the potential for sustainability.

Strengths and limitations

To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the effects of a teacher-delivered, PE-based intervention on the FMS proficiency of adolescent girls. The strengths of this study are the cluster randomized controlled trial design, the objective assessment of FMS, the very high level (95%) of retention in the student sample, and the monitoring of intervention compliance/fidelity. The generalizability of the findings may be limited due to the relatively homogenous, girls-only sample; the low proportion of schools who accepted to participate; and the small number of teachers involved in the study. Therefore, future research may seek to investigate the effectiveness of the intervention in boys and larger, diverse samples of both students, teachers, and schools. Future research is also recommended to investigate the maintenance effects of the program.


The teacher-led, PE-based FMS intervention focusing on teacher training in authentic assessment and student-centered instruction resulted in significant intervention effects on girls’ FMS competency. The intervention also had a positive effect on the perceptions, confidence, and feelings of the teachers in regard to FMS assessment and instruction. The findings clearly demonstrate that a carefully designed program can be implemented successfully by teachers and can significantly improve FMS in early adolescent girls, potentially increasing the PA opportunities available to them.

L. B. is supported by an Alfred Deakin Fellowship. J. S. is supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council principal research fellowship (APP1026216). This research was supported by the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (graduate student research grant) and Sports Medicine Australia Research Foundation (graduate student research grant).

The authors do not have any professional relationships with companies or manufacturers who will benefit from the results of the present research. The results of the present study do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine. The results of the study are presented clearly, honestly, and without fabrication, falsification, or inappropriate data manipulation.


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