A socio-ecological approach to understanding adolescent girls' engagement and experiences in the PE environment: a case study design

Fiona Mitchell, Jo Inchley, Jo Fleming, Candace Currie

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Adolescence is known to be a period of increased risk for the development of
unhealthy behaviours such as physical inactivity (Currie et al., 2011). Low
physical activity (PA) levels are especially noted in girls, who typically engage in
less PA than boys throughout the teenage years (Whitehead and Biddle 2008).
In Scotland, evidence suggests there is a significant decline in PA among
adolescent girls, with only 41% of 13−15 year olds achieving the current
recommendations, compared with 56% of 11−12 year olds (Scottish Executive,
2011). In addition, a proportion of girls are not engaging with school PE classes
(Niven et al., 2014; Kirby et al., 2012). In order to understand more about how
and why this decline exists, a sample of 20 ‘disengaged’ 12−13-year-old girls
(second year of secondary school) were recruited from four case study schools
in Scotland. This study aims to explore the interaction between the social and
physical environment, and how these affect disengaged girls’ experiences and
engagement in PE. Girls were categorised as ‘disengaged’ from PE if they did
not participate regularly and reported negative emotions about the subject. Girls
took part in in-depth interviews to explore their experiences and engagement in
PE. The theoretical framework is based on Welks (1999) Youth Physical Activity
Promotion model (YPAP), a socio-ecological approach which conceptualises
the influential correlates of PA as: individual-level predisposing and enabling
factors, including personal attributes and environmental variables and
reinforcing (social) factors. This model was applied within a Scottish education
context to understand the importance of each component and also the
interaction between these and the influence that one may have on another. The
results indicate that although the type of activity offered in PE is important, it
appears that perceptions of competence and the social environment these were
delivered in, such as single-sex classes, had more of an influence on girls’
engagement in PE. For this group of Scottish adolescent girls, the wider
psychosocial environment in which PE takes place may have a greater impact
on levels of enjoyment and participation than the PA itself.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-62
JournalGraduate Journal of Sport, Exercise and Physical Education Research
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Adolescent girls
  • Physical education
  • Physical activity
  • YPAP model


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