George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Making PE More Enjoyable for Students With Physical Disabilities

For many of these students, physical education activities can be difficult. Personalized stories that cast them as their favorite hero may motivate them to persevere.

November 15, 2021
Portrait of student with disability in physical education class
FG Trade / iStock

It is 11:28 a.m. on a Friday, and I (Nicole) walk into a second-grade classroom and tap Evan on the shoulder. Evan, who typically dislikes physical activity because he easily fatigues, lights up when he sees me.

“Are we doing a ninja adventure in adapted PE today?” he asks.

He skips and hops with excitement to the gym, where I have set up an obstacle course and placed a ninja adventure story on the floor nearby. Evan grabs the book and lies on the yoga mat, ready to begin. I’ve been working with Evan for months, and his willingness to get started is a major accomplishment.

Personalized Physical Education

For many of my students with disabilities, completing tasks that require movement, strength, or endurance can be difficult and overwhelming. Many have low muscle tone or other mobility-related challenges. I’ve found that the best way to get them to engage in physical activity is to use a set of characters they love—most often from a movie or TV show—and design a book featuring these characters. So far, I’ve created books featuring Super Mario, Marvel, PJ Masks, Toy Story, Lego Ninjago, and Sonic characters.

At the beginning of the year, I play an interview-style game with each student to learn about their preferences and the types of characters and activities that are most motivating for them. This helps me to engage with each student about a topic they love, build rapport, and make our sessions more enjoyable.

Each book I create includes up to 10 physical education tasks (one per page). Each page includes a picture of the character, a brief narrative, and related physical activity. For example, a character might need an escape route, so the page might direct a student to walk across the balance beam four times to help the character escape.

Every page includes a large number to indicate the number of each step the student is on (for example, a “4” to designate the fourth task, so that students understand how much longer they need to work) and a simple Boardmaker picture of the activity (for example, a stick figure on a balance beam). This helps ensure that the most important information on each page is accessible to students of all abilities, whether I read the narrative to them or they do.

The tasks I choose for each book are determined by each student’s individualized education program (IEP) goals. For example, a goal might be: “Using a narrow base of support (feet close together), Evan will demonstrate the ability to remain balanced while engaged in dynamic movement exercises in four out of five opportunities.” To improve Evan’s dynamic balance skills, we might start by working on balancing on a line on the floor, then move to a balance beam that is a few inches off the floor, then to a balance beam that is a few feet off the floor.

When Evan demonstrates some control over his balance at each stage, I might introduce skills such as bending over and picking up a beanbag every few steps without falling off the beam or catching a ball that is thrown. These skills can be easily tied into our stories, which helps make the skills feel less repetitive to the students as they are learning and mastering each one.

For each student I see once a week, like Evan, I create a new storybook for each session. While it’s a lot of work, I can easily edit the skills we are working on at the bottom of the page so that I can use the books with other students too. In each session, students are excited to see what the characters are going to do and are active participants in their learning.

Benefits of This Strategy

These books have a positive effect on my students. First, the consistency and predictability of using the stories each week eliminated many of the behavioral issues some of my students exhibit in other classrooms. The books provide a routine that is highly engaging and reduces student frustration. In particular, the predictable structure reduces cognitive load, which is particularly important for my students who have other disabilities that tax their working memories. Students feel safe and supported and behave with increased levels of calm and enthusiasm.

In addition, students make strides in their physical abilities and confidence. The stories provide them with opportunities to practice agency by communicating that their physical efforts are important and even necessary—they are helping to save the day as the hero. As a result, students work harder at physical tasks they otherwise avoid or refuse. Consequently, I can set farther-reaching IEP goals for students’ motor skills and meet their IEP goals more fully. In addition, students gain more confidence in their abilities as they improve. When they join their peers in general physical education classes, I see a difference in their performance and confidence.

As a bonus, I see my students being more open and receptive to creating meaningful relationships with their peers during their general PE class. Despite the research on inclusive education, many disabled students who receive special education services spend most of their academic time outside of the general education classroom, so it’s difficult to make friends with their peers and have appropriate social experiences. When they’re included in the general PE classes, my students find peers with whom they want to connect, and my bond with my students allows me to facilitate my true goal as an adapted PE teacher: making schools inclusive for students with disabilities.

I spend my school year watching my fair share of children’s TV shows, but it pays off when I can chat with my students about the characters they love, watch a student proudly walk a balance beam unassisted, or cheer on a student’s enthusiastic participation in a game of basketball with their peers. 

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Physical Education
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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