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Teaching Personal/Social Management Skills in Physical Education

Harvey Zahn

Physical Education teacher, faculty advisor and author.
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In physical education, curricular requirements such as fitness development, motor skills and health knowledge must be pursued with vigor. But after my 38 years in the field, let me state the obvious. All teachers, specialists included, should consider their subject matter as secondary to teaching children. This primary mission occurs when we prioritize two goals:

  1. Building a sound relationship between teacher and student
  2. Guiding the student in the study of personal/social management skills (PSMS)

When students acquire PSMS, they are more likely to succeed academically, in play and in work. In the following section, I outline some PSMS strategies.

Time and Teacher Health

Every day, specialists are faced with students coming and going for short periods. It can be a struggle to find time for:

  • Catching a breath and reflecting during a lesson
  • Building a relationship with students
  • Writing some notes (see below)
  • Privately guiding individuals towards self-reflection and PSMS development

Two ways to create opportunities to facilitate the above in a PE environment include Green Time and Fun Fabulous Friday (FFF).

Green Time (Free Choice)

After students enter the gym and change into their active clothes, give them 5-7 minutes to choose among many activities: badminton, rope skip, basketball, wall climb, etc. During this time, make specific notes about individuals in the previous class, and then review notes made yesterday in order to provide feedback that is sincere, personalized and helpful about incidents that occurred. The Green Time allows you to discuss problems with a less emotional mindset. The conversation consists of just acknowledging an issue and a specific suggestion about how to handle it going forward. All discussions must be held in a nonthreatening, inviting mode. Over days, weeks and years, such communication develops healthy relationships and specific PSMS.

For a student who plays too aggressively, alienating his or her peers, begin with inviting or leading questions in private, such as:

  • "I called you in because I would like to help you with . . ."
  • "How are you today? Yesterday, you might remember that there was a problem with . . ."
  • "Have you thought of trying . . . ?"

Watching others at play with the aggressive student is an excellent modeling strategy or opportunity. "Do you see anyone who is having fun? What are they doing? How are they behaving? Would it be fun to play like that? Would you like to try playing like that? What would you have to do in order to play like that?" The student observes other players while considering the set of questions posed. Afterward, send him or her out to practice whatever surfaced during the discussion.

Fun Fabulous Friday (FFF)

Every two weeks, provide students with a multitude of activity choices that include everything an educator can bring into the teaching environment. These might include: climbing frame, table tennis, various active electronic devices, dance station, etc. FFF activities give you a more extended opportunity to continue the strategies noted above. More detailed PSMS development ensues. Some astute readers might imagine that students could take an affront at missing a chance to participate fully in FFF or Green Time. However, you need to spend only a short time with each student. When he or she returns to play, call another student over for a conference. As you develop a relationship with the student and he or she gains insights about how to interact more successfully, these conversations are enjoyable for both parties.

During FFFs, you have an opportunity to conduct a short roleplaying scenario either privately with the student or including another classmate. To promote tone awareness, give examples of how saying the same thing in different ways affects how one is received. After roleplaying, send the student out to participate in the FFF for a short time, and then call him or her back after a while to review how well the suggestions worked. This type of guided practice helps students absorb the lessons of PSMS development.

Students' PSMS development takes time and practice, as I discuss in my book, Teaching Elementary Physical Education in the Calm Zone. The teacher's notations about student behaviors are scientific and sometimes even bureaucratic, yet success comes only with detailed observation and a human touch.

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Harvey Zahn

Physical Education teacher, faculty advisor and author.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

If you were a television reporter with nothing better to do than to go up to people on the street and ask people on the street their opinions on monumental world events I'll bet this is what some dumb hick would say to this question ... Do you think a little seventy pound kid could thoroughly disrupt and discombobulate a P.E. class where kids were actually encouraged to scream and yell and run around?

The dumb hick and any other sensible person would say ... But you're not talking about a kid named Bugs.

Coach Hank asked me to substitute this week in his P.E. class for reasons unknown to me other than Coach Hank knows I don't have a class when he teaches P.E. to Bugs and the rest of his pals.

Before the class I went out to my truck and got my coach's whistle. In small independent schools a teacher has to sometimes wear many hats.

It is hard to put into words how Bugs can disrupt a P.E. class in a huge gym with large amounts of elbow room, and even if I had filmed the event you still wouldn't believe it. I was constantly blowing the whistle at Bugs. He really must love sharp, loud noises. I know I did.

Anyhow, later in the day I was so messed up by the monumental world event that I asked one of Bugs' teachers if the school had Bugs on a behavior-modification plan.

She looked at me with a goofy expression on her face as if I were crazy. Then she said ... He's okay when he's interested in the subject.

I looked back at her with my goofiest expression.

I have a thought, now. Disband our army, navy, coast guard, marines, and air force and just send Bugs to areas of conflict around the world. Just Bugs, and let him do his thing. There will be peace on Earth. And then we can charge great sums for the rental of Bugs to other countries. That is my thought.

On Friday all the kids in the school went on the annual one-day rafting trip to North Carolina. I was asked to stay back and help Miss Velvet with the non-outdoorsy types. Miss Velvet doesn't like to fall out of rafts into cold river water either. After they all bugged out I saw that somebody had left on the table in the lobby of the school a list of the mind and behavior-altering drugs the students took. I was pretty sure this list should have made the rafting trip, too. It's got a drug dispensing schedule on it that I'm sure would be real helpful to everyone's enjoyment, or not, of the annual school rafting trip.

I looked down the list of students. There are some mighty powerful drugs at work in most of them. Sometimes two drugs.

I got to Bugs. Next to his name it said ... VITAMINS.

Khadijah Haywood's picture
Khadijah Haywood
7th grade Language Arts

This blog is helpful for teachers who teach core content subjects as well. It is important teachers need to reflect and catch a breath. I think about the days I just need to use the restroom. Sometimes you need the break in order to regroup.

Linda Kardamis's picture
Linda Kardamis
middle school math teacher in Ohio - I blog at

Great thoughts! I would add that when you ask questions wait patiently for the student to respond..... and try to get to the heart of the more complex issues -

Harvey Zahn's picture
Harvey Zahn
Physical Education teacher, faculty advisor and author.

Am I to understand that you purchased my book and are unhappy with the content? If so, why leave such an abrupt comment? I have never experienced such a comment. Ironically the book in good measure is about relationship building and ways to develop social/emotional skills. I am trying to follow my own advise and hold my tongue in response to your "feedback."
As for the material end I wouldn't even know how to refund money to you. Also the majority of the cost goes to the publisher and book seller ( McNally). Aside from the countless hours I spent writing, the cost of publishing and selling is more than any return I get. I wrote it from passion and commitment not for economic gain. The book is clearly a very detailed extension of the blog, which apparently attracted you in the first place. I am sorry to have disappointed you in some way. I have yet to receive any negative response from other educators. I would suggest to return the book to McNally.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

@Harvey, the comment in question named someone else, not you, and had nothing to do with your blog post. In any case, the comment has been deleted, since it was off topic.

Molly Curtis's picture

Thank you for your insights. I couldn't agree more that teaching is about creating a positive relationship with each student as well as preparing them to develop personal/social management skills. I particularly liked the idea of having quick conferences with your students once in a while. My students have physical education everyday so we have Fun Friday every week and this is a great idea that I am going to try to implement. Thanks!

fbcps's picture

I teach Middle School Phys Ed and Health and we have been doing a "green time" type start to our classes for several years. We use "Green time" for when students are getting changed in the locker rooms; when a student is done changing, they get to come into the gym and engage in activities while the rest of the students get changed, as opposed to sitting and waiting for attendance. This also allows us to actually talk and connect with our students when they come into the gym one by one. In Phys Ed, most classes are typically very large, and it becomes very difficult to get to know kids on a personal level. With Green time, they not only get to hone their physical skills in a low pressure environment, but also talk and connect with the teachers. Does anyone else use this time for a similar purpose? I'd be interested in hearing what others are doing during changing time as well.

fbcps's picture

Another part of this post that I have found has a strong impact on the social and emotional education of a Physical Education class is where the author described removing overly aggressive students from the class and having them watch their peers who are able to appropriately play with one another. I have found this to work on both the elementary and middle school level, as we all know that you can tell a student something over and over, yet sometimes it takes them actually getting to see it in action before they fully understand, especially if it involves their peers. This method has proven to be far more successful to me than trying to correct a student in front of a group while giving instruction, and especially more effective than raising my voice. Has anyone else seen similar results?

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