Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Differences & Special Education

Easy physical education adaptations
for home and school

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Physical wellness in children has become an issue for our times. Shrinking school physical education (PE) programs, decreasing amounts of time spent in physical activities, and increasing amounts of time spent on electronic activities--coupled with poor dietary habits--has contributed to an explosion of obesity in school-age children.

Physical activity is critically important to cognitive, social, and emotional health as well. Many children with cognitive and motor learning differences face even greater challenges than their typically developing peers. Impairments to sensory processing, social cueing, and language processing can impede a child's ability to participate in a general PE class or in team sports. In many cases, these impairments may have little to do with gross motor skills.

Unlike math, spelling, or reading, PE classes are generally mass affairs wherein there is no grouping by ability level and instruction is not paced or adapted accordingly. This one-size-fits-all approach to PE leaves some children feeling frustrated and demoralized. Fortunately, there are many ways to accommodate the lesser skilled child in a manner that promotes success and self-esteem.

Many school districts employ adapted physical education (APE) specialists-- teachers trained in making modifications to equipment and curriculum so that all children can participate in general PE classes. An APE teacher can also help you locate adaptive equipment for home use. The following adaptations work in either in the PE class or at home.

  • Teach one skill at a time. It's not reasonable to expect a child to remember a slate of rules if he is focusing hard on learning a motor skill.
  • Vary the size of the equipment. Use a larger or smaller ball, a heavier or lighter bat, or a larger racket head with a shorter handle.
  • Decrease distances between bases, from the tee to the hole, or from the mound to the plate. Stand closer to the net to serve, or lower or eliminate the net. Slow the pace of the activity down. Lengthen or shorten times as needed. Allow double bounces.
  • Provide oral or visual prompts or cues.
  • Explain rules to the child in a manner he understands--even those that might seem obvious to you, like running to the next base. Never assume that a child has been exposed to even the most popular sports.
  • Your child or student may more readily accept support from a peer than instruction from an adult. Choose a partner whose skills are good but not so elevated as to make your child or student feel inadequate or discouraged.
  • Allow frequent rests if needed. Take a break or halt the activity if you sense the child's frustration building.
  • Do the activity in an area with minimal external distractions.
  • Keep instructions short and clear. Do not use sports lingo or idioms unless you are sure the child understands the terminology. Always check for comprehension.
  • Reinforce the activity, not just by doing it, but also by talking about it or looking at books about it.
  • Check your own attitude. Recognize that even children who struggle with gross motor skills will improve with practice, and let go of any of your own constrained thinking as to what constitutes a "real" sport. Less populated sports may be much more welcoming to beginners, even offering sample courses or mini-lessons. Many children thrive in the "big fish in a small pond" atmosphere of the lesser known sport.

Endless possibilities exist for meaningful physical education at all levels of a child's development. Pursued at an individual pace, physical activity can give a child more room for growth, achievement, and enthusiasm right alongside better health. In the marathon of life, isn't that real success?

(c) 2009 Ellen Notbohm, www.ellennotbohm.com

This article was adapted from 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk. Three-time Fore-Word Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and three other award-winning books on autism. To explore her work, visit www.ellennotbohm.com.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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