Physical education (PE) is considered an important vehicle for the promotion of physical activity, psychosocial development, and teaching dance, games, and sports skills. Unfortunately, children with disabilities are often inactive and socially isolated during PE despite laws requiring children with disabilities to be included in general educational schools, PE not excepted. This entry centers on the psychosocial and educational research in four related areas: PE teachers, peer tutors, able-bodied classmates of children with disabilities in PE, and children with disabilities.
Most teachers find that including children with disabilities in PE is challenging because of the need to change activities and adapt how they are implemented and evaluated. Many PE teachers report that they lack knowledge on disability conditions and have limited experiences in teaching children with disabilities. Because many school districts do not hire adapted physical education specialists, general PE teachers are required to teach children with disabilities. Hence, PE teachers’ lack of knowledge and experience is likely grounded in the limited to nonexistent adapted PE training they receive while in teacher preparation programs. In turn, their limited experiences lead to feelings of low perceived competence. In addition to a lack of perceived competence, researchers have also documented that teachers often have negative attitudes toward including children with disabilities into their general PE classes, although other reports suggest teachers tend to have more mixed attitudes. Teachers also tend to grade children with disabilities differently by emphasizing participation and effort versus fitness and skill development. Whether such grading differences reflect reasonable accommodations of children’s limitations versus lowered expectations of their abilities is unclear from the literature.
In brief, most of the research on PE teachers of children with disabilities indicates they feel their professional preparation is inadequate. Hence, they lack the ability to effectively accommodate children with disabilities into their general PE classes. It would seem reasonable that providing support for PE teachers in the form of adapted physical education (APE) specialists who have received extensive training in adapted physical activity would be helpful. Unfortunately, very little research has been done in this area, and the limited research often involves case studies or very small samples. For instance, many physical education classes might have only two or three students with disabilities in them. Nonetheless, researchers conducting studies in this area have suggested that APE teachers can enhance student outcomes.
In addition to research on support offered by trained APE specialists, PE teachers are also helped by trained peer tutors and teacher aides. Although only a handful of researchers have examined the effectiveness of peer tutors, the results have consistently established that peer tutors are effective. Children with disabilities working with peer tutors have increased their physical activity engagement and in some cases enhanced motor skill development. Added benefits also include increased social interaction and subsequent feelings of belonging. Based on limited research, teacher aides, while lacking training in PE, appear to be beneficial, especially if they are paired up with peer tutors.
Although it might be assumed that APE specialists may lack the same concerns as general PE teachers, APE specialists have noted they often lose access to the gymnasium or have to share it, which limits the space they have to work with. Lack of adequate functional equipment is also a complaint of APE teachers. Many APE teachers travel from school to school and may teach students ranging from preschool to high school at 4 to 14 different schools. To ensure they have adequate equipment, they often buy their own and transport it back and forth between schools. The constant travel while carrying equipment is often quite tiring. Similar to general physical education (GPE) teachers, APE specialists also receive support from teacher aides. Unfortunately, they have sometimes reported aides as apathetic and as exhibiting negative behaviors. Some APE specialists have also reported that they perceive themselves as disrespected and do not feel valued or part of the family of teachers at the schools where they teach. It should be noted, however, that the above concerns were not universally shared by all study participants. For instance, some APE teachers felt quite respected by colleagues and have very dedicated and competent teacher aides.
When GPE teachers are provided with teaching support from peers, teacher aides, or APE specialists, it is thought that any negative impact on children without disabilities as a result of inclusion is negated or minimized. Historically, a major concern arising from the inclusion of children with disabilities in general PE is that the educational experiences of children without disabilities may suffer. Accordingly, many scientists have examined how children without disabilities are affected by inclusion. In situations where children do not have significant disabilities, such as mild developmental delays, the experiences of both able-bodied and disabled children are similar; they experience comparable levels of physical activity and on-task behavior. In another study, researchers examined 15 students with disabilities and 20 students without as they participated in a regular game of volleyball and an adapted game of volleyball. All students enjoyed success, expressed fun and interest, and were physically active. The one caveat to these findings was that some of the older students (i.e., 12 years old) were not particularly keen on the adapted version of volleyball that included a smaller court and net. Despite the portrayal of a successful adapted PE class where all students do well, there is a less optimistic line of research examining the social dynamics of adapted PE classes.
In contrast to the reported results, more mixed findings have been reported on the experiences of nine elementary-age children who participated in inclusive PE classes. The scientists reporting the study categorized the children’s experiences into good and bad days. Children reported having bad days if they experienced being teased. While teasing was seen as an example of being rejected, the children were also ignored and neglected. Finally when able-bodied classmates seemed to focus on children’s disabilities, those children felt objectified and seen as curiosities. Being seen as objects of curiosity or rejected and neglected were all classified as forms of social isolation. A second major theme was represented by instances where the children perceived that their abilities were questioned and devalued. It was not uncommon for their mental as well as their physical abilities to be questioned. Finally, in the third theme, there were situations where the children were inactive or had minimal levels of participation. Common reasons were environmental barriers like a grass field that inhibited wheelchair access, lack of teacher and classmate support, as well as outright neglect. In summary, when children could not be active, had their capabilities questioned, or were socially marginalized, they experienced these situations as constituting a bad day in PE.
Fortunately, the same participants also described how they had good days in PE. There were times when classmates were quite encouraging and helpful. For example, during relay races children with disabilities remarked on how they were cheered on. Moments like those described above were categorized as promoting a sense of belonging. When participants were engaged in PE, they recognized they were reaping the intended benefits of PE, such as developing skills, enhancing their health, and learning fitness and health concepts. The recognition that they were obtaining benefits just like the able-bodied children represented having a good day in PE. One final theme indicative of having a good day was the intrinsic (pride) and extrinsic (compliments) rewards they experienced from being successful and demonstrating their skills.
In a research effort similar to the above study, Donna Goodwin sought to understand if all children with disabilities perceived offers of assistance positively. She found that children with disabilities viewed some forms of help as supportive and other types of help as threatening. There were a number of key differences between the types of support seen as threatening versus supporting. First, support that was pragmatic or functional and helped the children engage in a game was seen as supportive—being pushed in the wheelchair across a grass field to reduce travel time when the alternative was wheeling all the way around the field. When children without disabilities did not ignore children with disabilities and encouraged their sport participation, this was perceived as being done to secure control over their moves.
In contrast, threatening help was that which was provided unilaterally, where the helper refrained from asking if the help was needed. If help was offered when it was not needed, it was seen as interfering and threatening to children’s sense of independence. Furthermore, some enactments of help were dangerous, such as pushing a child’s wheelchair too fast and causing the child to fall. Finally, when children viewed offers of help as tantamount to an indictment of their capabilities, it was seen as a threat to their self-worth and interpreted negatively. Individuals with disabilities have to weigh the short-term task-oriented benefits, such as being helped across a grass field quickly, against the more long-term self-oriented costs, such as a missed opportunity to experience pride in independently wheeling around the entire field.
The authors of this research suggested that their findings have some bearing on the findings presented earlier on peer tutors. Given the various interpretations that children with disabilities might make about whether help is beneficial or harmful, it would be of value if PE teachers understood these complexities. Peer tutors and teacher aides could then be informed about the various ways their help might be interpreted and act accordingly.
In summary, researchers of inclusive PE have documented a mixed and complex picture of teachers, support personnel, and children’s experiences. Teachers often feel unprepared and hence are reticent about engaging with and teaching children with disabilities. While support personnel, such as peer tutors, teachers’ aides, and adapted PE specialists, have the potential to enrich the experiences of children with disabilities, their own lack of training and challenges can compromise their ability to deliver quality education. Finally, children with disabilities have mixed experiences in PE resulting from reliance on the quality of instruction they obtain from educators and the quality of the peer interactions they experience with their classmates. Clearly, adapted PE can be improved.
- Block, M. E., & Obrusnikova, I. (2007). Inclusion in physical education: A review of the literature from 1995–2005. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 24, 103–124.
- Goodwin, D. L., & Watkinson, E. J. (2000). Inclusive physical education from the perspective of students with physical disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 17, 144–160.
- Hodge, S. R., & Akuffo, P. B. (2007). Adapted physical education teachers’ concerns in teaching students with disabilities in an urban public school district. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 54, 399–416.
- Klavina, A. (2008). Using peer-mediated instructions for students with severe and multiple disabilities in inclusive physical education: A multiple case study. European Journal of Adapted Physical Activity, 1(2), 7–19.
- Martin, M. R., & Speer, L. (2011). Leveling the playing field: Strategies for inclusion. Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, 24(5), 24–27.