Adapted Physical Education

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.

adapted-physical-education-sports-psychologyAlthough  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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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