Everyone in the Game!
“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space, for everyone” - George Dei, 2006
Taking part in daily physical activity is a vital part of any child’s development. It not only helps children to develop physical literacy—the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities—but has also been shown to increase levels of concentration and to boost school success. With a wide range of needs in a classroom, making sure that everyone participates to the best of their abilities can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task.
Luckily, help is readily available, and creating a truly inclusive physical activity environment can be easier than you think. What’s more, when an educator makes accommodations that benefit students with special needs (including cognitive or physical disabilities) they’re likely to have an unexpected and profound effect on the learning outcomes of every student in the class.
Understanding Special Needs
There are many types of special needs—both cognitive and physical—and children with the same disability may have different needs depending upon their abilities, their skill levels, their past experiences and their attitudes towards physical activity. For this reason, it’s useful to have a broad understanding of different cognitive and physical disabilities, but to keep in mind that each student will require a unique approach.
Inclusion means equal—but different—participation!
“A truly inclusive physical activity environment is not one where children are all doing the same thing,” says Lorraine Holt, In-School Support for Programs teacher at Kenollie Public School in Mississauga, and the Lead Writer of Ophea’s Steps to Inclusion resource. “Instead, it’s one where children are participating at their own ability levels in a shared activity session. All children are active, and all children are enjoying the benefits of physical activity.”
“It challenges students with all different types of abilities and provides opportunities for students to take risks and to be safe while doing so,” adds Mark Verbeek, Hamilton-Wentworth School Board’s K-12 Fitness and Wellness Consultant.
In such an environment, all students feel included and appreciated, and there’s an inherent understanding that everyone can succeed in their own way. This will mean that activities are sometimes modified and that, when necessary, expectations vary so that all students can experience success. It also means that assistance is provided when needed and that there’s a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect.
It’s just good teaching...
If the descriptions above remind you of any healthy school or classroom setting, chances are you’re already on the right track when it comes to creating an inclusive physical activity environment. “Accommodations are often just regarded as good teaching practice,” comments Holt, who likens them to differentiated instruction—a framework for effective teaching that involves identifying the expectations that all students must achieve, but helping them to achieve these expectations in the ways that work best for them.
“Most of the accommodations that happen in the gym have to do with repeating instructions, varying equipment, and doing a lot of modelling,” she says. For example, when teaching students how to do a layup in basketball, an educator would not only talk about the steps involved, but would also model those steps. In order to further accommodate students, they might also create a wall chart about the steps for visual learners, or have students repeat the instructions back to ensure comprehension. If a student still wasn’t able to complete the layup, the teacher might lower the net as yet another accommodation, or use a lighter ball.
“This will target all the different types of learners in your classroom,” says Holt. “For example, if you have a child who needs instructions written down and then needs the instructions modeled, not only will it help a child diagnosed with ADHD, but also a child who has a hearing impairment, and a child who has a learning disability and needs to learn kinaesthetically, or maybe a child who has autism spectrum disorder and needs clear, concise instructions.”
What’s more, especially in the early grades, children often have special needs that have not yet been diagnosed. Different accommodations will go a long way towards helping these students succeed. Accommodations are also beneficial to students who may not necessarily have a special need, but who might not otherwise be engaged because their learning style differs from the norm.
When accommodations aren’t enough to help a student, modifications should also be made. These involve changing the expectations for certain students to allow them to experience success.
How do you know when you need to make accommodations or modifications?
In most cases, when a child has been formerly diagnosed with a cognitive or physical disability, the modifications and accommodations necessary for physical education will be outlined in their Individual Education Plan (IEP). An IEP is a legal document that outlines the goals, accommodations and modifications that have been drafted by specialists who are familiar with the child’s history and abilities (such as medical doctors and psychologists).
However, in cases when a student is struggling but does not have an IEP, it’s important for educators to do some investigative work. This could include having a conference with the student themselves, talking to the student’s parents or guardians, checking in with the classroom teacher, consulting the school’s special education teacher for help and looking for resources in the community. (See the Resources section for some ideas.)
“Analyze what you’re doing,” advises Verbeek. “Be reflective. Get student feedback. There could be motivational issues or engagement issues as well.”
Inclusion takes teamwork.
When it comes to providing support for children with disabilities, parents/guardians, community partners, teachers and support organizations are all key stakeholders, and when everyone gets involved, great things can happen.
“There’s a communal aspect to sports,” points out James Noronha, Program Manager at Special Olympics Ontario— an organization that provides year-round sports training and athletic competition for people with cognitive disabilities. “There’s an element of equity and leadership and, more importantly, acceptance that sport can provide.”
A recent event organized by Special Olympics Ontario illustrates just how big of an impact this type of teamwork can have—not only on students with disabilities, but on entire school communities.
In October of 2013, the organization worked with Providence Christian School—a private school in the rural community of Dundas Ontario—through their Four Corners program, to host a bocce tournament for students with cognitive disabilities. “We asked the school to host the event and to provide 10 to 20 volunteers,” says Kristin Bobbie, School Championship Project Coordinator. “They turned it into an entire student body event with more than 200 kids involved.”
“The students (from Providence Christian School) did a big welcome for the athletes and throughout the day they were hanging out with the teams and acting as ambassadors,” Bobbie says. Many of the students who helped to host the event had very little previous exposure to students with cognitive disabilities, and she believes it was an eye-opening experience for them.
Inclusion improves learning outcomes and builds empathy.
In much the same way, ensuring inclusion in all physical activity settings will provide children of all abilities with immeasurable benefits. For the child with a disability, inclusion provides an opportunity to socialize while developing fundamental motor and communication skills. Meanwhile, for the child with no identified disability, inclusion teaches tolerance, patience and mutual respect.
“Quite frankly,” summarizes Noronha, “inclusion makes students better students. It also makes teachers better teachers.”
It’s all about active participation and personal achievement!
When working with children with cognitive and/or physical disabilities in your physical activity program, you’ll soon see that the similarities in lesson planning far outweigh the differences. After all, the goal at the end of the day remains the same: active engagement for all. Other common factors include parental and community involvement, a supportive environment and strategies geared toward helping each child to achieve their personal best.
“I’ve never looked at teaching students with special needs as any different than teaching any other students,” says Verbeek. “I think all students have learning needs, but good instruction is identifying the student needs and moving their learning forward by differentiating the instruction in the physical activity environment in safe, inclusive and challenging ways.”
Furthermore, as when faced with any student who is experiencing challenges, the key to providing assistance is to ask questions and seek support. Reach out to other educators, to parents, to the special needs teacher in your school and to the support services in your community, and keep asking questions until you find strategies that work. “Everyone’s different,” says Holt. “That’s important to understand. We all have different needs and different ways of learning.”
For more information & tips for inclusion visit Ophea’s Steps to Inclusion resource.