Years ago, during an interview for a special education position, I said I thought one of the biggest special education issues of our time was the lack of structured PE time for our students. The trend in elementary schools at that time was to do away with the professional PE teacher who had studied kinesthetics in college and to turn the job over to classroom teachers. Diabetes has counted for special education eligibility longer than ADHD has so, I argued, it’s to our benefit to counter Type 2 diabetes in our students by getting them to move and understand what causes obesity.
Additionally, many of our special needs children already have physical and neurological traits that prevent them from keeping up with their non-disabled peers in sports and PE activities. Adapted PE is available for those who need it, but most students don’t qualify and do not want to be pulled out of classes with their peers. They would just like to have the activities modified a bit so they can participate without undue stress and embarrassment. Or, they would like to have the skills broken down and explicitly taught – skills such as correct posture and arm placement while running.
I did not get the job. While thanking me for interviewing, one of the panel members mentioned that the interviewers were impressed with my passion for physical education, but that it was really not a priority of special education. I know what I was expected to address: autism. However, I have a philosophical issue with identifying autism as one of the biggest problems facing special education today. I don’t see people with autism as problems. I do see the lack of autism training for general education teachers as a problem, but, until the general education community demands that training or someone mandates they receive that training, there is little special education teachers can do to make that happen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that, in 2012, 1 in every 68 American children aged 8 years old, in the 11 states studied, had been identified with autism. The research article outlining these findings is posted on its website and is much quoted, with varying degrees of accuracy, by those in the special education field. Granted, California was not one of the states included, but, when that number of American children are identified with a specific condition, it’s the education world that needs to change to meet the needs of its students.
During the early 2000’s, as more school districts failed to meet the ever-changing goals of No Child Left Behind and California schools tumbled over the edge into the abyss known as “program improvement,” elementary schools took draconian measures to add more seat-time minutes to young children’s days. Afternoon recesses were eliminated. Students who “acted up” in class were “benched” from the play time left to students, almost ensuring they would continue to act up since they couldn’t burn up their excess energy. I was astounded when I heard about one elementary school that prohibited students from using playground equipment if they arrived to school early. Those students could walk the track, but the staff didn’t want students to get overly excited before school. They wanted students who would enter the classroom quietly and focus on their studies.
These practices ignored research that shows a direct correlation between active children and greater potential for learning. The CDC found “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.” Its paper, published in July 2010, can be found on the CDC website. The ERIC database is chock full of research papers showing that kids need to exercise and play if we want them to learn.
After all these years, I almost felt vindicated when I received an e-mail this past summer inviting me to a training for elementary school teachers who provide PE in my school district. I’m not an elementary school teacher, but you can bet I attended that training. I must say it was fun. We played a modified version of rock-paper-scissors that gets the entire body moving. In bear-salmon-mosquito, the mosquito bites the bear, the salmon eats the mosquito, and the bear eats the salmon. Two students stand back to back and, together, count to three. On three they face each other while acting out the animal (or insect) they have chosen. We played a get-to-know-you icebreaker with soft projectiles, such as bean bags and beach balls. Participants catch the projectile and say their own name before tossing to another person. They must remember the name of the person who tossed it, and the name of the person who catches it because they will have to call out those names when the teacher tosses another projectile into the mix, and then reverses the pattern.
This summer I also received e-mails from various sources about changes in PE standards across the nation. The instructors at the PE training told us how we can include California Common Core standards in activities, such as having runners stop at stations to answer a health question before continuing. The same month the state of Montana adopted new PE standards that encourage teachers to integrate American Indian games into their classes, according to the state capitol’s newspaper, The Independent Record. The standards also address bullying and other mental health issues in an effort at combating the high rate of school-age suicides in that state.
It’s beginning to look like PE is returning to the field. And, I for one, say, “Welcome home!”