Help teachers provide physical activity for their students with disabilities

A story from Maryland


Physical activity is an important part of every young person’s overall health and well-being, especially for students with disabilities. All students, regardless of ability, should have the opportunity to get 60 minutes of physical activity every day, yet only 24% of young people with disabilities are meeting that recommendation.

Carley Sturges is a PE teacher at the Ivymount School in Maryland, which serves special needs students. At Ivymount, every student has an Individual Education Plan (IEP). An IEP is developed by a team, with goals around academic performance and special education services created with the student in mind. In her work as an adapted PE teacher, Ms. Sturges realized how physical activity was often seen as in competition, rather than in support of, a student’s IEP goals:

“The IEP includes the goals students are working towards and the goals they’re actively focusing on, which overshadow the physical activity the students also need to thrive.”

Working with students with disabilities requires adapting various movements so that the student can do the movement independently. As an adapted PE teacher, Ms. Sturges found that she could work with teachers to provide guidance on how to successfully implement movement in the classroom for each student that also supported a student’s IEP.

Key Takeaways

Open communication from the very beginning. Teachers should be included from the start in physical activity initiatives planned for the classroom, since they know what they are able to implement based on their classroom space and time, their capabilities, and ideas and can communicate in which areas they need support. Make time for check-ins with teachers to learn how else they can be encouraged, whether it’s through more training, more ideas for energizers, or how to adapt a movement for a specific student’s ability.

Provide teachers with resources and training. For many teachers, supporting students with disabilities to engage in movement may be a completely new practice for them. By providing teachers with resources and training, it can help them become more confident advocates for physical activity in the classroom. Potential trainings could cover how to use certain equipment, how to prompt students to move while learning, or ways to add regular physical activity into the classroom schedule. Creating and sharing a resource list that teachers can use for activity ideas makes it easier for them to implement new activities in the classroom. Giving teachers that level of guidance and support communicates to them that they are not required to do all the planning for classroom physical activity on their own.

Establish motivation. Teachers know their students best and what motivates them to learn. Making movement fun, meaningful, and motivational is key to successfully incorporating physical activity into the classroom. Ms. Sturges found success using a Movement Wheel (imagine Wheel of Fortune with activities instead of dollar amounts). Students spin the wheel and then do the exercise on which the wheel lands. Teachers can also engage their students even more by providing a blank wheel and having their students to help fill the wheel in, incorporating movements that speak to their interests from pop culture or video games.

If possible, set up a process that allows teachers to borrow materials from the fitness room to mix up the types of activities that are happening in the classroom, so students stay excited and motivated. Depending on his or her classroom space, teacher could borrow colored dots to step on, hula hoops to spin around, or balls to toss. This increases the variety of activities teachers have when trying energizers and activities integrated into learning.

Ms. Sturges reflected:

“It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, movement is movement. The more we get the students moving now, the more likely they are to continue this throughout their lives.”