Teachers are keenly aware of the different needs of students in the classroom environment, usually when it comes to learning styles and preferences. In the last decade, differentiated instruction has become an intense focus for educators. With differentiation, educators cultivate a classroom environment, lessons and learning materials that are accessible and engaging for students of different abilities and backgrounds.
When educators discuss differentiation, they are often referring to the context of a typical “classroom” environment and considering students’ intellectual and social needs and building inclusive learning materials and lessons. This also includes the accessibility needs of students, such as those who are visually impaired or hard of hearing. As the American Printing House for the Blind explains, effectively differentiated lessons “instigate multiple strategies impacting individual students while focusing on a common goal.”
Less often discussed is differentiation in the context of physical education (P.E.) classes. P.E. teachers still face many of the same challenges as classroom educators regarding helping students learn. Accessibility issues or physical disabilities should not prevent students from engaging in physical education classes, yet that can often become the case if appropriate accommodations are not provided for students with such needs. Fortunately, P.E. teachers can certainly take steps to create these types of accommodations and promote a learning atmosphere that fits into a more holistic model of education.
Differentiation Beyond the Classroom
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advocates for inclusion in the physical education space so that all students, regardless of disability, can receive 60 minutes of physical activity daily and feel involved outside the classroom learning space. It notes that inclusion in the P.E. space engages students with disabilities in the regular education space with equipment, environment and assessment; supports the opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in physical activities before and after school; and helps students with disabilities have the same roles and experiences as their peers without disabilities.
The P.E. Project — an educational resource website created by P.E. teachers worldwide — offers one potential strategy for thinking about differentiated instruction: a straightforward method known as the STTEP principle. This acronym stands for space, time, task, equipment and people, which are identified as areas through which teachers can think critically about the accommodations they are offering for students. For instance, space refers to the physical area students need to successfully learn. Do some students need more space? Something more tightly organized? These are questions to consider.
Task and equipment are two important ways to consider differentiation. Yes, we want all students to achieve the same learning goals, but what does that look like for each student? Altering the requirements of a task in order to properly represent the physical needs of a student can allow them to achieve the same goals in a personalized way for their learning needs.
Similarly, equipment can be a powerful inclusion tool for P.E. activities. Sports balls with auditory cues can be helpful for learners with low vision needs, just as an increase in visual tools can be helpful for those who are hard of hearing. Available equipment is unfortunately often a reflection of budget possibilities rather than teacher desires, but P.E. teachers should think about accessible equipment for their classes the same way they would regular P.E. equipment.
How an Advanced Degree Can Help
Creating differentiated lessons that are accessible for all is an important, wide-ranging topic in education today, and educators’ understanding of it continues to develop. In the Master of Science in Education (MSEd.) in Health and Physical Education online program from Northwest Missouri State University, students will receive the critical skills to offer appropriately differentiated and inclusive physical education plans.
This online program prepares graduates to build stronger instructional practices that combine physical activity with curriculum learning and leading-edge health models, which can make for a much more meaningful experience in enriching students’ individual and collective health and academics. Coursework includes a course titled Adaptive Physical Education, which offers an overview of modern problems for students with accessibility concerns and tools to effectively accommodate those in P.E. class. There is also a strong emphasis on contemporary research and therapeutic and Health Education practices.
The Health Education course is designed through a science-based program. Skills-based health education is a sequential, comprehensive and relevant set of learning experiences implemented through socio-ecological and cultural perspectives. This includes participatory methods to support the development of skills, attitudes and knowledge needed to maintain, enhance or promote health and well-being across multiple dimensions of wellness.
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