Adaptive Physical Education: Modifications for Children With Physical Disabilities

Adaptive Physical Education: Modifications for Children With Physical Disabilities
Page content

Conditions such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy often impair a child’s ability to participate in required exercises, movements or sports activities found in the traditional gym class. Rather than excluding children with special needs from gym class, public schools now offer adaptive fitness programs. Modified gym classes, which provide students with special needs the opportunity to keep their bodies healthy, involve certain adjustments to the standard gym curriculum. With assistance from supportive physical education instructors, these students enjoy exercising along with their peers.

An adaptive gym class is made available to students with delays in the gross motor areas such as endurance, coordination, movement, and muscle strength. Children with special needs who are eligible to receive adaptive services during gym period will have detailed accommodations and goals written into an Individual Education Plan, or IEP. Depending on the severity of the disability and the modifications that a school is able to offer, a child may either participate in a small modified gym class with other special needs students or in a large mainstream gym class along with his or her peers. Teacher aides and/or para-educators can offer additional support for students who receive adaptive services.

Four Areas of Modification

Adaptations to the curriculum of a physical education class are made in four areas:

  • Instruction
  • Rules
  • Equipment
  • Environment

Teachers may modify instructions by modeling what the student is expected to do. Instructions may be printed out in large print and hung up for the student to see during the time of the lesson. Oral prompts can be given. Students may have a peer partner who assists.

Rules can be “relaxed” to allow the student to achieve the desired goal. If for instance, the students are to kick a ball into a net from 10 feet away, a student with special needs may need to get closer to be able to kick or throw the ball into the net. Time requirements and “outs” may be eliminated.

Modifications to equipment may mean that bats or paddles have Velcro strapping, so that a child with gross motor difficulties may hold it easily. Other adaptations may include lowering a basketball net, using larger or smaller balls or utilizing a tee to hold a ball. Students might use scoops for catching balls instead of their hands. Targets could be made larger and placed closer to the students.

The environment in which students participate in gym or physical education must be safe, secure and welcoming. Padding, hand holds, and adaptive equipment should be readily available. The playing field must be clearly defined. The use of taped or painted areas makes it easier for the student to see boundaries.

Modifying Sports

Physical education instructors have many options available when adjusting curriculum to fit students with special needs. For instance, most sports may be adjusted as follows:

  • Pitching distance is decreased to accommodate the needs of the student trying to hit a baseball or softball.

  • Students are allowed extra time to move between bases.

  • Students are allowed to use a batting tee to push or hit the ball.

  • Students are allowed to walk or run in a smaller area of play for basketball or soccer.

  • Children in wheelchairs may hold the ball in their laps during periods of movement.

  • The nets for tennis or volleyball may be lowered to accommodate a child in a wheelchair or with limited gross motor skills.

  • Sports equipment such as larger and softer balls, lightweight racquets and clubs, and Velcro baseballs and catching mitts may be utilized.

Modifying Exercise/Movement

Much of the curriculum in gym class focuses on movement or exercise. Modifications may be made for students according to their special needs. For instance, a student with a visual impairment would have a para, who would work one-on-one with them to demonstrate what the physical education teacher was asking the class to do. On the other hand, a child with limited movement might need the para to gently move their arms or legs. NOTE: A para or teacher’s aide should never attempt to modify an exercise, unless they have been trained to do this form of modification.

Everyone Wins

In well-organized adaptive physical education classes, all students grow and develop needed skills. The most important consideration is to create a place that is not filled with the stress of being best, but rather, creating a space for achieving goals that everyone enjoys and at which everyone succeeds. The emphasis on being number one is taken away. Students are not in class to compete with each other; rather, they are there to learn about themselves and each other. They are there to enjoy moving their bodies to the best of their ability. They are there to succeed. Adaptive physical educations classes allow students with physical disabilities to share sports and learn sportsmanship along with their peers. This is a win/win process.