Inclusive PE — It IS Possible (and Should Be)!

May. 24, 2021Updated Oct. 5, 2022

Physical education improves students’ cardiovascular health and motor skills, but it’s also a vital part of their emotional, social, and mental health. PE classes provide a much-needed break from academics, and allow students to release energy, engage different parts of the brain, and socialize with their peers through teamwork and play.

Too often, though, schools don’t know how to incorporate students with disabilities into PE programs outside of Adaptive PE — which often favors physical activity in a segregated setting versus an inclusive PE experience. In fact, most educators aren’t trained on the methodologies that make PE classes inclusive. Thankfully, education researchers have developed innovative curriculum and basic guidelines to help schools develop the kinds of physical education programs all students deserve.

Check out these studies and recommendations; you can bring them to your child’s IEP team if you think they’ll improve their PE experience!

Using picture books to encourage children with ASD to engage in physical activity

A recent study from the University of Missouri addresses the fact that a lot of research focuses on helping children with autism gain greater access to academic education, but there’s a gap when it comes to physical education. Lorraine Becerra, a teaching professor at MU’s College of Education, who led the research, explains that not much is known “about how increasing physical activity for children with developmental disabilities” can improve their lives at school.

  • In her study, Becerra set out to find affordable ways to increase opportunities for exercise (especially if your child attends a school with fewer financial resources) and to develop exercise programs that are actually enjoyable for students.

  • Becerra created fitness picture books that feature “step-by-step images of various exercises, such as jumping jacks, bear crawls, and lunges.” Her findings show that encouraging students with autism to use these books doubled the amount of time they engaged in physical activity. “If we can get kids with autism more physically engaged, they are more likely to run around and play with their peers, so there are other aspects of their life we can improve as well,” she adds.

  • Becerra particularly wanted to work with picture books because of the increased access they provide educators, parents, and caregivers looking to bring inclusive PE into children’s routines.

Read more about the study in this press brief.

Inclusive PE for children with visual impairments or Deaf-blindness

Students with visual impairments often lack access to physical education activities — frequently because school administrators inaccurately assume that they have issues with motor skills. A study shared by the American Printing Housesays, “The physical, social, and psychological benefits of physical activity increase the likelihood of independence and improve [students’] quality of life . . . [so] it is imperative that students with visual impairments be afforded opportunities to participate in a variety of age-related physical activities that are the same or equivalent to those of their sighted peers.” While this study focuses on students with visual impairments, its findings can be generalized to support kids with disabilities across the board:

  • The same study stresses the importance of having a physical educator present during IEP team meetings to advocate for a child’s ability to safely participate in gym class, added time for PE, if their daily routine is filling up with classes and therapies, and necessary equipment for modified activities.

  • Some researchers also recommend independent activities during PE, rather than team sports, to allow for the greatest inclusion. Because games like basketball, soccer, volleyball, and football depend on visual-motor coordination to participate safely and successfully, more inclusive PE activities would include swimming, golf, martial arts, aerobics, and weight training. The independent nature of these activities allows the student to more easily make choices and modifications that feel right for them.

  • Still, team sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, and football can and should still be available to students with visual impairments; certain modifications, such as auditory balls and goal posts and more flexible rules, help make it possible.

  • In Physical Education and Sports for People with Visual Impairments and Deafblindess, the authors write that students with Deafblindness or visual impairments benefit from part-to-whole learning, meaning that “concrete, hands-on experience with objects and the physical experience of performing a movement” is vital for helping them learn.

“The great thing about the picture books is they provide simple, engaging exercises that can be done in a wide variety of settings, like a school playground, backyard, or even an empty field at a park. It is also a quick and easy way for caregivers or teachers to provide organized structure during flexible free time, such as during recess.” — Lorraine Becerra, MU’s College of Education

How to make PE more inclusive, and what you can discuss with your IEP team

  • Some educators stress the importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — particularly the Lieberman-Brian Inclusion Rating Scale (LIRSPE) — to make sure that physical education activities are inclusive. The LIRSPE looks at “instructional practices, peer and paraprofessional support, equipment and task variations, environmental conditions, and assessment as supported by the principles of Universal Design for Learning.”

  • This site also features an inclusivity checklist that you can share with your child’s PE teacher and IEP team to ensure that all their needs are being met.

  • Students with disabilities in general education PE classes also benefit from instruction that uses social stories and follows the ABC model. This model helps teachers make flexible decisions that benefit students’ unique needs using these five steps: program planning, assessing, implementation planning, teaching, and evaluation. Bring up the ABC concept to your child’s IEP team if you think it can work for your kiddo!

  • Physical education is as important as any other part of your child’s education, so don’t be afraid to ask for the same kinds of supports you’d expect for their academic instruction — check out our list of IEP accommodations here!

What has PE been like for your kiddo? Will you bring any of these resources to your IEP team? We’d love to know how it goes!

Join the Undivided Community to get more resources like this in your inbox

Promise Image
Each piece of content has been rigorously researched, edited, and vetted to bring you the latest and most up-to-date information. Learn more about our content and research process here.
A Navigator is your Partner at each turn
Every Undivided Navigator has years of experience supporting families raising kids with disabilities or parenting their own. Partner with an Undivided Navigator for a free Kickstart to learn first hand what support feels like!
Identify near-term goals and priorities
Develop a vision for your child and family
Map out strategies to execute near- and long-term goals
“It’s so helpful to have one place that you can go to get many answers.”–Leeza Woodbury, with Navigator Kelly since 2020
*Currently offering Navigator Kickstarts to residents of California