Help students with disabilities continue physical education during pandemic

Strategies for remotely helping students with special education services to get moving, even as schools are closed and they don't have PE class
By: | May 21, 2020
gettyimages.com: Images by Tang Ming Tung

Students with disabilities, regardless of whether they received accommodations or adaptations during physical education in school, cannot miss out on PE opportunities while learning remotely because it’s a part of FAPE. Adapted PE teachers and general education PE teachers just need to collaborate to come up with creative ways to keep students moving—and reduce pandemic-related stress.

“We’ve got to figure out how families are doing at home and how much time they have and say, ‘Physical activity is really good for your mind and your body. How can we help you with that?'” says Toni Bader, an adapted PE specialist at Seattle (Wash.) Public Schools. Bader has been communicating and collaborating with adapted PE teachers nationwide and posting appropriate activities on her Facebook page Adapted Physical Education WA State.

Starting with an informal interest survey to find out what students and their families like to do to be active may help, Bader says. If a student likes to dance, for example, you can introduce him to websites with free dance routines he can learn.

“Rather than throw anything at them, which they may not want to learn at home, start with what students are interested in doing,” she says.

Then follow these ideas to ensure students keep moving and hone their motor skills during the outbreak:

  • Develop a calendar. Students with disabilities thrive on routine, so create a calendar of fitness and movement activities students can do themselves and with their families each week, Bader said. Bader has designated days for different physical endeavors:
  • Make Mondays and Wednesdays activity days. Students can engage in locomotor movements by themselves or with their parents, Bader said. For example, they can make letters of the alphabet with their bodies or with a scarf depending on their mobility if they are learning the alphabet. “I offer a hotlink to a video or give them one picture and a description so they know what they have to do,” she said. Bader said she plans to incorporate and rotate state standards for learning into activities she recommends to students so they can reinforce what else they’re learning in a different way.
  • Make Tuesdays and Thursdays fitness days. Students can do exercise for 30 minutes. They have options, such as walk, jog, or roll (for students who want to use bicycles, tricycles, or wheelchairs); floor, wall, or chair push-ups; or step ups or tap ups. They can do 10 repetitions three times or whatever they are able to do. “The whole program is based on universal design for learning so we give a couple of different options,” she said.
  • Make Fridays fun days. Students can engage in a fun physical activity, such as bowling, Bader says. Students can use empty water bottles or toilet paper rolls as pins and rolled up socks if they don’t have a ball. She recommends students make it as challenging for themselves as possible. Students may bowl closer or farther away depending on their needs.
  • Broadcast activities. Offer physical activity time on your school or community television channel that is broadcasting other lessons for students, Bader said. “We have time programmed in so kids can get some physical activity,” she says.
  • Offer office hours. Invite parents to email you to set up a videoconference or phone call during predetermined office hours to discuss how to adapt remote physical activities to an individual student’s needs, Bader said. “A parent may say, ‘My child can’t do this [broadcasted or shared] exercise. Can you help me?'” she says.
  • Promote peer interactions. Recognize that students may be missing the social-emotional connection they have with their peers during PE as much as the physical exercise, Bader says. Find online games students can remotely play together during videoconference sessions that incorporate movement. For example, every time a student moves a space along an online board game, he can also do physical activity.
  • Ask students to document their exercise. Encourage all students to keep a monthly physical activity journal to document when they have gone for a walk, bicycle ride, or engaged in another preferred movement, Bader says. They can break up 60 minutes of any activity a day any way they want and need to, such as 15 minutes of walking, 15 minutes of yoga, and 30 minutes of soccer in the backyard. The key is the routine and the movement. “This is a great thing for students with emotional and behavioral disorders,” she says. “They need to be active.” But everybody can benefit, Bader says. “We want them to turn it in at the end of the month and have a celebration.” 

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.