Supporting All Students to be Fit for Life Inclusive approaches to physical education

Accelerating solutions that prepare children for a lifetime of health & fitness.

The issue

Our solution

What we did

Engage an expert committee and talk with parents and students to identify inclusive approaches to fitness education in PE.

What is inclusive physical education?

Our definition:

Learning environments where students with disabilities are engaging with their peers without disabilities, accessing and participating in the physical education curriculum in meaningful ways.

Physical education provides "an opportunity for everyone to shine... it [should] perfectly exemplify acceptance and inclusion of all abilities. The effect on self-confidence and self-esteem for all involved [can be] profound..."

~ Peggy Mace, mother of two students with Down syndrome enrolled in the Dover High School (NH) Unified Wellness Program

Considerations to promote an inclusive physical education classroom

At the heart of PE is learning how to move and play alone and with others.

Leverage peer support: Students learn best from their peers.

Students in Dover High School's Unified Wellness Program dancing together.

Utilize the principles of universal design: One size will not fit all, so provide options for activities and instruction.

Providing options for fitness assessments - wall push-ups (L) and 90-degree push-ups (R)

Utilize support services: You do not need to have all the answers. Think about other support personnel who can be utilized (e.g., paraprofessionals, occupational and physical therapists, and others who provide services).

Paraprofessionals support students in Dover High School's Unified Wellness Program.

Practical strategies

Utilize instructional strategies that match the learner’s strengths and accommodate multiple types of learning modalities.

For example:

  • Using visual aids and physical modeling techniques (visual learners).
  • Providing verbal cues and instruction (auditory learners).
  • Allowing participants to “learn by doing” and incorporating movement throughout instruction (kinesthetic learners).
  • Combine approaches to reach all learners.

Practical strategies

Utilize fitness assessment data* to support individual goal setting and plans for improvement.

For example:

  • Use assessment data to determine Present Level of Performance (PLP).
  • Identify areas of need based on items in which standards have not been met.
  • Create goals and objectives based on areas of need.
  • Incorporate goals and objectives into a student's Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Identify appropriate activities to promote health-related fitness.

*Note: Select portions of the Brockport Physical Fitness Test Manual and FitnessGram® Manual are provided for use at pyfp.org.

Practical strategies

Plan instructional time to support progressive learning.

For example:

  • Consider order of presentation of materials (e.g., begin with activities that are easily attainable and move toward more demanding tasks, then conclude with a successful experience).
  • Maintain structure and routines to support predictability (e.g., post plan for the day's class, so students know what to expect).
  • Allow for breaks, as needed.

Practical strategies

Arrange the class in a variety of ways to optimize class cohesion and engagement.

For example:

  • Large group (warm-up).
  • Small group and/or peer-to-peer (drill work).
  • Stations (focused skill-building).

Practical strategies

Utilize cues or supports that will foster independence.

For example:

  • Provide verbal cues (accompanied by demonstrations, guided assistance, tactile teaching, visual aids, etc.).
  • Provide short episodes of instruction.
  • Create a system for starting and stopping (e.g., music, buddy, physical touch, etc.).

Practical strategies

Modify activities.

For example:

  • Allow more opportunities for students to practice the task or skill.
  • Modify or eliminate some rules.
  • Slow down the pace of the game.
  • Adapt the objective of the game.
  • Add guidance or assistance, where appropriate.
  • Change the number of players.
  • Decrease time of play.
  • Modify competitiveness.

Practical strategies

Modify equipment.

For example:

  • Include choices based on the intent of the outcome (e.g., to practice striking an object over a net, use different racquets, balls, birdies, etc.; widen, lower, or otherwise modify the size of the nets/goals; etc.).
  • Vary the size, texture, and weight of the equipment (e.g., bigger/smaller; softer/harder; longer/shorter).
  • Use audible methods, when appropriate.

Practical strategies

Modify environment.

For example:

  • Increase visual cues.
  • Monitor noise level.
  • Consider lighting.
  • Use music, when appropriate, to motivate students.

In summary:

Work towards making sure everyone is a valued member of the class.

Use appropriate data to set goals and recognize progress.

Work with a class to determine adaptations.

Provide choices to support and engage all learners to be active and fit for life!

Additional resources

Click the links below to learn more.


Content was adapted from material presented by Dr. Cathy Houston-Wilson, The College at Brockport, State University of New York.

Special thanks to:

Expert Committee

  • Dr. Robert Arnhold, Slippery Rock University
  • Dr. Cathy Houston-Weston, The College at Brockport, State University of New York
  • Dave Martinez, Cherokee County Special Olympics - GA
  • Dr. Jayne Greenberg, International Consultant
  • Lori Harper, High School of Science and Technology - Springfield, MA
  • Mary Jean Hippern, Dover High School - Dover, NH
  • Dr. Michelle Grenier, University of New Hampshire
  • Scott Wikgren, Human Kinetics

Dover High School's Unified Wellness Program - Dover, NH

Health Resources in Action - Boston, MA

This resource was supported by an Inclusive Health Innovation Grant funded by Special Olympics International. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of Special Olympics International.


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