Physical Activity for Students with Special Needs
Keeping students mentally engaged in the classroom can be a challenging task. With so many distractions, even the most focused of students can become overwhelmed and consumed by their surroundings.
Students with special needs often enter the classroom and become overloaded with sensory input. These distractions inherent in every classroom generate a multitude of sensory stimuli for students to absorb and process. Teachers face many challenges in the classroom, especially in those classrooms where students require more individualized attention. The challenge for educators is to look for alternatives to traditional teaching methods and ways of engaging their students. To keep students with special needs more engaged and focused, physical activity can be the key.
I am inviting and challenging educators to step outside of their comfort zones by creating an environment that engages the students with movement. Teachers can benefit from incorporating at least 30 minutes a day of some form of physical activity. Sports specific activities, exercise and fitness related routines, and other forms of movement can improve the health of your students, increase cognitive performance, encourage socialization, and can sometimes decrease self-stimulatory behaviors often referred to as “stimming.” These repetitive body movements or movement of objects are very common in individuals with special needs and help them to regulate their bodies. Exercise and movement can have a calming effect on these students.
Some teachers are unsure about how to incorporate physical fitness or athletic programs into their classrooms. Frustration, fears and/or anxiety are often related to time constraints, required curriculum, lack of knowledge and challenging students. Being open to taking small steps towards a more physically active classroom can reduce and possibly eliminate these barriers. The following are several tips for teachers to utilize in their classrooms.
Set a length of time for each activity. This will give students an idea of how long each activity will take. Write the time on a whiteboard for all to see. Start off with shorter time periods and space them throughout the day; 5-10 minutes of stretching in the morning followed by 20 minutes of exercise in the afternoon. This clear-cut timing will allow students to adjust to changes in their schedules. You can work up to longer periods of time throughout the year.
Outline of Physical Activity with a Set Number
Creating an outline of what you want your students to do allows them to anticipate each activity and prepare themselves for each activity. Make sure to assign a given number of repetitions for each exercise. Ambiguity in the instructions leads to upset, making it more difficult for a student with special needs to process the information. Use a pattern to encourage the student to create the mind-body connection and keep them focused on the given physical activity. For example: 10 jumping jacks, 9 chair squats, 8 bear crawls, 7 high knees, 6 skip jumps, etc.
Encourage Group Activities
A main goal of any educator working with children with special needs is to teach social skills, encouraging peer-to-peer interactions. Physical activity of any kind can be a great tool to develop an organic social interaction between students. Students should be encouraged to interact with each other in a fun and nonintrusive way. Simple group sports, games or movement related activities naturally create social opportunities among students.
Have students get into a large circle in the classroom or outdoors. Tell your students to pass an object, weighted or not, to a person across the circle. Depending on the ability of the student, the pass can be in the form of a throw or a roll on the ground. Instruct them to make eye contact and say the name of the person they are passing the object to before they pass; give verbal prompts of “eye contact,” “say their name,” and “throw or roll the ball.” Repeat this exercise several times to help create a familiar activity that can be done every day.
Another great way to encourage social interaction is for students to pair up for different activities. Pairs can play on the same team for a sports day or to help count the amount of jumping jacks they can perform in 30 seconds. Depending on your students and their level of interest, pairs can be changed daily, weekly or biweekly. This will allow students to work with one another, demonstrating the importance of teamwork and accountability.
Make It Fun and Move Often
It is very hard to compete with iPhones, video games, TV, and relaxation on the couch. The classroom setting gives teachers a unique opportunity to engage with their students for a large chunk of time every day without these influences. Teachers strive to keep content educational and relevant, as well as fun. Physical activity should be no different. When sweating, competing and interacting with others is made a fun experience, students are more likely going to continue those activities outside the classroom. Physical activity can be fun when exercise routines are mastered, sports are understood, and friendships are formed. This can be accomplished with repetition, progression and regression of a given activity. Implement a workout schedule that can be followed daily or weekly to achieve best results.
All of these tips can and should be utilized in every classroom or school program. Students are often reluctant to try something new or learn a new task. Starting your students on an easy and simple routine can help them understand the importance of physical activity for both the body and mind. Physical activity is not a magic wand to solve all problems, and some students may not connect with or enjoy these activities. However, it is important to incorporate different modalities of teaching. Do not underestimate the power of movement and its ability to create a mind-body connection that may help to improve the health of your students, decrease typical “stimming” behaviors seen in students with disabilities, increase cognitive performance, and encourage socialization. Have fun and get moving!