The Fitness Friendly Classroom
The Fitness Friendly Classroom
You have no more excuses. There will be no more “We don’t have the budget for Physical Education” or “Most of the kids with autism don’t like sports.” We can comfortably reduce “There’s no time for physical education” to an ignorable whisper, and “He/She can’t even throw a ball” will be folk lore.” After years of research suggesting that fitness is important, after the piles of studies demonstrating that the young autism population has an abundance of gross motor deficits, it is time to introduce fitness into the Special Needs classroom.
So how does a classroom teacher who may not have any inclination about fitness or physical education develop a program? After nearly ten years of work, I’ve finally sat down (difficult enough for me to do) and mapped out how exactly I assess, create, and teach exercise to my athletes with autism and other developmental disabilities. The final product is called the PAC Profile, and it is perfect for teachers who want to implement fitness into the classroom.
First we must consider baseline abilities from Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive perspectives. This is what was missing in all the other gross motor screens available. Why? Let’s use one of my athletes, Frank, as an example. I tell Frank to do “Three forward jumps,” he looks at me then turns around and begins to bounce a stray ball. Now, the first conclusion may be that Frank cannot jump. Yet Frank can be counted on to engage in a stereotypical behavior that involves jumping back and forth across the room, with many more than three forward jumps at a time.
Physically (The “P” in PAC Profile), Frank has the skill set to jump three times. Now, from the Adaptive and Cognitive perspectives, a couple of questions need answering;
- Is Frank motivated to perform the jumps in the fitness situation?
- Does Frank know that “jump” refers to the actual activity of jumping?
There are a couple more questions that need answering before committing to a specific strategy, but the previous two are a good start. We must identify whether the deficit is physical, adaptive, cognitive, or a combination of these three. If Frank has the physical ability to jump but the term “jump” does not yet represent jumping, he probably won’t know what to do when I, or any instructor, say “Jump,” regardless of how many times we say it. If Frank is more of a visual learner, he may benefit from the instructor demonstrating the jump for him. This would enable Frank to begin associating the word “Jump” with the actual activity of jumping.
So we have one partial assessment down but a classroom of anywhere, usually, between four and twelve students, needs a program that takes into consideration a wide range of physical, adaptive, and cognitive abilities. Is classroom fitness still possible? It absolutely is. The quick, article-condensed version involves one of the two ways to incorporate with groups of special needs individuals; set up stations.
Each station should represent at least one of the Five Big Movements. These are Pushing, Pulling, Bending, Rotation, and Locomotion. Most physical activities and daily life skills incorporate at least two of these movements. Picking up a box and walking across a room involves both bending and locomotion. We can set up various stations around the classroom with one or two students at each station.
- Station 1: Short jumps to star-shaped spot markers
- Station 2: Ball toss with partner
- Station 3: Two-hand Sandbell overhead press
- Station 4: Rotating and bending to touch low cones
Not much space is needed for any of these activities. They also have a built-in socialization component. When throwing a ball to a partner, the student has to make eye contact, acknowledge the partner, and react when the ball is thrown to him/her. Most importantly, each activity station can be modified for the individual within the group. Suppose Jack can do the short jumps, but Katie is not yet able to jump. When she gets to station 1, Katie can perform a regressed, or more basic version of the jump. That may be bending knees, or a low hop in place, depending on her current abilities.
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If we allowed Katie to simply bypass that station without providing her with the opportunity to learn how to jump, she would continue to stay at the same ability level, i.e. not being able to jump. By assessing each individual in the class, we can begin to develop individualized goals within the group fitness sessions. Unfortunately, that is what many PE classes look like. The students who are already capable of performing the activity (usually sports) will play while the other students are left behind. The student attends Physical Education, but how much are they actually benefitting from that situation? I can put on a space suit; it does not make me an astronaut. I can call it “gym class” but what progress is being made or fun being had?
One of the best benefits of having in-classroom fitness is that sessions can be performed periodically throughout the day. This allows students to have “movement breaks” which can positively influence physical and cognitive abilities. Frequent exposure or practicing different movement patterns will enable faster mastery (being able to perform the activity correctly and independently).
Once students master a few basic exercises, we can add more challenges, or come up with some interesting movement activity combinations or “chains.”
We have anywhere from three to six stations set up around the classroom or gymnasium. It might be a good spot here to mention that even if students do have physical education in the school, which is usually 2-3 sessions per week, classroom fitness is still a great idea. Classroom fitness can supplement non-gym days, and can also generalize movement skills from one environment to another. Keep in mind that young people with autism typically need many repetitions of a particular movement activity before mastery. The more opportunities they have to “practice,” the faster the skill acquisition.
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The crucial numbers can be broken down this way:
- 5: Use all five Big Movements (Push, Pull, Bend, Rotate, Locomotion)
- 3-6: Have three to six different stations set up around the classroom
- 1-2: Minutes at each station, then switch
- 8-10: Total minutes per fitness session. Do several throughout the day
Innovation is a necessary in fitness and education for special needs populations. If daily life skills are important areas, a foundation of physical health is needed. By introducing fitness into the classroom for short periods of time throughout the day, educators can take a proactive approach to one of the most pervasive, yet poorly-considered issues among the ASD population. Adding fun and social opportunities to the classroom environment can enhance learning and life.
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This post originally appeared on our September/October 2010 Magazine