Physical Fitness and the IEP
I am happy that this issue of PSN focuses on IEPs, because I’ve recently had the opportunity to scour through a few. The purpose of an IEP, by definition and design, is to incorporate a student-centered curriculum, or elements of a curriculum, that make sense for him or her. With physical fitness and Adaptive PE, I’ve argued, and continue to argue, that the curriculum as a whole does not make sense, limiting the potential growth and skill development for the individual. Allow me to elaborate.
My 11-year old athlete Nate is a shining example of when a highly adaptive (motivated) individual comes into contact with crud-level programming. In his PE curriculum, Nate engages in competitive games with neurotypical peers. He’s eager to play and is one of those kids who just wants to make you (the instructor or adult in charge) happy. This will likely change when he hits adolescence, but for now it is delightful. Nate has some significant gross motor issues from lower body strength deficits to upper body strength deficits and poor stability in the trunk. This is typical of my Autism Fitness athletes regardless of their adaptive or cognitive abilities.
While he does want to participate in the competitive games, Nate processes the rules, in-action decisions, and flow of the activity much slower than the other students. So, despite the fact that he is around the other students, he’s not getting much out of the activity itself. This is a common misconception; you can immerse a student in any given environment, but they won’t learn by osmosis without the prerequisite skills. To say “Well, the class is working on kickball, tag, etc.” does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the student is either developing the skills necessary to participate OR participating in a meaningful way. They could just be standing there. Standing there is standing there, it is not skill development. I can stand in a bank all day; it doesn’t put anything into my savings account.
I was asked by Nate’s mom to look over his IEP for Phys Ed. All of the goals were related to competitive activities for which he did not have the foundational skills. Of course, in his “Mastered Goals” section, some of the skills, for example, throwing a ball back and forth x number of times, were checked off. I don’t know what their criteria for mastery were, but it was certainly looser than what I would accept. Not because my standards are outrageously stringent, but the very concept of mastery requires the skill to be performed independently and then generalized to other environments. Otherwise, it does not help the student, it is simply checking something off on paper.
Specifically for IEPs, Physical Fitness and Adaptive PE goals should follow a hierarchy:
Foundational Movement Skills a Motor Planning (putting 2 or more gross motor movements together) a Selection of Activity (Active Play and Creativity) a Social Skills within PE Programming
Those social skills can be cooperative or competitive but it has to make sense for the individual. Think of it from a long-term perspective as well. If we take the time to develop basic movement skills (pushing, pulling, squatting, crawling, yes, crawling, jumping, climbing) that generalize to other situations, there is a greater likelihood that the student will be able to engage in new physical activities and she may just try new things on her own (initiative and creativity). How long, realistically, are most kids (any kids) going to play sports? The numbers dwindle into the single-digit percentages by high school and that, my friends, is for the neurotypical population. The point is that the entire PE system is backwards and caters to the minority (those kids who do enjoy and are adept at sports), with many (not ALL, but many) Adaptive PE programs attempting to mirror general PE programs.
Sports and competitive games are not bad; they simply are not the only options, and most often an inappropriate basis for formulating an IEP. If the concepts of “teams, winning/losing, points, time contingencies, and offense/defense” are too abstract for a student, why build goals around participating in such an activity when there are certainly more important and reinforcing options? Socialization is an important component of fitness/Adaptive PE programming, but not at the expense of actual physical development and not when there is no meaningful social interaction occurring. Since social skills (reciprocity, conversation) are often a deficit for the ASD population, it does not make a wallop of sense to develop these skills while so much else is going on; “Pass the ball to Kelly! No, now the other way! Look at Kelly! Now look at Chris…”
Here’s my math example: we wouldn’t expect a group of students who have not yet taken algebra to be ready for calculus. Yet we’re doing this with PE/APE because of the overwhelming misconception that kids will just know how to move naturally. The abundance of studies demonstrating a high rate of gross motor deficits in the young ASD population refutes that, as does the steady eradication of recess coupled with the significant anecdotal data that young individuals just do not go out and play anymore.
There is some brightness here, promise. What I want to leave you with are some questions that should absolutely be brought along to an IEP meeting when it relates to Adaptive PE, Gross Motor skill development, or anything movement based:
- What are the general and specific goals? Why were they chosen?
- How are current skills being tested? In how many settings? By whom?
- What are the criteria for mastery/independent performance?
- Does he/she enjoy the programming? What is the most reinforcing activity for them?
- I think the following are life-skills that could be improved through better physical ability __________. Can we focus on some of these?
- *Bonus*: What can we do at home to further develop and generalize these skills?
An IEP is a strategy for helping the student to develop the skills he or she needs to succeed, and fitness should be no less a concern than any other academic or life skill. Through intelligent, creative, and individually-centered programming, students with ASD and related disorders can thrive in physical education settings and beyond. They can take the skills they develop, including social aptitude, self-esteem, and in some cases, better cognitive processing and behavioral control, to new places, including right at home.
Eric Chessen, M.S., YCS Eric Chessen, M.S. is the creator of the PAC Profile Assessment Toolbox (www.autismfitness.com), PAC Profile Workshop series, and consults with special needs programs around the world. Available on www.autismfitness.com
Image courtesy Facebook Friends
More Fitness Fun
- Adapted Phy. Ed. Is It in Your Child’s IEP? It Should Be.
- How can parents prepare for an IEP Meeting? (Part 1)
- Moving Towards Success: Incorporating Physical Activity in School
- Fitness Fun: Incorporating Fitness into the Classroom
- Fitness Activities: A Gateway Towards Introducing Social Skills
- The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Fitness Programs
- 4 Exercise Progressions, 5W’s, and an H
- The Importance of S.M.A.R.T IEP Goals
- The Fitness Friendly Classroom
- Fitness Equipment Worth Buying
- Autism Fitness in My Classroom
- Focus on Color
- Do You Struggle With Planning Healthy Meals for Your Family?
- 5 Ways to Include Fitness for the ASD Population: Anytime, Anywhere (and Others within the Special Needs Community)
This post originally appeared on our March/April 2014 Magazine