Kids Are Not Little Adults
K-2 students have short legs in relation to their upper body and head that causes them to have a high center of gravity and make them “top-heavy.” This helps explain why these students fall often and have little success when trying to perform activities such as push-ups and sit-ups. Growth gradually lowers the center of gravity and gives children increased stability and balance. However, it is important to understand how normal growth and development limits student success in many physical activities.
In the elementary school years, muscular strength increases linearly with chronological age. In other words, as children grow older they become stronger. Pre-adolescent children show few strength differences between the sexes. Boys and girls generally perform similarly in strength activities such as push-ups and sit-ups. In the past, teachers have accepted lower performances from girls even though they are capable of more. Expectations should be similar for elementary school boys and girls.
Strength differences do occur among children of widely differing weight and height, regardless of sex. Differences in weight and height should be considered when pairing children for competitive activities such as running together, physical contact, or games that require strength. Problems occur when a student is paired with someone who is considerably taller, heavier or more mature and therefore stronger. When matching students for safety reasons, remember that weight and stature are much more important than the gender of the students.
Strength is an important factor for success in performing motor skills. A study that weighted factors that contribute to the motor performance of children showed that strength or power or both in relation to body size was the most important. High levels of strength in relation to body size (relative strength) helped predict which students were most capable of performing motor skills. The amount of body fat was the fourth-ranked factor in the study and was weighted negatively meaning overweight children were less proficient at learning and performing motor skills. Body fat acts negatively on motor performance by reducing a child’s strength in relation to their body size. Overweight children may be stronger than normal-weight children in absolute terms, but they are less strong when strength is adjusted for body weight. This lack of relative strength makes it more difficult to perform a strength-related task (e.g., push-up or curl-up) compared to normal-weight children. The key point is that overweight youth deserve special consideration to keep them “turned on” to physical activity. Have different expectations for children rather than giving an entire class the same physical challenge.
Teachers have long understood and discussed differences in maturity among students. Youngsters are often referred to as being immature or more mature than other students; but this is usually in reference to the emotional maturity of youngsters. Another type of maturity, skeletal or physical maturity has a strong impact on student performance in physical activities. The method used to identify physical maturity is to compare chronological age to skeletal age. Ossification (hardening) of the bones occurs in the center of the bone shaft and at the ends of the long bones (growth plates). This rate of ossification gives an accurate indication of a child’s maturation and is identified by X-raying the wrist bones and comparing the development of the subject’s bones with a set of standardized X rays. This offers a more accurate indication of a child’s physical maturity. Children whose chronological age is ahead of skeletal age are said to be late (or slow) maturers. On the other hand, if skeletal age is ahead of chronological age, such children are labeled early (fast) maturers.
Studies examining skeletal age consistently show that a five- to six-year variation in maturity exists among youngsters in a typical classroom. For example, third graders (8 year olds) will range in skeletal age from 5 to 11 years. It would be inappropriate to ask a 5-year-old child to perform tasks that 11-year-olds are expected to accomplish. The message here is that even though students in a classroom are about the same age, there are large individual differences in maturity. Monitor and adjust program activities to allow students to progress at a rate suitable to their level of maturity.
Optimizing Skill Instruction
Effective skill instruction is the cornerstone of a quality physical education program; it assures that students will learn skills as quickly as possible. Quality teachers become very adept at knowing how to balance practice and instruction. In most cases, instruction offered before students have tried the skill will be somewhat meaningless. They cannot relate to the points you deem important because they don’t see how it applies to them. One of the best ways to get students to listen to your instructional emphasis is to have them try the skill and then realize they need help. Once students realize their success rate is low and frustration sets in, they will want to listen. The following are a few suggestions to help you hold your students’ attention and increase their skill learning curve.
1. Limit instruction to one or two key points. It is common to see teachers tell students many points about performing a skill. I call it “telling them everything they need to know and finding they remember nothing.” It is difficult to remember a series of instructions. Giving students several points related to skill performance leaves them unsure and frustrated; most learners remember only the first and the last points at best. Emphasize one or two key points and the let students practice the skill with their focus on the points you just mentioned.
2. Refrain from lengthy skill descriptions. When instructions last longer than 30 seconds, students become listless because they cannot comprehend and remember all of the input. Develop a teaching pattern of short, concise presentations alternated with practice sessions. Short practice sessions keep students from getting bored and offer you the opportunity to refocus your students on key points. If you need to instruct for longer than 30 seconds, break it into smaller segments. Allow students time to focus and practice the skills you emphasized after each instructional episode.
3. Present information in its most basic, easily understood form. If a class does not understand the presentation, you—not your students—have failed. Check to see if students understand the material by observing them during practice. If they are not performing in a manner you expected, they probably didn’t understand.
4. Offer individual feedback and move away. When you are offering a student corrective feedback, the tendency is to tell them how they should perform the skill and then observe them to see whether it helps. Usually, it is best to give the feedback and then move to another student so they can practice without fear of failing while you are observing. It usually takes some repetition before the feedback offered can be incorporated into a student’s skill performance.
5. Separate the management and instructional episodes. Consider the following instructions, given while presenting a new game: “In this game, we will break into groups of five. Each group will get a ball and form a small circle. On the command ‘Go,’ the game will start. Here is how you play the game…” (a long discussion of game rules and conduct follows). Because the instructions are long, students forget what they were asked to do earlier. Or, they think about the group they want to be in rather than listening to the game rules. Instead, move the class into groups of five in circles (management) and then discuss the activity to be learned (instruction). This will reduce the length of instruction and make it easier for students to learn how the game is played.
Inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment
If you wonder why inclusion is such an important practice in schools, think about this. What if you had a child or a brother or sister who had a disability? You would care about your sibling or child regardless of whether they had some type of disability. What if you were told your brother would never be allowed to do the things that other children do because of their disability? What if they told you that your child could never be placed in a regular school and would have to be isolated with others who had the same disability? Certainly, you understand that the disability would place limits on your brother, but wouldn’t you want him to be around other students in a regular school setting. Inclusion offers students with disabilities a chance for socialization and the opportunity to learn how to cope in society. Many people with disabilities have accomplished much. We all want the best for all students. Even though there are times when inclusion seems to make your job harder, don’t forget that it may also be your shining moment because you helped someone who didn’t have the same opportunities you had. Taking care of others less fortunate is the mark of a great teacher and a great society.
The term “least restrictive environment” (LRE) is used to help determine the best placement for students with disabilities. This concept refers to the idea that not all individuals can do all of the same activities in the same environment. However, the concept of zero reject entitles everyone of school age to some aspect of the school program. No one can be totally rejected because of a disability. All students, regardless of ability level, must have access to physical education. Thus, once it is established that a child has unique physical education needs, it is essential that the most appropriate educational setting be determined.
For a given student, the LRE can vary from day to day and could change within a given lesson. It will also vary depending on the unit of instruction and the teaching style. For a student in a wheelchair, for example, a jump-rope activity might be very restrictive, whereas basketball or Frisbee activities would be less restrictive. Consistent and on-going judgments need to be made since curriculum content and teaching styles can change the type of environment the student enters. In physical education, the environment is more than the physical surroundings (e.g., the equipment, the students, and the gym), but also the environmental climate created by teacher choices and attitudes. It is short-sighted to place students into a situation and then forget about them or to assume that one teaching style or activity will always create the LRE. Evaluation and modification of environments need to be continuous. Chances are that the LRE may change over time. However, the goal never changes; that we offer all students successful experiences for all programs offered by schools.