Tracy Sharlow, a member of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Teachers Association, was recently named 2016 National Adapted Physical Education Teacher of the Year. Working more than 30 years with children with special needs, Sharlow believes quality adapted phys ed goes way beyond developing fundamental motor skills. It also helps students practice pro-social skills for everyday life and establish a love for movement so they can pursue a healthy lifetime of physical activity.
"ALL kids need to move and play," Sharlow said, citing research showing that movement-based activities can improve academic performance and that lack of activity can be damaging to children's health.
Sharlow uses a variety of "cool tools" to engage, communicate and help her students manage their emotions and focus:
The magic of music
Music motivates movement. She uses "Instant Activities," like dance or performing rhythmical activities, to engage students the minute they enter the gym. This reduces off-task behavior immediately.
Music helps with transitions to new activities. Relaxing music eases difficult transitions such as cooling down and lining up to return to class. Transitions from fun activities are difficult for children with special needs, especially children who are on the spectrum. The relaxing music has become a cue for her students that PE is coming to an end.
For a list of suggested music for dance, movement and practice following directions, go to tracynsharlow.blogspot.com.
Use visual cues
Student safety is one of the most important factors in student behavior management. Sharlow's first unit in September focuses on following directives like "Stop," "Freeze," and "Come to the teacher." Practicing these directives, using a visual stop sign, can keep students safe throughout their school day, at home and in their community.
Other visual tools include PECS, or Picture Exchange Communication, such as the "Big Board Choice," which rewards students, who cooperatively participate, with some time in their favorite activity.
Similarly, Sharlow offers " First-Then Strips," where students do an activity of the educator's choice and then do the activity of their choice. Using this tool can reduce anxiety, she said. For example, she might show students a strip that says, "First we will go to the track and run, then we will return to the gym for "Big Choice."
She uses other visual cues for positive reinforcement.
"Our swim program has a 10-lap warm-up then free time where the TAs and I challenge each student to try something new. Some of our students become anxious because they do not understand how to count their laps. Each lap the student would take a poker chip off the Velcro strip board of a picture of a swimmer doing laps and swim across the pool to place it on the board with the universal sign of 'ALL Done.'"
Some students with special needs have spatial awareness issues and most are visual learners. Props help students understand where their body is in space. "When I want the students to show full extension of a body part, a prop (such as a Statue of Liberty PEC) and the use of teacher-made 'torches,' might help them have a visual of how to do a full extension," Sharlow said.
Adapted Physical Educators are an important part of the Special Education Consult Team and need to collaborate with classroom teachers, teaching assistants, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, board certified behavior analysts, counselors and parents. Collaborating as a team improves programming and allows a focus on individualized student needs, Sharlow said.
Professional development that is specific to physical education is crucial. One great resource Sharlow suggests is the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, www.nysahperd.org.