It is well known that physical activity is a component to a healthy lifestyle. For a number of years, the State of Iowa has mandated that all students K-12 have access to physical education (PE). Meeting this requirement for special needs students may entail accommodations and strategies to provide an appropriate PE program that is appropriate to their needs.
As a Heartland AEA Adaptive Physical Education (APE) consultant, Robin Olberding helps districts and schools develop PE programs that are suitable and appropriate for special education students. She also helps identify students in need of a special PE program and provides modified equipment for students with severe disabilities so they can participate in PE classes.
One program that Olberding has found to be successful for students with and without disabilities is Peer Partner Physical Education. Peer Partner PE is an inclusive approach to physical education that pairs students with special needs with their general education peers (peer partner). The peer partner demonstrates PE activities and motivates their students to participate in the PE class.
The program is designed to be adaptive for the special education students to participate. The same sports are played as in regular PE, but with some modifications of activities and equipment.
“For example, they still play Badminton, but perhaps the net is lowered or they use a bigger birdie or balloon to hit back and forth,” says Olberding.
One of the newest Peer Partner PE programs was started at Norwalk High School in the fall of 2011. Olberding connected Norwalk educators with other schools that had the program in place. She then met with the school team for initial program development and training. She provides ongoing observation and development as the school needs.
“Robin does a great job promoting the program and concept,” says Chris Larson, Special Education Transition Coordinator at Norwalk High School. “It was something she said once that really sold me on the program. She said, ‘Whenever we take [special education] kids into a class setting, we always fit them in with the general education kids. Just once we could have regular kids fit into their world.’”
Participating students, both peers and special need, are selected to participate. Peers are trained about disability awareness and how to interact with special needs students and are informed of the expectations of the experience. Both peers and special needs students receive physical education credit for the class.
“The peers sign up to help out, but they get so much in return,” Olberding said. “Everyone realizes that we’re more alike than we are different.”
Larson has seen that comfort levels between special education students and peers have increased. Relationships have developed and deepened due to the social interaction that the Peer Partner PE program provides where a regular class setting may not allow.
Larson knows that the class and relationships are important to the students. He remarks that peers often check-in to PE early so they can go to the special education room to escort the students to class.
“I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard a student say, ‘I really felt like staying home today, but I didn’t want to miss Peer Partner PE,’” Larson said.
Word of the program also travels to students’ homes. During IEP (individualized education program) meetings, Larsen frequently hears the praises of the program by parents of special needs students. “Parents tell me, ‘I don’t know what we did before Partner PE; that’s all my kid talks about!’”
Larson credits the continued success of the Peer Partner PE program to cooperative Norwalk students and educators, namely Michelle Wiedmann, PE teacher, and Amy Lester and Jude Braune, special education teachers.
Knowing the positive outcomes of students participating in Peer Partner PE, Olberding continues to help schools develop programs. To date, she has helped 10 districts start Peer Partner PE programs in either the elementary and/or secondary level.