For many, the Life Skills hallway on a school campus is a place of joy. Administrators can be found high-fiving and dancing with the students as a reprieve from their burdensome load. General education students often enjoy volunteering and assisting. Visitors can be greeted by peels of laughter and big smiles.
While working with students who have severe and profound physical or intellectual disabilities is incredibly fulfilling, it is also exhausting and taxing. Life Skills teachers are constantly going. And for all of the laughter and joy, there is plenty of shouting and frustration (and occasional cussing, biting, and head-banging) from students who have trouble communicating their thoughts and emotions.
The more schools can integrate this population with the general population of the school, the less the burden of responsibility falls solely on these very hard-working teachers.
Many schools have embraced the joys and challenges of their Life Skills department by making it a hub of the school rather than hiding it back in a never seen hallway, giving Life Skills students the opportunities to see and interact with their general education peers.
An excellent way to foster this type of culture is to implement an Adapted Physical Education/Partners PE program.
The idea behind a Partners PE program is having each Life Skills student paired with a general education student while participating in appropriately adapted physical education activities.
A Partners PE program will allow physically and intellectually disabled students the opportunity to engage in activities that they cannot do on their own while interacting with and building relationships with their general education peers.
This is just as important for the general education students as they learn about and build relationships with their differently-abled classmates. The relationships built often blossom into friendships and can lead to greater cultural awareness and sensitivity towards this generally misunderstood population.
This is also a way for Life Skills programs to combat the “enforced leisure” that many profoundly disabled students experience. A lack of physical activity can produce many undesired effects like increased body weight (which can lead to greater health problems), lower self-esteem and depression or psychological distress, as well as a greater dependence on others.
Being isolated on a Life Skills hallway only furthers their identity as “different” or an “other”.
A Partners PE program can improve the overall physical, emotional, and social well-being of students in both the Life Skills and general populations.
This will foster a more inclusive environment for the school as a whole while also providing great leadership training and cultural sensitivity amongst the general education partners which will have ripple effects throughout the campus. It is also a great opportunity for students who are interested in pursuing careers in education or physical therapy.
Implementing a Partners PE program takes planning and support from administration, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here - there are plenty of resources available from Regional Education Service Centers, and schools with these programs will be more than happy to share their experiences and resources with you. You may even go observe an established program (and consider taking your campus principal, PE teachers, and SpEd administrator, too).
Once you start really looking into this, you may decide to pursue certification in Adapted Physical Education!
Start by meeting with your campus administrator, but go in with a plan and resources (see our previous post Presenting Ideas for Change Mindfully and Effectively). If nothing else, present the benefits of a program, share your vision, and ask for permission to develop a proposed framework.
Start with a foundational purpose or goal statement - what do you want all shareholders to take away from this program.
Begin to formulate what this will entail. Consider:
-selection of gen. ed. partners (How many will you need? How will you recruit? Criteria/application/recommendation/interview)
-training of gen. ed. partners
-options for students who want to help but whose schedule will not allow them to take the schedule PE course (like student athletes)
Consult with campus and district Special Education and Physical Education leadership. They may have ideas and/or experience in Adapted Physical Education. You will also need to include whoever is in charge of student schedules on your campus.
Finally, it will be important that you communicate with the parents of your Life Skills students. Let them know about the benefits of Partners PE and assure them that the general ed students who will be working with their children will go through careful screening, will receive sufficient training, and will always be supervised.
Once you have planned the program and recruited, screened, scheduled, and trained students, now you can begin to see the fruits of your labor.
Start with some fun, team-building exercises to let partners get to know each other and become comfortable with each other. For some, this will be a little out of their comfort zone so allow time for reflection and feedback.
Move on to some basic group activities and games.
As trust and relationships grow, start having partners work on specific skills and form tasks.
As the program evolves, it can become an integral part of your Special Olympics preparation with pals assisting their partners in the specific sports or activities they will be competing in. As an added bonus, you now have trained and prepared volunteers to assist you at Special Olympics events!