The Problem with Adaptive and Modified P.E.

Total Read Time: 7-8 minutes

Imagine going to a class where the name of the class suggests you will be educated in a specific content. Lets call this hypothetical class “Sitting Down Education”. Now, in this hypothetical class, the assumption is that you will be taught the ins and outs of how to properly sit down. Perhaps even sitting down on multiple surfaces, multiple types of seats, even perhaps from different angles. You might even be taught where you can and can’t sit down. Like definitely not tables, because those are made for glasses, not…you know.
You show up for this class and they give you the most comfortable chair in the world. They tell you two things: “Stand in front of the chair” and then “Sit in the chair”. After the second direction, they physically assist you sitting in the chair. For an hour. No explanations, no movement breakdowns and no actual teaching. Perhaps most damning is there was no screening to see exactly what you are even capable of. They start with the assumption that you CAN’T do any of it! Just a direction to sit, and then essentially having that done for you. Oh, and the instructor doesn’t have extensive training in how to work with individuals who learn like you. He’s just the person that makes the most sense for the company who runs the class. You show up the next week, and the next and the next. It’s the same, week after week, after week. Would you bother to keep showing up? Is that a class worth your time and money?

That my friends, is essentially the current state of Physical Education (P.E.) for the special needs population who are required to take adaptive and modified P.E. (A.P.E.) Now please don’t get me wrong. I believe that A.P.E. was created with the best of intentions. A way to bring P.E. to a population of people who seemingly can’t do the neuro-typical version of the course is a phenomenal idea. But that idea in its current practice is not only produces a bad class, it’s also possibly detrimental.

Obesity rates are alarmingly high in The United States, and up globally for the general population. Those rates among the special needs community are even higher. Add in the occurrence of other health disorders due to a sedentary lifestyle and the trends are down right scary. They WERE also avoidable and ARE reversible.

The special needs community, no matter the cognitive level, are capable of learning basic and foundational movements and exercises (and much more) to help them engage in a more active lifestyle. Currently, A.P.E. classes and curriculum for TEENAGE students include walking on the track and riding tricycles. These activities do nothing for social inclusion and are not age appropriate. The assumption is the individuals significantly affected by developmental disability are incapable of learning to do structured running or to ride a bicycle.

This is compounded when the P.E. teacher is also the General education P.E. teacher receiving a stipend to teach the class and doesn’t have skills necessary to teach this population. So not only have the activities been severely watered down, but they also aren’t really being taught. That’s why they are being provided in the first place, because they don’t need to be taught. Can you even blame the General education teacher? He/She has been woefully prepared to provide any meaningful instruction, no matter how well intended they are.

And yet, This is the current system in which millions of children are forced to encounter in public and private schools across the country. The end result being that the students didn’t learn anything about their bodies, how to challenge themselves, how to use movement for social skills or simply that they CAN do fun and challenging things.


Now there are gyms and rec programs that serve the special needs communities. And some of them do amazing work. But many of them require pre-requisite skills or are personal training services. There are few that exist as a true educational experience, where students learn movement patterns and skills and how that translates to functional tasks on an independent level.  That is in large part due to there being a lack of people with the right experience or skills to do it.

Another reason is because it also requires multiple paradigm shifts in how we approach P.E., the methodology in how we teach it and the type of people needed to do it. That’s the challenge for some, like me, starting the paradigm shift from scratch with my own company BioKinetiX Fitness Technology. We call ourselves “The Movement Company”, not only because we teach movement, but because we are literally trying to start a movement. I am not a traditional P.E. teacher. I am a special education teacher, behavior specialist and functional movement specialist. I stopped working in schools to start this company because of what I was seeing in A.P.E. classes. We now consult with public and private schools as well see private clients.

Taking our approach we have taught students significantly affected by developmental disability to ride bicycles in as little as a couple of weeks, to the point they now are ready to join a bike team. We have taught kids to throw and catch where they are in the back yard having a catch with their parents for the first time ever at 13 years old. But it doesn’t even have to be complex tasks like that. Teaching students how to do proper planks, push ups and sit ups is just as valuable. Giving them a regular work out routine and teaching them how to independently exercise is crucial to helping them be healthy and active long after they are no longer in school. When they are adults they will need these skills because schools won’t be there to provide them. They need to be providing them now.


When I tell people about those accomplishments, on the one hand I selfishly feel proud to have been a part of them, but also uneasy about the fact that it isn’t an expected result. These kids are capable of extraordinary things. In so many ways it becomes about how you get them there. But you have to at least be willing to admit they are capable and start from there.

Unfortunately, currently we assume they are incapable. To borrow from our hypothetical sitting down class, we give them a chair and put them in it, instead of teaching them the act of sitting down on their own.

Interested to hear your comments and the experiences you have had with the A.P.E in your area, both good and bad.


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