The first day of my placement was thoroughly interesting and insightful. This period is my observation period which I had intended to do for two weeks, in preparation for a four week training program. However, I learned that the term is only 5 weeks long so I will need to change the way I construct my project; PE teacher A suggested one week of observation, or using half of the day for observation and the other half coordinating lessons. One week of observation seemed inadequate to prepare lessons for the groups I’m working with: a range of primary and secondary school students, classes as small as six and some up to twenty, a range of abilities and needs including autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), behavioural difficulties and immobility. If there is less time in the term then using the mornings and afternoons differently may prove a more efficient approach so that I can adjust more observation time for the more severe cases and get on with physical activities with those who are appear more able.
I’ll be spending a majority of my time in the school sports hall, though I have mentioned that I was interested in seeing how the physiotherapists and occupational therapists (OT) works so I would like to spend time with them at some point. PE teacher A also told me he was going to arrange for me to spend time with another PE teacher who takes most of his lessons outside on the playground, so I can get an alternate perspective.
Lesson 1 - Class A
Already I can see that the children have a range of needs. The first class I observed was small with only six members and three teaching assistants. I noticed PE teacher A using Makaton, a form of sign language, when directing the class. They were primary students on the autistic spectrum who found it difficult to focus on tasks and motivate themselves. The PE teacher enlightened me about the national curriculum, stating that the class needed to be practicing athletics. He told me that this class may struggle to focus on that, but if we can get them running as fast as they can then that still adheres to national curriculum. For a class on the autistic spectrum, getting them to run around a track could grow quickly tedious for them. Instead we set up three rows of mats so that three different exercises could coexist simultaneously. The first row was a simple shuttle run, red and yellow cones set up indicatively of were the pupils needed to run to and from as fast as they can. The second row had soft shapes posing as hurdles for the pupils to leap over as they ran. And the final row was a space for pupils to jump a certain distance in as few leaps as possible, simulating a triple jump.\
There was one particularly energetic student, Pupil 1, who was physically very able, but struggled to stay on task. I had noticed the PE teacher and the teaching assistants (TA’s) physically directing the pupils, sometimes by the hand or in some cases literally picking them up from where they had run off, so I decided to hold this particular student’s hand and prompt them along to keep them on task. I encouraged them the same way I saw their teacher doing by clapping, using enthusiastic intonation, and using the students name. I don’t know Makaton, so instead I stuck a nice thumbs up and used other hands gestures to emulate the teacher’s instructions. I intend to use what tools I can on the internet to help me learn a few simple signs for classes like these.
I noticed a TA encouraging one student to push another who was sat in special push chair along the shuttle runs. The pupils seemed to enjoy working together and it seemed to keep them more interested in the tasks as well. When the PE teacher saw he responded positively and asked them to continue; I think receiving motivation from a second person was extremely motivating for them. This observation, for me, highlighted one of the many uses of having a teaching assistant attend a class.
One pupil, Pupil 2, appeared to struggle during this class. They appeared physically able, walking effectively when they arrived, but motivation was clearly an issue for them as they persistently lay on the floor, sometimes rolling, instead of running. The PE teacher explained to me that each student’s motivation is different, and once you find what motivates them it becomes much easier to get them on task. He said that for this student they were struggling to find what motivates them during PE. This made me reflect on what I aim to do with my own project and how I will motivate the students to perform tasks in the lessons I create. I know I want the students to have fun, that is of the utmost importance to me; because when anyone has fun doing something it is much easier to get them motivated to do it, similarly to what PE teacher A was saying. I know I want to make the lessons visual, using iconic characters like Spiderman and Super Mario, but how does one respond to a student who fails to respond much at all?
Lesson 2 - Class B
The second class of the day was a Secondary class who seemed to be some of the more able students. They listened well and followed complex instructions. PE teacher A informed me prior to the lesson that most of their difficulties were behavioural, and that they needed relentless encouragement to persevere. The teacher also told me that, being a secondary class, they like a level of independence and that less supervision is required for this session. This also allows them to make mistakes without much attention being drawn to them by the rest of the class, which is another method used to motivate them to persevere.
The class was a tennis skills practice, which was introduced slowly. The students all picked a racket and I made sure they were given a soft ball; a couple were tempted by the harder, and more colourful balls, but I reassured them they’d get a chance with those balls later and that the teacher had specifically asked them to use the soft balls for now, which they responded to well. The teacher increased the complexity of the tasks throughout the lesson by asking for forehand and backhand bounces of the ball, and then bouncing the balls of certain walls. Whenever the students proved they could be trusted to perform these tasks they were allowed to try the tougher balls. If they were seen misbehaving with the balls then they’d be given the softer balls again. For example, as soon as one student acquired a harder ball they hit it too hard against a wall, which was nothing to do with the current task set. The PE teacher’s response was immediate and calm, saying that the student proved they “cannot be trusted with the tougher balls and as a reward receives a soft ball again.” The pupil did not say anything in response and accepted the softer ball, later on they managed to earn a second go with one of the tougher balls; they did not make the same mistake twice.
As the session went on I started to understand more about the the class’s behaviour; the teacher had told me that this class enjoys sport and is motivated by sports, an interesting contrast to the previous group, but they are anxious to make mistakes and need endless encouragement. I noticed one student drop their racket on the floor out of frustration a couple of times when they failed the task. The PE teacher encouraged as many of the students as he could when going around the hall by making specific points about what he liked about their individual technique, but I thought he had missed this moment. However I was impressed to see that the student persisted, and it made me aware of how independent these pupils were obviously becoming, so perhaps PE teacher A had made a tactical move by ignoring this student, knowing they’d eventually get on.
At the end a game was introduced with rules similar to cricket. With a more sophisticated understanding of rules, the teachers had taught me prior to lesson time that lots of rules tend work well with this class as they can understand the exact boundaries of what is expected of them and what is not. He had also mentioned a system used throughout the school, which was reminder, warning, time-out. The students are familiar with this disciplinary system, and having rules to break in the class helps remind them of it which in turn keeps them focussed on tasks. The class enjoyed the game and put the skills they had practiced during class into effect. No behavioural issues got in the way during this time and the class left sounding positive. It was at this point in the session where it became obvious that these students enjoyed sports, and could potentially be an interesting class for me to teach.
Lesson 3 - Class C
The third class was particularly interesting for me. It was a class of five primary students who could barely move. Although there was one pupil, Pupil 1, was able to crawl effectively and even stand up by themselves occasionally. PE teacher A set up a bench as a slide for this pupil to slide down, which they enjoyed several times but, surprisingly, needed lots encouragement to go back on. Another pupil, Pupil 2, was completely blind and enjoyed playing with a ball with bells in it so they could hear it rolling their way. They could sit up and use their hands, but could not walk as far as I could see. They also had little grasp on language. One TA sat with this student, rolling the jingling ball towards them from a few feet in front. They said “ready, steady, go” as they rolled it towards Pupil 2, and after a while she said “ready, steady...” and encouraged the student to say “go,” which they managed only twice in the whole lesson. The TA displayed extreme patience, and explained to me that some of the children can hear you perfectly well but have a much slower cognitive process than usual. In other words, many pupils know exactly what to say but they struggle to say it.
The three remaining pupils were particularly immobile and were given assisted stretches by the trained TA’s. These were very similar to the assisted stretches I learned in my personal training course and I wondered if I would get a chance to have a go at some point in my more active periods of learning. I noticed a particular focus on the hamstrings and gluteus, which made a lot of sense as they obviously spent a majority of their time sat down. This must make it very difficult for blood to flow effectively to the legs, and may even result in adaptive shortening of muscles. The TA’s also used a circular motion with the thumb and finger, almost like a massage, which I predict is to stimulate blood flow in certain areas. These students were also encouraged to wriggle towards members of staff, a task which didn’t seem to exceed a student making eye contact with the allocated member. After a few attempts the TA resorted to tickling the pupil, which seemed to go down very well. This moment again highlighted for me the importance of having fun in PE to keep a child motivated, it was also clear that the TA and the child shared a bond which would also help in motivating a child whether they can perform the given task or not.
There was also a rebound instructor who was taking the pupils one by one on a trampoline to have a bounce, which most of them enjoyed. The PE teacher had told me while setting up the trampoline that empirical evidence to prove the trampolines help disabled students is incredibly difficult to find, something I had found already when reading the “Efficacy essay...” He said that they believe it definitely helps these students, but of course they can’t tell you it helps them. This also reminded me of the “Efficacy essay...” as there were a number of studies on autistic children that collated anecdotal data but failed to provide viable empirical data. Consistent results lacking in empirical data suggests that learning difficulties cannot be measured per se, but that observations are probably the most valuable evidence to obtain in a special school; so with that, does this mean that personal trainers could be doing more for individuals with special needs as they are trained to look at individuals and to talk with individuals in order to help them meet personal physical goals through a variety of means? I believe so.
Lesson 4 - Class D
The fourth class of the day was Tennis skills again and was very similar to the second class. The children however seemed slightly younger and more easily distracted. There was approximately twelve students in the primary years and two teaching assistants. PE teacher A increased the complexity of the tasks over time, like the second class, with slight variations. Instead of bouncing they were asked to roll the soft balls around the rim of the racket. After a few goes they had an opportunity to choose what skill they wanted to practice for a while, i.e. bouncing with a forehand grip or the rolling skill. The teacher had described to me the emphasis the school liked to put on the concept of choices, and that it was up to every student to make their own whether it was good or bad; all they needed was to be certain of the outcome. The mentioning of choices in this lesson however was used to make the students feel more independent, similarly to the older tennis class.
The pupils in this class seemed to enjoy activities as, like the secondary class, but were less focussed, like the younger ASD class. One student in particular approached me several times, asking why I was making notes. They even sat beside me when they were supposed to be practicing a ball skill. I remembered the first class of the day when I had chosen to actively prompt a distracted student into activity by hand leading them; I decided that with this slightly older and more articulate group that that action would not be necessary. Instead I answered the student’s questions politely but quickly referred them back to the task and asked them to show me how they do it. They responded well.
This session ended similarly to the second class with a cricket game using tennis rackets. Rules were explained and abided by throughout. This class was reasonably focussed though they were much more excitable, one student had a time out session for being too noisy and not listening.
Overall the day was an exciting and eye opening experience that I am eager to learn from. I briefly spoke to a physio-tech therapists who I want to collaborate with, an occupational therapist who has invited me to a morning session that she runs on a monday, and my PE mentor intends to introduce me to another one of the PE teachers on my second placement day so I can see how they handle classes. Looking forward to it!
Live life to the full.