Spark Trader Limited

Make sports more enjoyable for students with disabilities

Spark Trader Limited reports:

It was 11:28 on a Friday morning, and I (Nicole) walked into a second-grade classroom and patted Evan on the shoulder. Evan doesn’t usually like sports because he gets tired easily, but he gets excited when he sees me.

“Are we doing ninja adventures in adapted GYM class today?” “He asked.

He hopped excitedly to the gym, where I set up an obstacle course and put a ninja adventure story on the floor nearby. Evan grabbed the book and lay down on his yoga mat, ready to practice. I’ve been working with Evan for a few months now, and his willingness to start is a major accomplishment.

Personalized sports
For many of my students with disabilities, completing tasks that require movement, strength or endurance can be difficult and overwhelming. Many people have low muscle tone or other mobility related challenges. I’ve found that the best way to get them involved in sports is to use a set of characters they like — usually from a movie or TV show — and design a book about them. So far, I’ve written books about Super Mario, Marvel, PJ Masks, Toy Story, Ninjas lego and Sonic characters.

Spark Trader Limited
Spark Trader Limited

At the beginning of the year, I played an interlocution-style game with each student to learn what they liked and what character types and activities most motivated them. This helps me communicate with each student on their favorite topic, builds rapport and makes our meetings more enjoyable.

Each book I create contains up to 10 sports tasks (one per page). Each page includes a picture of the character, a short narrative, and related physical activities. For example, a character might need an escape route, so the page might guide a student across the balance beam four times to help the character escape.

Each page contains a large number of instructions for each step for students (for example, a “4” specifies the fourth task so that students understand how long they need to work) and a simple Boardmaker activity (for example, a stick diagram balance beam). This helps ensure that the most important information on each page is accessible to students of all abilities, whether I read the narrative to them or they read it.

The tasks I choose for each book are determined by each student’s individual educational Plan (IEP) goals. For example, one goal might be: “Using a narrow support base (feet together), Evan will demonstrate the ability to maintain balance while performing dynamic motor exercises four out of five times.” To improve Evan’s dynamic balancing skills, we can practice balancing on a line on the floor, then on a balance beam a few inches off the floor, then on a balance beam a few feet off the floor.

While Evan demonstrated balance control at every stage, I might introduce skills like bending over every few steps to pick up a beanbag without falling off the balance beam, or catching a thrown ball. These skills can be easily linked to our stories, which helps students feel less repetitive as they learn and master each skill.

For students I see once a week, like Evan, I write a new story book for each class. It was a lot of work, but I could easily edit the skills we were writing at the bottom of the page so I could use the books with other students. At each session, students are excited to see what these characters will do and actively participate in their learning.

The benefits of this strategy
These books have a positive effect on my students. First, the consistency and predictability of using stories every week eliminates many of the behavioral problems some of my students have in other classes. These books provide a routine that is highly engaged and reduces student frustration. In particular, predictable structures reduce cognitive load, which is especially important for my students with other disabilities because their working memory is affected. The students felt safe, supported and more calm and enthusiastic.

In addition, the students have made great progress in their physical ability and confidence. These stories give them the opportunity to practice agency by conveying that their physical efforts are important, even necessary — that they help save the world as heroes. As a result, students work harder to complete athletic tasks they would otherwise avoid or reject. Therefore, I can set more far-reaching IEP goals for students’ motor skills and achieve their IEP goals more comprehensively. Besides, as students’ abilities improve, they become more confident in their own abilities. I saw the difference in performance and confidence when they took regular PE lessons with their peers.