How to personalise PE for learners with SEND

Rachel Bown explains how the STEP model can help easily differentiate PE to fully engage all learners

Rachel Bown explains how the STEP model can help easily differentiate PE to fully engage all learners

29 Jan 2024, 5:00

If you asked 100 adults who said they hated PE at school why they hated it, my hunch is 99 of them would say because it was cold and they were rubbish at it. I believe strongly that all young people whatever their age or ability have the right to experience high-quality teaching that provides appropriate physical activity and meaningful competition. Sadly, too many still miss out on opportunities to experience success and to benefit physically and emotionally from movement.

Of course, sharing these benefits with all learners can’t happen by accident. It requires teachers to think about every young person and how best to meet their needs. There will never be a one-size-fits-all, but there are some fundamental principles that can help.

Using the STEP model (Space, Task/Time, Equipment, People), it is possible to adapt all activities to include everyone. By changing one or more of the parameters, anyone of any ability can have fun, feel included, learn, and experience success.

What is perceived as a simple activity to some can be overwhelming to others. If the activity is too easy or too hard, the result is the same for all: loss of concentration and possible behaviour issues. Therefore, all participants should be encouraged to challenge themselves whatever their ability within the same activity.

Competition can be ‘reframed’ so that individuals and groups compete against themselves, trying to beat their own best. This way, if the rules of the activity or the equipment are different it still feels fair.

Take a scenario: a ‘throwing and catching’ activity during a netball/basketball session.

The teacher lines everyone up in pairs with a basketball/netball. The pairs begin throwing and catching. However, one pair spends more time chasing the ball across the playground. The ball is too hard; They don’t like catching it.

Another pair are bored. It’s too easy, so they start laughing at the pair chasing the ball. Before long, the first pair opt to sit out. Suddenly the teacher has behaviour issues to deal with.

Sharing the benefits of PE with all learners can’t happen by accident

They move on to a game so there is some form of competition within the lesson. The able pupils like this. However, the pair who were finding the initial task too difficult are now completely overwhelmed. The ‘good kids’ don’t ever pass them the ball anyway, so they sit out again.

By the end of the session, the only thing the children who found the activity tricky learned was what failure feels like, reinforcing why ‘they hate PE’.

What could the teacher in this scenario have done differently?

Space: the pairs could have moved closer or further away from one another.

Task: the able pair could have tried throwing and catching using one hand or standing on one leg. They could even have come up with their own challenge.

Equipment: the hard ball could have been swapped for a soft ball or a pom pom.

People: Two able pairs could have joined together and tried throwing and catching two balls

Competition time: In your pair/small group how many times can you throw and catch successfully in 30 seconds? In your pair/small group decide your rules: if you drop it do you continue counting or do you go back to zero?

Game: Inclusion does not mean everyone is doing the same thing at the same time all of the time. With an embedded inclusive ethos, the learners won’t expect this either. They become empathetic to each other’s differences and accept that the rules or scoring systems can be different.

The important thing is to always focus on what a pupil can do, not what they can’t. What is your outcome and how can you ensure everyone gets there, accepting that for some this will take longer?

What often helps is to ask students themselves what will help them to be successful. This can only empower and motivate them because they feel valued.

Suddenly those 99 learners who could have grown up to have hated PE won’t have hated PE at all. They’ll have felt successful and won’t have got cold because they will have moved more. They’ll pass on positive messages to their own children about PE, leading to generations of healthier, happier people. Inclusion means everyone’s a winner!

Rachel Bown was named ‘FE lecturer of the year’ at the 2023 Pearson National Teaching Awards. Nominate a colleague or peer for the 2024 awards before 1 March  at 

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