I can honestly say that, in my NQT year, I was neither disability aware, nor fully clued-up about inclusion. I was often rushing around and always focusing on trying to be the best I could be: creating engaging lessons, managing the administrative tasks required of a teacher, organising fixtures, being a form tutor, and all with a smile on my face. As an NQT, there simply wasn’t enough time for me to consistently consider ‘difference’ in my lessons. But, over the course of my teaching career, I picked up on good practice, watching how other teachers reached all students and then tried to mimic this in my lessons. For instance, I noticed that the teachers who seemed to have the best relationships with their students (and got the most from them) were those that spoke easily, freely and simply to them. I noticed that the staff I admired addressed inequalities explicitly, bringing students who appeared left out back into a lesson without singling them out.
Inclusivity can be daunting for some NQTs (and some established staff), who feel they may not have received enough training at university to work with students with additional needs. For many beginner practitioners, the main barrier is often engaging with the student in a way that focuses on their desire to be included in the lesson and challenged, and not on their disability. This emphasises the importance of forming a good relationship with your students, building a rapport with them that will make talking to them easier. Below are a few ideas that may help you improve your confidence and your ability to be more disability-aware in your lessons.
Be aware of the language you use
Language often prevents meaningful interaction between teachers and pupils, with teachers afraid of ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘causing offence’. Try not to get too hung up on using the correct terminology; language is always developing and changing. The most important thing is to be aware of its power. I like to begin a lesson by explaining to students, ‘If you hear me say anything that offends you, you must tell me. If you don’t like me calling you by the name in the register, tell me what your preferred name is. Or if you notice me saying “run around” and those of you who are seated would prefer me to say “roll around”, tell me. And I will get better, and we can learn together.’ I say this in a jovial way, encouraging them to ‘catch me out’ to show that I’m approachable.
Look at what each student can do, rather than at what they can’t do
Many decisions are taken away from people with additional needs; they are often told what they can or cannot achieve because some teachers make assumptions about their limitations. Try to recognise what students can do and capitalise on it. You can do this by providing options, using different equipment (for example, changing the weight of a ball so it’s lighter) or modifying rules (for example, making sure that everyone touches the ball before scoring) or providing information in a different way (for example, giving students interactive information sheets). Socialisation is also an important aspect of PE lessons, as is sharing joint experiences: children are inquisitive, so encourage discussion about what can be done to modify activities and give friends and classmates the opportunity to provide support.
Have a stock of additional equipment
Balloons, scarves, tactile balls and fidget spinners can all be used to support students with additional needs. Have them as a back-up, to use if and when it feels appropriate. Balloons, because they float slowly in the air and can be used to allow more time for students to respond or get in position to receive the balloon, rather than a quicker moving, traditional ball. Scarves made of a light, soft fabric can be traced around the body to encourage range of movement. They can also be used to time a catch if the student’s reflexes are delayed. Tactile balls help children grip more securely, and fidget spinners help children focus. Technology can also be a very effective tool, as some children respond well to images or instructions on an interactive device rather than voice commands.
Find out how you can raise awareness of further opportunities
Many community sports clubs are beginning to become more inclusive. Check out your local clubs and find out how they are working to support people who have similar needs to your students. Then, if appropriate, encourage your student to get involved. There are also organisations, such as Dwarf Sports Association UK, UK Deaf Sport and Special Olympics, that have lesser-known international sports pathways, some of which are linked to the Paralympics, Deaflympics and World Games. Getting involved with these organisations can give young people access to role models, opportunities to become part of a new community and, perhaps, the opportunity to compete at a high level.
Although these suggestions may seem basic, many of these concepts are still not commonplace in schools. They are the first steps to becoming a disability ally. To develop as a practitioner takes time and commitment and I recognise it is hard, with the day-to-day challenges of being a teacher. However, it is vital to always reflect on your practice and see if you can improve it. I hope this blog encourages you on your way.
Rebecca Foster was awarded an MBE in recognition for her services to inclusive sport and supporting young people to achieve their potential. Her background is teaching Physical Education in secondary schools. She moved into higher education and has lectured to both primary and secondary teacher trainees. She is Course Leader for the MSc Adapted Sport, the first course of its kind in UK.
Her passion is disability sport and, after a successful athletics career in mainstream sport, she decided to give something back to the community. She went to night school to learn BSL and then volunteered at UK Deaf Athletics for 12 years, where she was Team Coach and Team Manager at three Deaflympics. She does support work with vulnerable young people and considers herself an ally amongst the disabled community.
She is also co-author of Physical Education for Young People with Disabilities: A Handbook of Practical Ideas Created by Practitioners for Practitioners.