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Special needs and physical education: Practical inclusion strategies to remove barriers to the curriculum

All children are entitled to participate in PE lessons at school in the UK. Education should be inclusive and where appropriate SEND pupils must be included in the same lessons as their peers even if some form of adaptation is required for them to gain access to the activities. This is the challenge as for PE to be really inclusive, the variety of activities needs to reflect the abilities of all pupils.

This is practical guidance for those who support children with SEND to help them get the most from adaptations that address student’s needs in lessons in mainstream and special school settings.

Studies have found that children with SEND are less likely to be actively involved in physical education compared to their peers because of difficulties with issues such as gross motor skills, motor planning and development, more time needed to process instructions in a fast-paced environment and sports that are not relevant so limit success.

PE offers so much to children who find it difficult to communicate and work together as a team or small group. Given the right support and activities children with SEND can learn how to share and practice turn-taking in a fun and informal setting.

PE - Hall

1. Sensory integration

Sports halls and gyms typically are large and brightly lit which are major barriers to students with some types of neurological and sensory differences. Poor acoustics, squeaky trainers on a wooden floor, scratchy PE kit are all likely to cause discomfort. Experiment with how many lights are switched on in the sports hall; not so dark it is like a cave or too bright that it is dazzling! Schools may find other indoor lighting options that are more cost-effective, taking advantage of green energy incentives for LED light bulbs or simply relying more on natural lighting where possible.

Be aware of how voices and music echo in a large room too. Notice boards and crash mats can absorb sound so place them around the room. Use equipment to divide the hall into smaller work-friendly zones.

If it is too sunny and bright outdoors let children wear caps, visors or sunglasses. Better that they take part wearing sunglasses than not take part at all.

2. Behaviour

Behaviour is more of a concern in PE lessons, where there’s a lot of movement and equipment around. Incidents can happen which may not occur in the classroom so activities should always be individually risk assessed and cross-referenced with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and Behaviour Support Plans (BSPs). Teaching Assistant support and knowledge of an individual is often key here.

3. Therapeutic issues

Most sports provide us with dynamic and active movements which generally make us feel better. Most of us find that going for a run or doing yoga makes us feel relaxed or focused or both. Similarly this can be great therapy for children with SEND too who do not always recognise their emotions. By helping to realise when they are feeling anxious and how exercise may help, PE can be the place to learn better self-management skills. Bouncing on a trampoline or trampette is an amazing way to get back on track and in a better frame of mind for learning.

4. Co-operative games

Physical Education is the perfect opportunity for team building exercises. Instead of competitive games, the class can focus on creative games that only succeed when a whole team works together. Parachute games are a fantastic way to get everyone involved using different objects to fling upwards, different styles of parachute and visuals to support instructions. Children will learn whilst they are having fun so choose activities that do not over-emphasise the need for fast-paced skills and quick thinking.

5. Professional development

PE as a subject is so useful for behaviour management and as part of a sensory diet. It also plays a part in a child’s wellbeing and may be essential if the student has a medical condition that is enhanced with exercise. For example a child with Prader-Willi syndrome will require a controlled and well-planned PE programme to maintain their health. There should be an emphasis on the experience and knowledge of the PE teacher here as they may be the professional implanting programmes alongside external agencies. Occupational therapists and Physios may work closely with the PE teacher. PE teachers need training on conditions such as epilepsy and diabetes so that they are aware of how health may impact on their PE lesson and vice versa.

Attending an IEP meeting or annual review is the ideal way for PE teachers to become involved in the process of inclusion. With the other therapists in attendance, it is possible to develop goals that fit the physical education curriculum and are tailored to a student’s unique needs.

6. Accessibility

Consider that softer surfaces such as sand or wood chips make it difficult to manoeuvre a wheelchair. Gym surfaces and outdoor mats are one way to make physical education more accessible. Another way is to level the playing field by having the whole class play a game such as sitting volleyball or scooter soccer.

7. Alternatives

Sometimes participation in a traditional PE lesson with the rest of the class is not possible due to behaviours on the day or associated issues. But it is still possible do physical activities away from the class or to incorporate physical activity and healthy lifestyle habits into the school day:

  • take frequent ‘movement breaks’ by going for a walk, cycling or spending 10 minutes on the playground
  • develop a daily 15 minute workout routine
  • get permission to use the school’s fitness room – sometimes curiosity about various machines is enough to kick-start an individualised exercise program
  • follow through on the student’s interest in a specific sport, such as tennis or gymnastics, and develop a fitness routine around that
  • follow through on a student’s interest in fitness games on Wii
  • establish a reward system based on taking part in increasing amounts of time in a PE lesson

8. Adaptations

  • altering the rules of games and marking out different pitches to make play possible for children in wheelchairs
  • playing SEND-friendly games such as Boccia and Curling
  • nets that are height adjustable for students in wheelchairs
  • soft and textured balls for children who are less coordinated or have slower reactions
  • bells with balls inside for those with visual impairments
  • differently sized bats and rackets to suit all needs
  • weighted balls for those children who respond well to deep pressure

9. Specific strategies to support access to PE

  • Create a structured PE lesson plan
  • Design a meaningful PE teaching area that can be understood
  • Increase participation through supportive communication and language skills
  • Use visuals and be consistent

10. Starting to design challenging fun and therapeutic PE lessons

  • Understand barriers of learning to the PE curriculum for children with SEND
  • Create learning opportunities through effective differentiation
  • Make PE meaningful using relevant activities and resources
  • Promote learning objectives that can be addressed through the PE curriculum

Improve your knowledge on this subject further and have the ability to talk to colleagues about your situation by booking onto our course Special Needs and PE: Practical Inclusion Strategies. Take a look at all of our PE courses to see how else we can help you improve your lessons.


Written by Clare Stockley
Clare is a qualified PE teacher who has combined her training with specialist SEND approaches to develop wellbeing in children. She has extensive knowledge of how behaviour support plans and IEPs can provide an individualised approach to meeting complex needs, using a multi-sensory and therapeutic approach to physical activity across the school day. She has an MEd in Special Education and has been published in the Good Autism Practice Journal focussing on adapting PE for children with autism and SEN.

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