Physical Activity for Students With Special Needs - Action for Healthy Kids
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Physical Activity for Students With Special Needs

Five Step Plan

Promote and implement opportunities for physical activity for students with special needs with these basic five steps:

1 – Safety First: It is very important to start with thinking of student safety. Check up on the special needs students in your school. Special needs students will have Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), which identify specific learning goals and objectives that are tailored to the individual student. These plans will include any special considerations for keeping students safe and healthy. Contact one or more members of the IEP Team to learn about the needs and limits of these students. Learn as much as possible about the disabling conditions that affect the students in your school.

2 – Integration of Wellness: Consider the IEPs and how wellness activities can support the overall educational plan for each student. Which wellness activities can easily be integrated into their day that will not only support their health but also encourage and support learning?

3 – Make the Connection: Connect and work with the other students, school personnel and parents to support the student in their general education as well as the healthy lifestyle specific activities. Inclusion is about both the student with special needs and their peers.

4 – Increase Participation: Focus on abilities versus disabilities and consider how the student can participate at the highest level possible to learn developmentally appropriate content. This may require various adaptations, such as changing equipment, the speed of movement required, modifying space or providing peer assistance through peer helpers.

5 – Promote healthy lifestyles: Consider how to instill messages about healthy lifestyles and assist students to increase capacity for making positive choices even when physical skills may be limited. This will allow students to enjoy greater inclusion and interaction with peers at school and beyond.

General Inclusion Ideas for All Students

Talk with students about how to include all students in activities being undertaken; ask students with disabilities (if they are comfortable sharing) to share what changes or modifications will be helpful to them. Prepare all participants about what to expect once an activity begins.

  • Students without disabilities may be encouraged to invite students with disabilities to join in at lunchtime, on the playground, and in the local neighborhoods.
  • Peer helpers can assist students who cannot do particular things like see, hear, or walk on their own by pushing their wheelchair, describing or reaching objects in the lunch line, using equipment, or demonstrating verbal directions. They can allow and encourage them to do what they can even if it takes longer.
  • Provide encouragement to students with disabilities by offering “good job” or a “thumbs up” when they try hard, make a good effort or succeed.
  • Let them have rests or extra turns to catch their breath if needed.
  • Peers should know when and where to get help for students in distress (for example, all should learn the signs of distress for asthmatic or diabetic students).
  • Give reminders for students who have trouble remembering or understanding directions.
  • Talk to students with disabilities just as you would other classmates during and outside of school.

Ways to Adjust Physical Activities to Include Students with Special Needs

  • Alter speed, duration, space used, equipment or/and rules of play.
  • Slow down the activity to accommodate students with limited mobility or poor aerobic fitness. Repetitions can be greater for higher levels of fitness or more mobile students.
  • Reduce the duration of activities for students with lower levels of fitness.
  • Utilize a smaller playing area to facilitate the ability to cover the area for less mobile or skilled students.
  • Use different kinds of balls that are easier to hold, throw or see easily. Goal balls have bells inside so that blind students can locate them. Whiffle and Nerf balls fly more slowly than solid ones and reduce the fear of being hit. Rackets/paddles with short handles are easier to strike with than those with longer handles. Batting tees and suspended balls facilitate hitting or striking activities.
  • Provide rule adjustments that increase incentives to include every team member or provide extra opportunities for less-skilled students to allow for greater participation. Playing non-competitive games provides action and skill practice and involvement of everyone.
  • Provide a peer-helper to participate with a student with a disability. Adult aids may be available to special needs students but a peer helper can often engage the student more fully and directly. The participation should provide choice and decision-making opportunities for the special needs student and a sense of participating with other students.
  • Ask students to create activities that are inclusive of the limitations of classmates.


  1. Lieberman, Lauren and Houston-Wilson, Cathy, (2009). Strategies for Inclusion, 2nd Ed. Champaign, IL:Human Kinetics. (2009)
  2. Orlick, Terry. Cooperative Games and Sports, Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics, 2006