While it is generally believed that inclusion in general physical education (GPE) classes contributes to positive feelings of acceptance and camaraderie between students with and without physical disabilities, a study by David Hough of Missouri State University was the first to test this theory.
Many students have limited opportunity to participate fully in GPE classes making many of them feel like unwelcome outsiders. According to an earlier study done by Goodwin and Watkinson, elementary and middle school age children reported a strong dichotomy between good days and bad days in their GPE classrooms. Good days were those days in which students with physical disabilities engaged in supportive social interactions, were given opportunities to share in the benefits of the GPE program, and were able to engage skillfully in physical activities with the class. Bad days consisted of those days when disabled students encountered social isolation through exclusion in physical activities or because they were seen as an object of curiosity by their classmates.
Through a series of random class observations as well as student interviews, the researchers found four general themes: 1) fun and cooperative interaction 2) friendships 3) aggression from male classmates without disabilities and 4) GPE was their favorite class. Overall, there were a relatively small number of social interactions between the students. The vast majority of these interactions were unidirectional meaning most of them involved those students without disabilities providing some sort of support or assistance to disabled students. Ideally, interactions that are reciprocal foster the most positive and healthy social relationships. At the same time, however, three of the four themes identified pointed toward positive associations with GPE class. And although social interactions were few, the vast majority of them were positive and supportive. As a result, this helped to foster good relationships between students with and without disabilities. Along this same line of thought, though, increased opportunities for structured social interactions would likely help to further develop these relationships.
The researchers develop several theories to try and explain the lack of social interaction between students with and without disabilities. Most of these are related to the efforts of the physical education teachers. Among these explanations are: 1) lack of teacher effectiveness 2) high transition times 3) excessive waste of instructional time and 4) occasional lack of interest in the activity on the part of the disabled students.
Overall the study lends partial support to inclusion in GPE. While social interactions were relatively few, the majority were positive, thus leading to greater feelings of inclusion in the class and group. Future research on this topic should take into account the curriculum, teaching methodologies and teaching strategies.
By Emily Banks