Unified Physical Education Part 1: Why Physical Education Teachers Should Lead the Way on Inclusion

The school bell rings. The halls are filled with chatter, laughter and shouts from students trying to get each other’s attention. They make their way to the gymnasium and stomp up the bleachers to a seat with a view, surrounded by a cluster of friends. The energy in the filled-to-capacity gym is high. The marching band is ready to make their way in followed by the dance and cheer teams.

Something big is about to happen.

The invited guests sit together in a small section of the bleachers, eyes wide as they take in the spectacle of a group of more than 1,500 students. On this day, this high school population considers themselves one of the best in the state. They are bursting with pride over a national recognition that is about to be bestowed upon them and the banner that will be displayed in their school for everyone to see each day.

Today this school belongs to all students. Everyone is included in the celebration and is necessary to make this day a reality. Community leaders, administrators, faculty and staff, news media, and citizens all know that these students — and this school — have achieved something special.

They are being recognized as a Special Olympics Unified Champion School.

Not long ago, one of those students in the bleachers was ready to drop out of school and had even considered suicide. On the day of the school celebration, however, she was now re-engaged and cheering along with classmates, teammates and friends.

What helped lead to this transformation? An observant teacher had done the work they were trained to do — recognize the signs of a disengaged and apathetic learner — and had invited the student to join a Unified Physical Education class, made up of students with all abilities. That class made all the difference.

Engaging All Students

Anne Meyer and David Rose laid out the principles for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the 1990s. Before that, teacher preparation courses emphasized differentiated instruction. Since the days of the oneroom schoolhouse, teachers have been responsible for understanding individual student abilities and modifying lessons to accommodate their learners.

As Areej Alsalamah concluded in 2017, both UDL and Differentiated Instruction frameworks were designed to enhance student learning through considerations of environment, the student’s abilities and preferences, and the individual’s characteristics.

As physical educators, here is what we know:

  • Modifying the environment and removing barriers to create the least restrictive environment is essential for our students to have success in our classes.
  • Creating a safe environment where everyone is included, and supported by others, will promote learning and a sense of community.
  • Teaching kids to be confident and competent in their individual abilities will create lifelong confident movers.
  • Creating lessons that challenge all students but allow for success will give them the confidence to keep trying.

This is what we were trained to do as physical educators. We understand equality, equity and justice in the classroom.

Unified PE Concept

Think back to your successful teaching moments and undoubtedly you will focus on the moment when a student recognized their success and possibly other students recognized it as well.

When you teach all students in your class — regardless of their abilities — and create a safe environment for all students by removing barriers, whatever they may be, you are modeling the concepts of Unified Physical Education.

We are fortunate in our profession to witness the transformative power of students participating together who accept each other for who they are and the abilities they have. We see kids together who understand the power of inclusion and model this behavior for others to follow.

You make a difference for students of all abilities and know that inclusion is do-able. And, because you have witnessed the benefits, you can be a role model for colleagues who teach in other content areas.

I challenge you to do just that — and predict the reward will multiply tenfold for you personally, the school environment, and the community in which you work.

Changing a Student’s Life

The student in the story at the beginning of this blog post is a capable, disability-free young person who didn’t have a group to belong to — or a purpose.

Thanks to a teacher’s intervention, that student found a sense of belonging by being part of a Unified Physical Education class — and a Unified Champion School — where every individual was accepted, and the culture insisted that all students support and acknowledge each other and their abilities.

We teach because we can make a difference in the lives of every students!

To learn more about the practical applications of Unified Physical Education concepts, look for Part 2 of this blog post in June.

Additional Resources


Michael Messerole

Michael J. Messerole, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the assistant director of the School of Health and Kinesiology at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He has been a physical educator for 32 years. Michael regularly presents nationally on topics related to adaptive sports and is active in his community, serving on boards, as well as officiating and coaching sports for people with intellectual and/or physical disabilities.