5 Strategies for Promoting Positive Behaviors in Physical Education Class

Managing challenging behaviors can make or break a physical education class. As an adapted physical education teacher for grades K-5, I know that physical activity and movement often bring students to a heightened state — and if we don’t teach them safe and appropriate coping skills, they may demonstrate undesirable behaviors in class.

In this article I will share strategies for promoting positive behaviors in physical education so you can set up your class for success. Within each strategy you’ll also find specific examples that reinforce the strategy.

1. Prioritize Planning

We all put a great deal of time and effort into our unit and lesson planning — but it’s important to think beyond the overall objectives of the lesson if you want to create an environment where students can practice and engage in positive behaviors.

Start by establishing set routines and then clearly share the schedule of activities for each lesson. This can ease the anxieties some students have which may cause them to act in an undesirable way. When students are comfortable and aware of what will happen in each PE class, they can take the energy they would have spent worrying about what comes next and direct it toward more positive thoughts and actions during class.

Organizing and clearly defining your gym or other class area can also promote positive behaviors. When setting up your space, think about how the students will move through the activities and how you will transition from your instruction to the main activity.

Do students have to retrieve or return equipment? Do you have to adjust any equipment in between activities? These transitions and idle time can create a situation where students may find ways to display undesirable behaviors. Set up your space with clearly defined transition areas and use as much of your space as possible. Quickly transitioning from activity to activity will limit the down time for students and keep them focused on the task at hand.

2. Streamline Student Equipment Selection

When it comes to equipment, students can be very selective. Students may have a particular ball they like the best or they may want the ball their peers are currently using. If given the opportunity to freely select whatever equipment they want to use, students can become involved in easily avoidable conflicts.

By implementing different systems into your lesson, you can still provide choices and options to students, but you are still in control of those choices.

In my class, for example, students are assigned a specific color for each lesson. This color determines which warm-up they do, which equipment they use, and which area they are in during the lesson.

Having assigned colors has made managing equipment a quicker and more streamlined process. Students no longer argue over who uses what piece of equipment during each activity. This small piece of classroom and equipment management has promoted a lot of positive behaviors in the gym and has helped reduce confrontation between students.

3. REALLY Get to Know Your Students

Knowing your students and creating an environment where they can succeed will greatly increase your class’s ability to participate positively. All students bring different life experiences to school each day and unfortunately for some students, those life experiences have had a negative impact on them and their development.

If you understand any gaps your students might have in their skill development, you can organize your lessons and activities to best meet their needs. Knowing what students may have experienced in their young lives will help you understand how they may react in different situations.

During your planning process, create situations throughout your lessons where students can succeed. Having students experience a successful situation during an activity can help them build confidence and resilience. As students develop their skills you can begin to push them beyond their comfort zone. They will feel more comfortable in trying new skills or accepting feedback when they feel they are supported.

If you take the time to develop a strong relationship with your students, it will create a sense of belonging for them. Students who experience traumatic events in their lives often struggle to form healthy and meaningful relationships with peers and adults. Building and fostering a relationship with your students will help you get the best out of them — and when students experience setbacks or experience a less-than-desirable situation, they will be more willing to talk and work with you on possible solutions.  

4. Master Conflict Resolution

Conflicts will happen in your physical education class. Even if you have clear expectations and guidance that helps students work through many situations, there will still be times when your mediation is needed.

When an undesirable behavior occurs, your reaction and how you handle the situation will have a big impact on what type of resolution is reached. During a conflict situation, it is important to ensure the safety of everyone involved. You may have to move students to a different location or remove equipment from the area. It is important to do this calmly to avoid escalating the situation.

When possible, approach the student who has exhibited the undesirable behavior and begin by gathering information. You can do this through asking open-ended questions, such as “What happened?” This allows the student to share the events from their point of view.

What a student experienced and reacted to might be completely different from what we witnessed. You can then help the student connect their emotions to the situation. An example of this would be to say, “You felt upset when John took your ball from the basket.”

Many students know how they feel, but they are not able to use language to express how they are feeling. By summarizing the events and connecting an emotion, students will learn to build the capacity to express their feelings, helping them in future encounters.

5. Use Guided Interactions and Scripts

A great way to help students learn and practice safe and appropriate interactions is through scripted dialogues. As students participate in different activities, guide them through interactions using verbal or visual prompts and modeling.

Having students practice positive communication skills with their peers during various activities will help them learn the skills being practiced, develop self-confidence, and reinforce various social skills they are practicing throughout their school day.

Using visual prompts to help students through their interactions allows them to take ownership over their practice and work positively with their peers. Through guided practice students will gain the skills needed to communicate during activities and gameplay and will have a better understanding of gameplay concepts and strategies. When students are positively engaged, you’ll notice more positive behaviors during class.

Additional Resources

Featured image by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash.

Eric Kohl

Eric Kohl is an adapted physical education at the Bird/Morgan School in East Rochester, NY, and the 2021 SHAPE America Eastern District Adapted Physical Education Teacher of the Year. Eric also serves on the executive council for NYS AHPERD. Follow him on Twitter @MrKohlPE.