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Which Physical Education Class Should We Pick for My Son With Down Syndrome?


This week I received a call from my son *George’s school. George is a fifth grader with Down syndrome. He currently spends some of his time in a self-contained special education classroom with students who work at about a second-grade level. He is also mainstreamed into a general education class for about two hours a day. He is instructed in language arts as well as the following elective classes: library, computers, physical education (PE), and band with “typical” fifth graders. The call from the school was to get my opinion on PE for the next school year. Should George be in a “regular” PE class or “adapted” (special education) PE in middle school?

In the ideal world, our conversation would start with an objective statement of the pros and cons and a request for my opinion on the issue. However, this case began with, “Do you really want your son in PE with middle school boys? They mainly play sports in those grades.” This was then followed by, “Do you realize he will have to change into a uniform for PE?”

This seemed like a scare tactic. The conversation seemed to highlight all that could go wrong in a regular PE class. If the school was trying to deter me from placing my son in a regular PE class this seemed like a “good” strategy. Because of his low muscle tone, George may not be the fastest or strongest. I also acknowledge that despite years of occupational therapy, clothes still sometimes end up inside out and backwards. I’m certain this is not a “cool” look amongst the middle school set.

On the other hand, George loves sports and is very athletic. You name the sport and he tries it. He has medaled in Special Olympic golf, tennis, and track. He loves to shoot baskets with the other kids during his big brother’s basketball practices. He had a blast swimming and tubing with his cousins this summer. He is a champ at Wii sports, holds his own in wrestling matches with his dog and brother. Do all middle school boys excel at PE? If there is an area where George could blend in and be included with typical peers, it would most certainly be PE.

As an elementary educator I understand the difficulty of differentiating, mainstreaming and inclusion. Is it fair or even possible for one teacher to truly meet the needs of so many kids with so many levels? Pro-inclusion advocates may say, “There are no special education Targets so my child needs to be fully included in the real world,” But Target visits are about 30 minutes long, and Target does not have objectives, state standards, behavior plans and Individual Education Plans.

I also see the issue from a parent perspective. When I see a kid with Down syndrome who appears to be more independent, I ask the parents for their advice. The answer is usually that they’ve insisted on high expectation for their child and most often have pushed for full inclusion in schools.

So, which PE did we pick? I asked the school to assign George a peer to make sure he has put on his uniform correctly. I told them each year it’s getting harder and harder to fit in academically with his peers. Therefore, PE needs to be an opportunity where he interacts and rises to the occasion of fitting in with kids in his age group. I am also hopeful that this provides an opportunity for his fellow students to learn compassion, empathy and awareness. I believe this choice is a win-win opportunity for all. 

*Names have been changed