Margarita Hernandez taught elementary physical education in the Marina School District. Last year, she had three students with disabilities in her physical education K-1 classes who were nonverbal or had significant language delays. She had trouble interacting with them because of being unsure of what they understood; she often felt they were missing instruction based on their behaviors, even though all of them had good hearing. All her classes were approximately 20-30 students, depending on the grade level. Most special education students in this school were included in general physical education. Two students, Emily and Shane, came to class with instructional assistants. While Emily had no verbal language skills, Shane had limited use of one-word utterances. The other student, Max, used one or two words at a time and seemed to follow some directions. He often needed extra help and guidance to perform activities.
The classes were focusing on National Standards one and two, motor skills, and movement concepts.
Considering the above anecdote of a typical inclusive early elementary physical education class, some children with disabilities who may have limited language ability can pose particular challenges to general physical educators. Typical methods of communicating can be frustrating, both for the student, and for the educator, since language ability of these children may lag significantly behind both their chronological ages and physical abilities. Recent research revealed even teachers trained to observe for nonverbal communication often did not acknowledge a child's communicative intent (Keen, Sigafoos, & Woodyatt, 2005). For a physical education teacher not trained in working with nonverbal communicators this can be even more challenging. Even those trained in adapted physical education may have limited training in language development. In a review of the current adapted physical education texts, these resources had limited information on language development (e.g,, Sherrill, 2004), instructional strategies for verbal communicators (e.g., Seaman, DePauw, Morton, Omoto, 2003), the role of the speech and language therapist (e.g., Block, 2007; Kasser & Lytle, 2002), descriptions of common disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, or pervasive developmental disabilities with limited or no specific information on language (e.g., Winnick, 2005), and in one resource a complete chapter on communication disorders with a primary locus on deafness and hard of hearing (Auxter, Pyfer, & Huettig, 2005). While these professional texts present significant information regarding teaching strategies, adaptations to the environment, person, or task, they provide little information regarding language development and its role in instruction. Because professionals are frequently trained in isolation of other disciplines, the purpose of this article is to describe language skills of children considered to be severely language delayed or non-verbal, and to discuss how the general or adapted physical education teacher can communicate with these children effectively to provide instruction accessible to the learner in an inclusive setting. Alternative methods of communicating, or multiple methods of communicating may be needed to assist these children in learning developmentally appropriate physical activities. Effective communication can also help reduce many behavioral challenges.
These authors have been working in the field of special education for over 20 years in their respective areas of expertise and have been working collaboratively for the past tour years. In addition, all authors worked extensively in the public schools. Finally, the authors have had experiences working with children with severe language delays.
Children with disabilities often do not develop skills in the same time frames or in the same sequence as their typically …