Including students with special educational needs arising from disabilities in post-primary physical education: an exploration of student and teacher voices

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McGrath, Una Patricia
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University College Cork
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Globally, there has been a shift towards a more inclusive educational system, particularly in the last 30 years (Cooper and Jacobs 2011; Shevlin, Winter and Flynn 2013). Current Irish Government policy aims to provide an inclusive educational environment for all individuals (NCSE 2013). This study focused on the inclusion of students with special educational needs (SEN) arising from a disability in physical education (PE) in post primary schools in Ireland: specifically, from the perspectives of students and PE teachers. Internationally, several studies have indicated insufficient initial teacher education in the area of inclusion, resulting in some negative attitudes and lack of perceived competency among practising PE teachers (Smith and Green 2004; Block and Obrusnikova 2007; Ko and Boswell 2013). In the Irish context, Meegan and MacPhail (2006) highlighted the lack of any large scale in-depth study, either quantitative or qualitative, relating to the focus of my inquiry. Additionally, research involving student voice in physical education and inclusion has been sparse (Coates and Vickerman 2010; Wickman 2015). In my study, depth of information was sought to capture the real life experiences of students’ and teachers’ perspectives on inclusion and physical education in post-primary schools. Researching PE teachers’ experiences and perspectives can inform inclusive policy and may identify how it can be interpreted and implemented in practice. In addition, apprising us of PE teachers’ continuing professional development requirements. Capturing and listening to the voice of the student is an integral part of this inquiry and may inform good practice, as they are a central stakeholder in the teaching and learning process. The current study is a multiple case study design (Stake 2006) based on four schools incorporating seven PE teachers and ten students presenting with different disability categories (autism spectrum disorder – ASD, deaf/hard of hearing and physical disabilities). The data collection methods consisted of two phases of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with PE teachers and one interview with the students. Additionally, these PE teacher research participants maintained a reflective e-journal within a school year, while a researcher diary was maintained throughout the duration of the study. Research questions related to PE teachers’ perspectives on and experiences of their lived work lives regarding inclusion and PE in the Irish context, their continuing professional development requirements relating to facilitating inclusion and students’ with SEN/disabilities, experiences of their PE classes. Data were analysed using Miles, Huberman and Saldaña’s (2014) framework of qualitative data analysis. Notably, the main theoretical frameworks underpinning this study were sociocultural theory (Vygotsky 1978), Lave and Wenger (1991), Wenger (1998) and Eteläpelto et al., (2013). While the biopsychosocial model of disability (WHO 2001) and the current perception of inclusive education (UNESCO 2005) conceptually guided the study. Additionally, the framework of the continuum of professional teacher learning (Feiman-Nemser 2001) was used to further inform the journey through the study. Overall the findings revealed that PE teachers portrayed a positive perspective towards inclusion with some caveats and challenges regarding class sizes, demanding school days, differentiation, segregation, category and levels of disability. Teachers in this study have observed an increase in the number of students with SEN arising from a disability in their schools. An unanticipated thematic category arose in relation to teachers’ perceived observation of poor fundamental skills and fitness levels amongst all students. Additionally, anxiety amongst students with ASD was voiced as a concern. Interestingly, PE teachers in this study felt that there is a tangible need for continuing professional development (CPD) specific to inclusive PE. The type of CPD preferred is of a practice based nature, involving students with SEN/disabilities. For the most part teachers articulated that their initial teacher education (ITE) was inadequate to meet their current needs regarding inclusion and PE. In relation to perceived competency, teachers felt somewhat confident and mostly comfortable with inclusion, but the word challenge emerged a number of times. Furthermore, teachers indicated that they feel that competitive, fast moving, team games are less conducive to inclusive practice. On the whole students with SEN/disabilities in this study felt included in PE. However, some students, particularly those with ASD had days when they felt marginalised. The reasons given related to the nature of the activity or uncertainty about the PE class beforehand. Students however voiced the importance of the social interaction aspect of PE. Evidently, the student data identified differentiated needs, supports and adaptations which reflected the students’ disability category or type. The positive perspectives and views of teachers towards inclusion in PE are encouraging, nonetheless, caution is advisable as the challenges identified need to be addressed at both policy and practice levels if these perspectives are to continue. PE as a distinctive subject offers a valuable learning opportunity from a social development perspective. It may have important implications for the child in society and their lifelong learning. Regarding initial teacher education (ITE) and inclusion, the following are suggestions to PE teacher educator (PETE) providers: firstly, a coherent, consistent and collaborative approach to inclusion within programmes across providers is advised. Secondly, the embedding of inclusive values and pedagogic strategies in the majority of modules within PETE programmes is important. Thirdly, practicum type learning experiences with relevant school populations are recommended during ITE. Currently the Teaching Council is in the process of developing a continuing professional development National framework known as Cosán (The Teaching Council 2018). Drawing from the conclusions of this study, Cosán provides an ideal opportunity to address areas of professional development identified by teachers both from a policy and practice perspective. The notion of the agentic PE teacher actively seeking adaptations within the curriculum to promote inclusion, and sharing this learning, provides a useful basis towards meaningful CPD. In practice, it is important for PE teachers to actively listen to the student voice regarding selection of content, their differentiated needs and supports according to their disability category or type. This original study has contributed to a sparsely, under-explored research area in Ireland, helping in some measure to fill an existing lacuna. It is essential to conduct further research to support PE teachers and students in order to optimise the learning experience and sense of belonging for all.
Disability , Inclusion , Physical education
McGrath, U. P. 2019. Including students with special educational needs arising from disabilities in post-primary physical education: an exploration of student and teacher voices. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.