SEND Physical Education and the challenges

calendarMay 3 2020

Adam Price talks about the challenges that pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) pupils face when participating in Physical Education (PE) classes. Competition, communication and sensory processing, can make SEND Physical Education challenging but Adam addresses these challenges and suggests how PE teachers can make adaptations to enable those students to access the lessons.  

SEND Physical Education – the challenges

Before we get into this I would like to write this disclaimer – I am sure there are, and am aware of, many excellent Physical Education (PE) teachers that cater unbelievably well for SEND…..That being said, during my 7 year teaching and leading SEND Physical Education (or PS), I have faced a wide range of needs, abilities and challenges. I thus have a good appreciation for the concerns and issues that SEND students experience in PE and general education. Through effective baseline and entry profiles, I have been able to gather responses and evidence from my students on why mainstream PE was challenging for them but also what has allowed them to be successful and engage within the PE lessons I have delivered.

Repairing and improving student trust

Using reflective curriculum planning, we have been able to successfully develop and implement a truly holistic approach to SEND Physical Education. It focuses on the attributes developed through PE such as resilience, teamwork or leadership. After careful consideration, ‘traditional’ sports have been reshuffled to create a global PE curriculum, which focuses on inclusivity and engagement. This has allowed us to repair and improve student trust in the education they are receiving. It can be powerful tool to help them grow, progress and manage the world around them.

In England, it is compulsory for all students to take part in PE lessons until the age of 16. This includes SEND students through inclusive and adaptive teaching and, where possible, in the same lesson as their peers. This creates numerous challenges for PE teachers around the country given the variety of activities delivered and its requirement to reflect the abilities of all students.

The Challenges

Research has shown that students with SEND disengage from PE due to a range of issues, many caused by what is often a fast-paced environment. Poor fine or gross motor skills, cognitive processing times, impaired motor planning and development, sensory issues and the perceived irrelevance of the subject all contribute to disengagement. Add to this sensory concerns or issues around getting changed for lessons and it is clear as to why so many SEND students struggle with PE.

Inclusive SEND Physical Education offers so much more than just physical learning opportunities. Students can struggle to process the environment they find themselves in. They may have difficulty in communicating or struggle with personal space and boundaries. However, if students are provided with the appropriate support and activities, they can all develop these skills and attributes. It is an engaging and exciting manner by which to gain long-lasting life skills.

So what are some of the issues facing students?

~Competition based learning

~Professional development and experience

~Behavioural expectations

~Sensory processing

~ Accessibility

Competition based learning

Competitive activities can often lead to poor self-worth and self-esteem for all students especially those with SEND. When pitched naively, the more able students are often less inclusive given the desire to win and be the best. Given the communication difficulties some SEND students face, this can lead to those students being side-lined. No matter how unintentional this is, those students will become disengaged with the learning and the very essence of Physical Education, which is being active whilst learning.

Competitive scenarios can bring out best in but also the worst in people. Teens and adults both feel a perceived pressure and drive to not fail, therefore competition requires a skilful approach to its implementation. This is not to say that competitive based activities should be avoided but that the approach and framing of any competition needs to be carefully considered and they can help develop resilience

Considerations: can you embed more cooperative games into your curriculum?

Professional development and experience

Given the wide range of needs catered for in education, it is very difficult for PE teachers to be experts in all conditions and diagnoses. Also, the differing levels of need, even between two students with the same disability, means it is hard to find a one size fits all approach.

The Carter review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in 2015 identified concerns in the breadth and depth of SEND training to ITT and as a result, one of its main aims was to find suitable ways to embed SEND practice and expertise in the ITT programme. Speaking from my own experience of the SEND training ITT’s receive, it is limited in both time committed to it and its scope. Due to the large coverage of topics required for ITT’s, it is understandable that certain areas have to be broadly covered. However, bear in mindThis is despite the Carter review stating that ‘good teaching for SEND is good teaching for all children’.

Furthermore, once PE teachers are established in role they can work on average 50 hours a week. This means dedicating time to research and understand SEND Physical Education can be challenging. It also means the time you do have can be unfruitful due to workload pressure.

Workload pressures can force some teachers to take a line of least resistance to SEND Physical Education teaching. Instead of creating fun and engaging learning with novel experiences, teachers can resort to a ‘one size fits all’ approach and, in some respects, ‘survival’ through the lesson. Consequently, more experienced staff can model poor teaching for SEND Physical Education and further embed a below par teaching standard.

Considerations: can you access and explore greater CPD to support SEND?

Behavioural expectations

PE lessons involve a great deal of fixed and clear routines, most of which need to be adhered to, yet can be the source of raised anxieties and challenges for SEND students. From changing into PE kit to the extensive movement both of people and equipment, students face challenges not usually present within the classroom. Students with SEND can find themselves struggling with the novel experiences faced in PE due to their lack of exposure or experience of these scenarios.

Considerations: are you able to adjust routines or procedures to support students?

Sensory Processing

PE lessons are a sensory minefield. Sports halls pose numerous sensory issues; visually they are typically large and brightly lit, auditory issues can range from the squeaky shoes on the floors or echo sound horrendously so. Moreover, PE kits themselves aren’t always the most comfortable piece of clothing you’ll ever come across. Olfactory processing can pose challenges with the smells of sweat and teenagers changing rooms.

When you start to consider proprioception, vestibular and tactile systems in addition, it is evident PE is, in sensory terms, a Minefield.

Considerations: could you perform a sensory audit of your learning environment?


As is obvious, those students with physical disabilities can have a great deal of issues accessing certain learning areas, especially when the lesson takes part outside. Furthermore, these students can face difficulties in accessing the same learning as their able-bodied peers.

Considerations: are all your learning areas and learning accessible for all?

Adaptive and Alternative strategies


1. Explore playing more accessible sports such as Boccia or sitting volleyball.

2. Purchase height adjustable basketball or netball hoops.

3. Use of projectile equipment that are easier to handle or visually coordinate with, like larger shuttle cocks or soft touch balls.

4. Adjusted rules both for the playing rules or the structure of the game as with the size of a pitch.

5. Balls with sound or light inserts to assist those with visual challenges.

6. Different sized rackets or bats that would be suitable for all abilities.

7. Provide ear defenders or safe time space if required.

8. Allow students to either come in or go home in PE kit.

9. Embed more therapeutic practices within lessons for all students.

Alternatives – for those unable to participate appropriately with peers

a. Access to the fitness suite during the school day.

b. Development of a daily workout schedule.

c. Create reward system specifically on PE attendance and engagement.

d. Separate sporting pathway based on ability and interests.

e. Development of a PE curriculum grounded in an occupational therapeutic focus.

Key takeaway points

If you want to be successful in SEND Physical Education, or just improve your practice in delivering and teaching high quality PE lessons, remember to:

1. Take the time to read students EHCP’s – make a couple of notes in your teacher planner.

2. Consider your assessment standards and how they allow all students to make progress.

3. Carefully differentiate learning tasks so all students can access learning.

4. Build trust and understanding with students so you can meet their needs effectively.

About Adam

Hi, my name is Adam Price, Head of PE, PSHE and Data Coordinator at Breckenbrough School which educates SEN students aged 9 – 18. I graduated from Teesside University with a BSc Hons in Applied Sport and Exercise Science. 

I started working at Breckenbrough School as an LSA in 2012 and have since gone on to complete my initial teacher training with the school, qualifying in 2014.

In the 7 years at the school I have led and developed a holistic and inclusive PE curriculum for all ages, which focuses on developing the mental and emotional attributes associated with sport as well as the physical benefits. I am a passionate believer in the positive impact sport and physical education can have upon SEND students, and therefore have a desire to grow and support all students in having access to high quality PE.

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