To the casual observer, the children in what appears to be a typical physical education class seem like any others as they run, wiggle, roll, stretch and giggle with big smiles lighting up their little faces.
But what's extraordinary about this scene is the fact that all of these children have disabilities - yet, with the help of their student teachers, who are physical education majors at Frostburg State University, they are surprising everyone with what they can do.
Since the spring 2000 semester, the Motor Development Clinic at FSU has attracted middle-school-age students from Mt. Savage School and 4-year-olds from Cash Valley Elementary School to the campus' Cordts Physical Education Center. Their disabilities range from mild behavioral problems to Down's syndrome and autism. They come every Wednesday morning for an hour of learning and fun.
"Instead of saying - 'What do we do with these kids?' - we build on abilities, not disabilities. We challenge them," says Joni Morrison, program director.
Their teachers are FSU students majoring in physical education. By working with disabled children, student teachers build skills and confidence that enables them to work with a wider range of abilities, Morrison says. Most plan to teach, but some focusing in recreation and athletic training also find the experience invaluable.
It's a win-win scenario, according to Morrison. "If our students understand students with disabilities, the disabled students have a chance to develop. Our students serve as role models, teaching the kids caring, self-esteem and skill development. Behaviors shown are behaviors adapted. Our ultimate goal is to turn out graduates who can work with diverse populations, all ages, all levels."
Throughout the nation, the number of students needing adaptive physical education has been growing. Currently, from 10 to 16 percent of all school-aged children have disabilities, with 30 percent diagnosed as severe and profound. And the number of children diagnosed with autism is on the rise.
To address the needs of these children, the Maryland Adapted Physical Education Consortium approached the state's colleges and universities with the idea of special training for future teachers - the physical education majors.
The idea was, as Morrison puts it, to "infuse the curriculum" because training for adaptive physical education had not been a regular part of the curriculum at most institutions. At FSU, it was limited to one three-hour course. Frostburg State was the first to respond and invited Morrison to initiate a program designed to meet the Consortium's goals.
So Morrison, an FSU graduate and member of the Consortium, took a leave of absence from her teaching position in the Anne Arundel County Schools to serve as a visiting lecturer in physical education at FSU. With seven years' experience working with moderately to severely disabled children aged 3 to 21, support from her FSU colleagues and the blessing and cooperation of the Allegany County School System, which she describes as "tremendously supportive," Morrison was off and running.
Again, the result is a win-win situation. The county transports the students to FSU while the university supplies the staff and equipment. The county also brings the students' teachers from their home schools, accompanied by occupational and physical therapists who participate in the clinic.
Response from school personnel is positive. "The program is really great. The kids are treated with respect. They're really opening up with the [FSU] students," says Cash Valley Special Education teacher Barb Ciccanto. The County hopes to expand the program.
And children's smiles are worth a thousand words. They enjoy a feast of fun - rolling up and down the "piece of cheese," a wedge-shaped mat; playing color-identification games; running a slalom course around cones; tossing beanbags; recording themselves reading stories; using shaving foam to define space; bopping balloons with their heads, and other activities that also teach skills. They especially enjoy the individual attention they receive from their student-teacher "buddies." According to their classroom teachers, they eagerly look forward to the clinic all week.
Their enthusiasm is rivaled by their FSU student teachers. They enjoy the challenges of keeping their "buddies" on task and of creating effective learning strategies the children enjoy. Morrison points out that much of their success depends on the ways the children's brains process the directions given. Given the severity of some of the disabilities the student teachers work with, especially autism, cerebral palsy and Down's syndrome, this is no easy task. But the rewards have inspired some students to choose adaptive physical education as a specialty.
Although the clinic is in its infancy, with less than one year's history, feedback from graduates who have worked in last spring's clinic has been positive. The word is getting out around the state; most districts want these students because they have dual certifications in health and physical education.
"We are education makers and we're going to send out the best we can," says Morrison.
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