Where’s the PE Teacher?


Take a step inside physical education class at Marjorie Rawlings Elementary in Pinellas County, Florida and you’ll see one common theme: movement!

Three times per week, students participate in heart-pumping physical education classes — taught by a licensed teacher who is certified to teach physical education — that have them on their feet and moving for nearly all of the session’s 50 minutes.

Beyond physical education class, Marjorie Rawlings students also benefit from daily recess and at least 20 minutes of additional physical activity time, brought to life through classroom “brain breaks,” whereby teachers incorporate short energizers into lesson plans or transition time.

The result? Students are better behaved in class, more engaged in academic lessons, and scoring higher on tests.

Every child deserves an equal chance to be active and learn critical skills that enable a lifelong love of movement. Unfortunately, this is too often not the case. While great progress has been made to improve physical education curricula over the past few decades, there remains a need for states to better support this critical aspect of students’ education and district leaders to fully recognize the benefits of active learners.

From Dodgeball to Dance Parties: A Shift Toward Inclusivity

Think back to your days in physical education class. Perhaps you recall patiently waiting in line during a game of kickball, taking a turn roughly once every 20 minutes. Maybe you think of dodgeball, dreading the prospect of being picked last or sheepishly hiding in the corner, hoping to avoid being singled out in front of your peers.

For decades, physical educators often relied on this “team sports model” in which students were divided, or drafted, into teams to compete in sporting events during class. Over time, this philosophy has shifted to include more fitness- and activity-based concepts that avoid elimination games, promote inclusivity of all ability levels, and teach critical lifelong movement skills.

Today, the most exemplary physical education programs incorporate sports via small group activities that enhance skill development, such as one-on-one soccer drills with a partner. Physical educators are also finding creative ways to keep all participants active during traditionally sedentary moments, by swapping tasks like the opening roll call into a live dance session.

No longer are kids being put in the spotlight in front of their peers, nor are the “athletes” taking over the games. An emphasis on inclusivity has become a focal point for successful physical education programming.

Making Quality Physical Education the Norm, Not the Exception

Marjorie Rawlings Elementary — which was named to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s 2017 list of “America’s Healthiest Schools” for their exceptional commitment to student and staff wellness — benefits from not only the support of Pinellas County leadership, but from the entire state of Florida.

Florida is one of only five states (Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Oregon, plus the District of Columbia) that requires all elementary students to receive the recommended 150 minutes of physical education per week, sending a clear message that physical education is a critical component to a well-rounded education.

Unfortunately, far too many students nationwide aren’t receiving the same benefits. Physical education standards differ from state to state, with many policies being broad and open to interpretation.

No matter your state’s policies around physical education, however, it is in every community’s best interest to support healthy schools because healthy students are better learners.

Active Students, Active Minds

A growing body of research shows that healthy kids learn better; they attend school more often, behave better in class and score higher on tests. 

Today, we’re also cognizant of the connection between movement and social-emotional well-being. When kids have the opportunity to be active and regularly participate in quality physical education, they learn how to better regulate their emotions, resulting in fewer disciplinary actions and enhanced conflict resolution skills.

Never before has it been as essential for educators to recognize these benefits and urgency around supporting physical education. Nearly one in three children —ages two to19 — in the United States is overweight or obese, putting them at serious risk for physical and mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. These rates are even starker among children of color and children from low-income communities, who are predisposed to have poorer health than their more privileged peers.

Improving physical education curricula radiates benefits across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Since 2006, Healthier Generation has worked with over 40,000 schools nationwide to improve physical activity and nutrition, in part by providing training and professional development to thousands of educators per year. Through our efforts, we’ve seen a consistent trend: the more support physical educators receive from district leadership, the stronger their programs and the greater the academic benefits for all students.

A District Approach to Supporting Physical Education

With dedicated support from district leadership, physical educators can succeed in developing robust curricula that not only benefit students’ short-term academic success but teach them how to be active for life. School is more than just mathematics or English. Physical education is a key component of students’ physical and emotional well-being — and should be prioritized just as emphatically as traditional academic subjects.

Regardless of your state’s policies on physical education, district leaders have the power to support best-in-class physical education programming.

How? It begins with supporting your staff. Hire and train certified physical education teachers, and provide regular opportunities for professional development to show them that physical education is important from the top-down.

Next, find a way to evaluate your programming. How will you determine if students are progressing in physical education concepts, as they are in math or reading skills? Evaluation programs are not one-size-fits-all; frameworks to evaluate physical education teachers may differ than those used on classroom staff, as physical education is a hands-on program that requires nuanced evaluation procedures.

Finally, find a way to celebrate and highlight your achievements. Positive reinforcement of small victories can have a big impact in rallying the entire community around wellness. Invite your local media outlets to attend a physical education class or post photos on social media to keep parents informed of school wellness initiatives.

Getting Started on Your Journey to Health

As one of America’s Healthiest Schools, Marjorie Rawlings Elementary joins hundreds of others — from Alabama’s Robert C. Hatch High School to Georgia’s Spout Springs School of Enrichment — as a best-in-class example of what it means to prioritize student health at school. One step at a time, these schools found creative ways to boost nutrition and increase movement at every turn, giving students an opportunity to build the healthy futures they deserve.

Whether you’re just getting started on your wellness journey or looking for tips to enhance your physical education programming, visit us at schools.healthiergeneration.org to access Healthier Generation’s library of tools and resources to help you meet your wellness goals, one dance party or classroom energizer at a time.

Making the Grade with Physical Education

How well is your school or district implementing national standards for physical education? A physically literate child:

  • Demonstrates competency in a variety of motor skills and movement patterns.
  • Applies knowledge of concepts, principles, strategies, and tactics related to movement and performance.
  • Demonstrates the knowledge and skills to achieve and maintain a health-enhancing level of physical activity and fitness.
  • Exhibits responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others.
  • Recognizes the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression, and/or social interaction.

Source: Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Healthy Schools Program Framework of Best Practices (2017)

3 Ways to Instantly Boost Your Physical Education Program

Investing in a quality physical education program results in happier, healthier and higher performing students. Here are three quick things you can do to instantly improve your physical education program:

  1. Ask: Soliciting student feedback is a great way to gain buy-in and ensure your program is meeting the unique needs of your student population.
  2. Assess: How do you measure the success of your program? Look for ways to collect information about whether kids are retaining key concepts and movements so you can be sure to move on to the next curriculum component only when students are ready.
  3. Adjust: Take a look at your daily activities. How can you increase movement opportunities for students? Try instituting an active “roll call” where students perform jumping jacks while they wait for their name to be called.
Sean Brock and Eric Larson are National Physical Education and Physical Activity Advisors with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Connect with them at www.healthiergeneration.org to see how they can help improve your district’s approach to school wellness.

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