Crispin Andrews speaks to practitioners in order to examine the challenges and the opportunities for pupils with SEBD in PE

PE can be difficult for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD). Its very nature as an active subject, which often focuses on performance and competition, presents a range of challenges to pupils who can find it difficult to regulate their conduct and to channel their energies positively.

Safety valves offered by desk, classroom and, in cases when PE specialists or visiting coaches take lessons, the child’s usual teacher, are not present. In an open-ended environment, with a lack of unambiguous physical boundaries and lots of self-regulated, fast-paced activities where children are interacting physically with others, excitement and over-exuberance can easily spill over into something nasty.

A scene I witnessed a year or so ago illustrates the sort of problems faced by practitioners all over the country. A class of 30 are being taken on to the playground by a supply teacher who is also a PE specialist. One of the Year 6s has been diagnosed with ADHD but despite already being excluded for violent conduct on several occasions, school leaders decide the boy does not require one-on-one support. By the end of the lesson he has punched a classmate in the face – accompanying the assault with a barrage of racist abuse – and has heralded the subsequent arrival of a member of the senior leadership team with a further barrage of insults, not to mention another violent attack – this time thankfully only on a nearby litter bin!

Glenda Bevan, a PE specialist from a different school, Booker Park – a special school in Aylesbury, explains that it is the competitive element of PE that children with SEBD usually find difficult. The headteacher at the Bernwoode Hall section of the school catering for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties says: ‘Children with SEBD find it difficult to cope when things go wrong and this can often lead to extreme anxiety and sudden loss of self-esteem, particularly as they may also have unrealistic ideas of what they are capable of.’

Lesley Byrne, a PE teacher at Slated Row Special School in Milton Keynes who, as a school sport coordinator, supports the development of PE and sport across all of the city’s special schools, agrees. She says: ‘Many children with SEBD have a tendency to think only of what they are doing and how they can best achieve success without taking into account the bigger picture of the situation they are involved in, the interests of others within the situation and what might be acceptable and unacceptable ways of achieving that success.’

Glenda Bevan adds: ‘Working in the classroom this can cause difficulties, but in competitive situations when the child is reliant on others and others are reliant on the child – it can easily lead to conflict and aggressive or violent outbursts.’

Yet, while PE presents challenges for both pupil and teacher, it also provides a wonderful opportunity. Often children with SEBD find the classroom with all its rules and regulations a restrictive environment, one in which they perceive themselves to be a failure. In PE different opportunities arise. On the playing field children who are not doing well academically can excel; they are not stuck behind a desk and are stimulated both physically and mentally.

Take the aforementioned Year 6 pupil. Prior to his altercation, he had demonstrated an excellent ability to apply his skills in a creative and purposeful fashion to the needs of the invasion game in which he was involved. During this and subsequent lessons, his leadership and organisational skills were often in evidence, as was his ability to use his cognitive intelligence to manipulate situations and possibilities that arose during activities to his and his team’s advantage.

At Booker Park, when youngsters who had been attending a Football Association Three Lions coaching course run by a local club were presented with certificates of achievement by none other than the FA’s director of development, Sir Trevor Brooking himself; the sense of pride, achievement and self-worth was written all over the faces of youngsters to whom such feelings do not come naturally.

Simply exclude children with SEBD from PE and an opportunity for them to learn crucial life skills and develop much needed confidence is lost. Yet a teacher also has a duty to ensure others are safe, everyone is able to learn and that lessons meet the needs of all children in their class. So what is the answer?

Glenda Bevan suggests adapting activities so that perceptions of success and failure are not conditioned solely by simple win/lose ‘end-result’ type criteria. ‘Effort, good sportsmanship, effective or improved performance of a particular focus-skill can be rewarded with points towards a team’s total as well as praise,’ she says.

Lesley Byrne adds: ‘Don’t just have one small goal – have two in different places or a larger two- or even three-tiered area in which to score points. Three points rewards an accurate shot through the central area, but a less accurate shot becomes a relative success not a total failure.’

PE offers scope for children to be engaged in different types of activity based around the same theme. Lesley Byrne advises that short, sharp bursts of physical activity work well with children with short attention spans. For those who have difficulties chaining together a series of instructions or actions towards vague or long-term objectives Glenda Bevan recommends clear, focused and easily recognisable short-term targets. She also suggests that emphasis should be made on individual performance rather than comparative outcome – so that, for instance, a child involved in a relay warm-up is encouraged to think about how well they do while taking part rather than whether they complete the activity more quickly than another child.

Both agree that giving children a sense of responsibility – either while setting activities up or within the activity itself – can help children with SEBD develop a greater sense of ownership over what is going on, reduce their perceived sense of isolation and crucially help them begin to see the bigger picture and consider the interests of others as well as their own needs.