Observation in the Montessori PE Environment (Part 4)

In part one of this series, we outlined the importance of observation in the Montessori classroom, as well as a simplified explanation of how to organize one’s observation notes. If you have not read part one and are interested, you can find the article here. In part two, we looked at observation in the Montessori PE environment with a focus on the mechanics of a game. If you have not read part two and are interested, you can find the article here. In the third part of the series, we looked at observation and team gameplay dynamics. If you have not read part three and are interested, you can find the article here. In this final part (part 4) of the series, we are going to look at observation and the individual student.

For all the years that I have been teaching physical education, a common experience is that I’m having a great gym class, but there is still one student who is not participating. In this scenario, I went through the checklist of how I observe the PE classroom: observation of the game; the mechanics are working great; the game is functioning as intended. There is obvious teamwork, and the students are including each other in the game. Then I notice an individual sitting on the bleachers with a look of frustration. It is obvious that the student is not physically hurt; so they removed themselves from the game willfully. Instead of enjoying the fact that 99% of the class is learning and having a great time, I am now focused on this one student, and I have to become a detective trying to put the pieces together on why this one student is not participating.

When one student is not participating, there are a myriad of questions to ask oneself to determine why this student has pulled away from the activity. Here are some common questions to fuel your observation of a single student during gym.

Is the individual who is not participating today someone who has participated in the past?

Asking this question helps us establish if this behavior is new, or this has been a common occurence for this student throughout the year. If this is a student who is routinely not participating much in gym class, then today’s non-participation is not a surprise. A pattern has been established, and hopefully certain long-term measures have been put into place. This student is going to be an ongoing project. By slowly coaxing the child to participate little by little, eventually they will gain control over fears and anxieties about physical activity. Little bits of exposure over the long term will eventually help this student conquer their fears, but it will take a long time (years).

If a student who usually participates is suddenly not participating in today’s gym class, this certainly sounds the alarm for more observation as to the origin of why they are not playing. In my experience, when someone who likes gym is not participating, 90% of the time it is due to conflict with another student. The conflict usually has to do with feelings of exclusion, whether it is emotional (friends saying they don’t want to play with him or her) or being excluded from the game based on performance. A common reaction to feelings of exclusion is to literally isolate oneself, which manifests as not participating and staying away from everyone. Sometimes conflicts from the classroom continue in gym, and if the gym teacher and classroom teacher are not the same person, the gym teacher will not understand the source of the conflict (unless there is excellent communication between the teaching staff). This underscores the importance of not only communicating with classroom teachers after gym class, but classroom teachers communicating with gym teachers before class. If the classroom teacher and the gym teacher are the same, at least this person has the background information if something were to arise in gym class from elsewhere.

Does the individual understand the rules of the game?

After I introduce the game and the rules, I always give ample time for the students to ask questions (probably more time than many would feel comfortable giving). The questions are important for the students to clarify the rules for themselves, as well as test the boundaries of the game. “What if” questions can sometimes become aggravating, but many “what if” questions are brilliant; they demonstrate the critical thinking of the student as they are trying to think of ways to exploit loopholes within the game system to their advantage. Taking time to answer questions is critical.

Even if you take time answer all the questions in the beginning of the gym class, there will be students who were not listening very well: maybe they were in the bathroom, maybe their auditory processing is a little bit slower, etc. If a student does not understand how to play the game, they will not play the game. The good news is students who do not understand the rules of the game have a concrete reason why they are not playing. Have that student observe the game with you, and as they are watching, you can narrate the important parts of the game and why things are happening the way they are. This may be a strategy that has to be used every week with some students (especially your youngest students), but it is worth it if it provides them the necessary information to later participate in the game.

Is non-participating student being treated unfairly (or fairly)?

Going back to the idea of exclusion, if a student is not being treated fairly due to low athletic ability or previous emotional conflict, they will exclude themself. These types of exclusion need to be dealt with swiftly. The longer they are allowed to linger, the worse they will become. Game mechanics that promote teamwork, as well as discussions on sportsmanship, are important tools for combating exclusion behaviors based on ability. If one student is just being mean to another student by emotional exclusion, this needs to be communicated to the classroom teacher or appropriate administrator. Emotional exclusion is usually not isolated to one environment, so communication about this behavior can help the classroom teacher build the narrative about this undesirable behavior and it’s consistency over multiple settings. If the offending student requires a parent teacher conference about this undesirable behavior, having well documented instances across multiple settings makes a stronger case, and the classroom teacher will feel less anxiety presenting this information to the parent(s).

Sometimes students will exclude themselves because they are being treated fairly. If a student is being a pest to others, or is playing a game half-heartedly, or worse, actively sabotaging their own team, that student’s teammates will get sick of that behavior. The natural consequence of continuing that behavior is that they will not want to be around that person anymore. If this is happening in a game setting, that student will not be passed to or will not be incorporated in the game anymore. Once this student realizes they are being excluded, they probably will leave the game. This can be a tricky situation if the annoying behavior was not previously observed because that offending student will claim exclusion, yet his or her teammates will say its justified. If the gym teacher is lucky enough to witness the offending behavior that led to the exclusion, then an individual discussion on sportsmanship will need to happen. The critical message is “not being fun to play with means that people will not want to play with you.” To read more about sportsmanship in the Montessori PE environment, you can read this article here, as well as download a lesson on sportsmanship for free in the store.

Is someone not participating due to a sensory issue?

As we become better at identifying students with sensory issues in the classroom, we must be aware of this in the PE classroom as well. Students may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory inputs. We cannot diagnosis students as PE teachers, but we can certainly recognize symptoms. Even if there is not a formal diagnosis, making certain changes for these students (if possible) can make their experience much better.

For hypersensitive students, usually the hardest part of gym class is going to be the noise volume. In the classroom, work periods and lessons keep the volume to a minimum, so this student usually is fine. However, in a gym setting with poor acoustics, the sound can be overwhelming. If a student is covering their ears when other students are fine, this could be a sign. Volume in gym is a hard thing to modulate or enforce, but games can be altered to emphasize non-verbal cues that demand no verbal communication. Letting the child wear earmuffs or earplugs (after listening to the instructions) may also help the student adjust to the volume of a typical PE class. Students who do not like to be touched will not want to play games like tag, so an alteration for that student could be that they could wear a flag belt that minimizes contact to their body.

A student who is hyposensitive will crave touch, pressure, and will appear more rambunctious in general. This student may be harder to spot because their symptoms may manifest as over eagerness, clumsiness, or playing too rough. These students would do well with games that involve implements that they must manipulate, because it provides them with a tool to constantly stimulate sensory inputs while they are not active. These students may also like equipment that needs to be worn, because it will also provide sensory input, and may have the possibility of being adjusted or tightened to provide pressure stimulation. Again, these are only recommendations; I am not a doctor. Without an action plan, you will have to do your best with students that have sensory differences.

Is there a specific situation that causes undesirable behavior or lack of participation (or increased participation and performance from nonathletic students)?

Sometimes a student’s behavior or participation dramatically changes in one specific circumstance or situation, and as the PE instructor it is our job to identify that pattern. If we see a student always sits out during games that requiring jumping, but plays in every other game, we need to make that connection and adjust accordingly. If that student is allowed to use a different movement than jumping, will that student now participate? If so; it may be worth making an accommodation in the short term. However, we don’t want to ignore that the student is avoiding an essential basic motor movement, and we will need to investigate this further. A commonly overlooked cause for non-participation is ill-fitting clothing and shoes.

On the opposite spectrum, if there is a certain situation that gets someone out there shell, we want to investigate this newfound motivation. Sometimes it is as simple as age appropriate sized materials. I had a student who hated throwing, so we worked on form and technique, but it didn’t matter. Several weeks later, we played a game that used tennis balls, and all of a sudden this student was throwing very well! What was the difference? The other ball that the student was trying to throw was with a dodge ball about two times greater diameter than a tennis ball. It was probably too hard to grip or get the hand around the ball, so the student was having too much trouble. However, once the student had a ball more appropriately sized, they had much more success.

Sometimes a student finds a game or movement that they excel at, and with that initial success comes the energy and motivation we were looking for all along. This is why we want a variety of rules, games, implements, etc. to ensure that we can find a game for everyone to enjoy.

Is the student learning or building retention of the classroom material?

If one of the hallmarks of Montessori Physical Education is that the student is learning and reinforcing concepts from the classroom, we need a way to show that this is indeed happening. I’m not saying we have to administer tests in gym class. What I typically do is at the end of lesson, when we are debriefing, I ask questions that help me see if the students are understanding the concepts presented in the game. We also need to check in with the classroom teacher to see if they have any anecdotes about students using PE lesson concepts in the classroom setting. This process is easier if the classroom teacher and the PE are the same person.

I have already conducted some research that showed that integrated PE lessons helped with concept retention in the classroom, especially in younger ages (which you can read here). I will be conducting future research, and I will share those results as they become available.

Finally, one of the best ways to find out why an individual is not participating in PE is by asking. The older and more mature a student is, the better they will be able to verbalize why they are not playing. Many times we need to act like detectives, but sometimes it is as simple as just asking. Their answer may be surprising and something we have not considered as a reason why they were not playing. Their answer may exactly match what we thought it would be. Either way, asking the student directly (and usually outside of gym and away from others) can be one of the best tools at your disposal.

That is it for the observation series. I hope these proved useful in improving your observation practices within the Montessori PE setting. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated, so don’t be afraid to leave any feedback in the comments section.

On a side note, we will be throwing a holiday sale on our website store and our Teachers Pay Teachers store. Our website will feature 25% off anything in the store from December 24th – 26th, and the Teachers Pay Teachers store will be 20% off for the same date range. Have a wonderful holiday season everyone!