Turning “I can’t” into “I’ll try”

What do you do with a student that does not want to participate during gym? Whenever I have spoken in front of Montessori educators and parents, invariably this is a question that is always asked. It’s a great question. Despite having an excellent game, which includes interesting materials, an objective that is fun and dynamic, and rules that encourage constant play, there is still a student who does not want to play. What do you do with that student who does not want to play?

First, to the best of your ability, find out why they do not want to play. A (young) student may not be able to always verbalize why they do not want to participate, but sometimes they can. Use any previous knowledge you have about the student to uncover the reason why they seem hesitant. Having good communication with the classroom teacher can give you insight into the peculiarities of a student, and small “tweaks” can make the game more acceptable to them. If you, the classroom teacher, are also the PE teacher, do not ignore observations from the classroom, use them to help your diagnosis.

When I have student who does not want to play, I go through a mental checklist to see if I can encourage them to give the game a try. I start with looking at the student physically to see if that is the root cause. If the student appears healthy, then I think about the development of the child and whether they are younger or have special needs. Finally, I investigate to see if the student is unsure of the game itself. Here is an example checklist of questions that I may ask myself as I am speaking to the child.

1. Is the student feeling sick? Is the student injured?

2. Is the child look exceptionally tired?

3. Is there a skill in this game that the student has less mastery than their peers?

4. Does the student have any sensory issues to a particular dynamic of the game?

5. Did I explain the rules well enough?

6. Does the student not respond well to auditory instruction as well as their peers?

7. Is the hesitation of the student from some type of underlying embarrassment?

When students have something physically wrong (injury, sickness, tired, etc.), the severity of the issue will dictate participation. Sometimes the most we can ask of that student is observation. However, any way that the student can be included is always more worthwhile. The best ways to include these students is to make them assistant referees and scorekeepers. By being assistant refs and scorekeepers, they will still be engaged with the game and have to know the rules. They will still be participating and adding value to the game for their classmates. They will also understand the debriefing of the game because they had to help with facilitation. The referee option can be used for other students who are embarrassed or hesitant as well, and sometimes after being the ref, they will be motivated to participate.

Sometimes there is an aspect or skill to the game that is just far too demanding for a particular student. Most games are not designed to be this difficult, but occasionally there is a student where basic skills still present big challenges. Modifying a rule or skill for this student is appropriate. The instructor should discreetly let the other students know of this rule or skill change for that student so they are not caught off guard if their classmate is doing something different. You may have a student ask why one student gets a rule change and others don’t; remind this student that everyone needs practice, and that particular student is still practicing the skill that was too daunting. “We want all our friends to play; that is what is important.”

Other students do not understand auditory instructions very well, and therefore have a hard time understanding the rules at the beginning of the game. These students require a couple minutes of observation of the game before they feel ready to play. As the student is watching, match some of your verbal instructions to things that the student is watching so they can practice making those connections. Let them play as soon as they feel ready.

Students who tend to feel embarrassed because they perceive their skills as less than their peers do well if you include them in demonstrations during the instructions portion of the game. When you are explaining where the boundary lines are, or how to score a point, using a student who is typically hesitant to play gives them a chance to practice before everyone else gets to play. This may ease their anxiety because they got a mini practice before the actual game. For some students, this is still asking too much.

Most students who are hesitant to play need some observation of the game. However, we want to encourage active participation. Therefore making a deal with the student, making it their choice, is the best way to overcome these feelings. For example, the student can watch the game for five minutes, then they can choose the team they want to join, and then it will be time to play. After the five minutes, if they still resist, remind them that they made a choice to watch, and now it is time to choose what team or role they will have upon entering the game. This may take some back and forth, but this method has a pretty high success rate for encouraging participation. If nothing else, these students can help ref as well, but this should not become the standard option.

One of my last options is to find a friend of the student who does not want to play and ask that student to convince their friend to play. Maybe they can work as a mini-team in the short term, which will build into full-fledged participation in the long term. This may not work if the hesitant student does not have a good friend in the class. If they do, this is a viable option.

Finally, if a student is consistently apprehensive in PE class, reaching out to the classroom teacher and the parents may glean some insight that can help you in your strategies for enhancing participation. There may be an underlying root cause that you could have never predicted, and seeking the council of the teacher and parents will also show your kindness and consideration for their child. In the end, we want PE to be accessible to everyone. We want to develop life long learners and exercisers. Taking the time to help those struggling students can be the difference between someone loving or hating physical activity. Helping someone find the joy of moving their body will truly be life changing, and is some of the most important work of Montessori Physical Education.