Teaching empathy through athletics.

Student-led PE program forms bonds between kids with and without disabilities

9/20/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

​The kind of raucous cheers usually reserved for celebrities and rock bands erupt in the Skyline gym, and student Jayce Hartman's class runs toward the doors.

They greet their special education schoolmates at the beginning of Wednesday's Unified P.E. class. Last year, Jayce, then a fifth-grade student, led his classmates in creating the one-of-a-kind class where students with and without intellectual disabilities play, learn and exercise together.

"I really got interested in Unified Sports when my mom brought me to a Unified Basketball tournament," explains Jayce. As he watched kids with and without disabilities on the court together, he thought about the classmates he saw at his school alone on the playground and wondered if Unified Sports might help. At home he got to work on his idea, creating a PowerPoint presentation to convince his principal, Regina Rainbolt, to bring Unified P.E. to Skyline.

The first class didn't exactly go as Jayce hoped. "It was tricky and awkward for some," Jayce said. "People weren't talking to each at first." By the second week, things started to change. The two groups started playing together, and with each week their relationships grew.  "It makes me feels amazing," Jayce said. "The smiles I get, it warms my day. Hopefully, they feel more confident outside of the classroom and in life."

Special education paraeducator Melissa Dietrich beams as she watches her students running alongside their peers. "It's been amazing. This class is the highlight of their week," she said. Research from Special Olympics, the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, shows special education students improve their motor skills, cognitive ability and communication skills when they participate in unified sports. Jayce's classroom teacher Stephanie Lawrence sees big benefits for her students as well. "Empathy is huge," Lawrence said. "If we can teach kids empathy from the beginning and instill it from the beginning, then it becomes culture."

Through this experience, Jayce has learned a lot about himself and his classmates. "I've definitely grown in my understanding of people that aren't exactly like me I hope," he said. "I think my class has learned you should never treat anyone different. Everyone has a warm heart on the inside. I could see a change in behavior for our whole class."

This school year Jayce is a sixth-grader at Truman Middle School, but his legacy of Unified P.E. continues at Skyline. In a ceremony at the end of the year Jayce "passed the torch" to some of his younger classmates. "If I can come back to Skyline in three years and see that Unified is still running, that would be amazing."

Making sure everyone has access to athletics is important to Athletics and Activities Director James Neil. Unified Sports began in Tacoma Public Schools during the 2014-15 school year at the high school level. Foss, Lincoln, Mount Tahoma, Stadium and Wilson high schools have Unified Soccer and Basketball teams. For each sport, schools have a traditional girls team, a boys team and a co-ed unified team.

James explains: "There is a sense of belonging and pride that comes from representing your school. They are part of the pep assemblies; it's a whole school engagement."

For this school year, unified high school basketball will begin in November, and soccer season will start in spring. High school teams practice after school with games on weekends.

At the middle school level, the district took a slightly different approach, choosing to incorporate practices into adaptive P.E. classes. Teams then compete in interscholastic competitions during school hours. Having practices during the school day helps to eliminate barriers such as transportation. Last year Unified Sports began at four middle schools, Jason Lee, First Creek, Stewart and Truman middle schools, and in the 2018-2019 school year Baker, Giaudrone and Meeker middle schools will add teams.

Neil and his team hope to keep growing and expanding the program.

"We want to reach more kids, especially younger students," he said. "Data shows us only a small number of elementary-aged students with special needs are involved in athletics. I hope we can change that."


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