An accessible learning environment for everyone in physical education and health | Skolforskningsinstitutet

An accessible learning environment for everyone in physical education and health

– Focusing on Social Interaction

This systematic review illustrates how teaching in Physical Education and Health can be designed for pupils, with or without disabilities, who face difficulties in social interaction. The purpose of the review is to help teachers in their lesson planning, and to contribute to providing good conditions for all pupils, regardless of their ability, by creating an accessible learning environment.

The learning environment refers to the diverse physical settings, as well as the educational approach and cultural context, surrounding students during their education. An accessible learning environment means that everything must be accessible, including materials, teaching methods and language, as well as teaching premises. In this review we focus on teachers’ instruction and working methods. The review aims to answer the question:

How can an accessible learning environment in Physical Education and Health be designed to ensure that pupils facing difficulties in social interaction are given good opportunities for participation, development and learning?

The teacher is not solely responsible for developing the learning environment and making it accessible. It is a shared responsibility and it is important that the entire School Governing Body – management, head teacher and School Health Services – provides the teacher with the necessary support.

The results of the review

The results were compiled based on a thematic analysis, which resulted in the following themes that can be used as a starting point when designing an accessible learning environment in Physical Education and Health:

  • trusting relationships
  • structure and support
  • positive learning climate.

The themes of the review are linked and taken together they contribute to knowledge about how to create an accessible learning environment that aims to give all pupils good opportunities for participation and development, in both social interaction and learning. The results of the review describe teachers’ working methods and can support teachers when planning and designing their teaching in Physical Education and Health.

Trusting relationships

The first theme describes the importance of trusting relationships, both in-between pupils and between pupils and teachers, which contribute to the sense of belonging. A common feature of the studies is the importance of being perceptive to the pupil´s perspectives as a teacher. Being perceptive in this context means getting an understanding of the pupil´s different experiences of Physical Education and Health instruction. In this way, teachers can meet the pupil´s different needs.

This theme is about strengthening the individual’s sense of belonging by means of the teacher encouraging good collaboration between the students. The results of the systematic review emphasise the importance of seeing pupil´s differences as an asset in teaching, in order to provide good opportunities for pupil´s participation in social interaction.

Structure and support

The studies in this review highlight the importance of predictability. It is therefore important that teachers explain in advance to pupils what they will learn and what will happen during a class. That pupils who encounter difficulties in social interaction refrain from activities may be due to shortcomings in structure and support, the second theme of the review. This may be a matter of uncertainty regarding what the class, activity or practice is about, or what pupils are expected to learn. If the teacher provides sufficient and adequate information, pupils can feel more secure about the class structure and content, which is part of creating a more accessible learning environment.

The studies in the review emphasise the importance of the teacher explaining, in concrete terms, what will happen before, during and after the class, in order to give pupil’s the opportunity to ask questions and prepare themselves. Predictability contributes to a sense of security, which in turn can facilitate the conditions for the pupil to feel involved in the teaching. The pupils in the studies also manifest shortcomings in the teaching in terms of the teacher’s pedagogical strategies and support structures, as well as the choice of teaching materials. In order to create a more accessible environment, teachers should work with their language and explanations that are comprehensible to all. The studies in the review show how important it is to work with structure and support, so as to increase accessibility in the learning environment for pupil´s participation, development and learning.

Positive learning climate

The studies in the review address the importance of creating a positive learning climate, the third theme, where pupils experience that they succeed in their learning and thus gain the strength to believe in their ability to develop and cope with activities, regardless of previous experiences and abilities. In the studies, pupils who encounter difficulties in social interaction give their perspective. They describe how the joy of coping with one step can affect the very perception of Physical Education and Health as a meaningful subject. A positive learning climate is characterised by teachers meeting the pupil´s different needs. Pupils have the opportunity to practise and test different skills over and over again, and the teacher works to promote self-efficacy in the students.

The studies address what aspects of teachers’ responses and actions can contribute to the pupil´s self-efficacy, as well as to the social climate during the lesson, unlike in the theme of structure and support where the studies describe the activities, materials and class structure. A positive learning climate may be that the teacher gives pupils recognition, sees things from the pupil´s perspective and initiatives, and listens when the pupils present their views on different topics.

Applying the results

The results of the review can be used as discussion material for qualified teachers on how to plan and implement teaching in order to increase pupils’ participation, development and learning – with an emphasis on those pupils who encounter difficulties in social interaction. The review can also be helpful in the training of future teachers in Physical Education and Health, in out of school hours activities and for special education teachers. Teachers can use this review to support discussions, or as inspiration in the process of developing teaching on the basis of research-based methods and procedures. We have developed a number of questions that can be helpful during reading.

  • In what way can the results be useful, based on my pupil´s needs and unique learning situation?
  • What can I do to facilitate good cooperation in-between pupils, and at what point do pupil’s sense of belonging?
  • How can I encourage and acknowledge all my pupils in their learning and development?
  • Do the pupils feel confident about what they are to learn and what will happen during class, or can I clarify exercises, individual aspects or the information that is given?
  • How do I work so as to learn about, as well as from my pupils? Do I welcome their suggestions and views, and what do I do in practice to create change?
  • Do I have knowledge and understanding of the educational consequences a disability can have?
  • Do I have the support of the school administration and the student health service, so as to address, plan and adapt my instruction so that it is accessible to everyone?

The selection of research

In this systematic review, we have compiled research that examines factors that can contribute to participation, development and learning in Physical Education and Health for pupils, from primary school through to the last year of upper secondary school, who face challenges in social interaction. In the review, we focus on teaching practices to creating an accessible learning environment. The studies included have examined how pupils who face difficulties in social interaction perceive the subject Physical Education and Health, thus finding out how teachers can work to design an accessible learning environment for all. In some cases, teachers’ reflections on pupil´s social interaction have also been analysed. The pupils in the studies participate in activities in Physical Education and Health, either in a full class or, in some cases in an adapted form of schooling, for example where special education teachers participated.

The review is based on results from eleven studies conducted in Europe, North America and South Korea, including two in Sweden and one in Norway. The combination of criteria: that the studies must have examined 1) difficulties in social interaction, 2) Physical Education and Health and 3) instruction in schools, resulted in many studies being excluded.

Project group

The project is carried out by a project team consisting of external researchers (specialists in the field) and employees at the Swedish Institute for Educational Research and the National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools.

External researchers

  • Kim Wickman, PhD, Senior lecturer, Umeå University
  • Kajsa Jerlinder, PhD, Senior lecturer, University of Gävle

From the institute

  • Alva Appelgren, PhD, Researcher/Project manager
  • Karolina Fredriksson, PhD, Assistant project manager
  • Aiko Nakano Hylander, PhD, Information specialist
  • Maria Bergman, Project assistant

From the National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools

Karin Fröding, PhD, Assistant project manager

Alva Appelgren
Researcher/Project Manager
tel: +46 8-523 29 819
alva.appelgrenskolfi.se@