What does the Adapted Physical Education teacher really do?

Jennifer HoustonAdapted Physical Education, Advocacy, Best Practices, Future Professionals, Membership, News & Events, Partnerships, Public Relations/Marketing

If you are a certified physical education teacher, chances are you were required to take one 3-credit class in working with students with disabilities in your physical education classes. Most Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) programs only require this one course and we all know this one course cannot fully prepare one to teach or accommodate students with unique needs in your classes. The Adapted Physical Education Committee for Arizona Health and Physical Education (AzHPE) has decided to do our best and provide a monthly blog on the various aspects of adapted physical education. 

This month, our first blog will focus on what Adapted Physical Education is and what Adapted Physical Educators/specialists actually do. I know that to many of you we (APE teachers) breeze in and out of your schools and classes, spend 30 minutes or so with certain students, then we take off to another school. Well, that is just part of the story. Let me see if I can provide a (kinda) clear picture of a day in the life of an adapted physical educator. 

Let’s start with what adapted physical education actually is. When students with disabilities need extra support to benefit from general physical education, or when these students need a special physical education program, they qualify for “specially designed physical education,” or adapted physical education”. Adapted physical education is a sub-discipline of physical education with an emphasis on physical education for students with disabilities. The term adapted physical education generally refers to school-based programs for students ages 3–21; the more global term adapted physical activity refers to programs across the life span, including post-school programs.  Determining who is qualified to provide services to students with disabilities (including physical education services) is left up to each state. 
Qualified means that a person has met State educational agency approved or recognized certification, licensing, registration, or other comparable requirements, which apply to the area in which he or she is providing special education or related services (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 2000). 

So what does ‘qualified’ mean in terms of teaching adapted physical education? Well, in Arizona and 35 other states, the requirements are the same as those for teaching general physical education. The difference is most adapted physical education teachers have taken other classes in special education (12+ semester hours), attend conferences or workshops in providing modifications and/or accommodations for students with disabilities in physical education, or have a master’s degree in adapted physical education (Lytle et. al., 2010) 

Okay, so now you have an explanation of what adapted physical education is and who can teach it, now let’s talk about what we actually do. 

First and foremost, we have the amazing opportunity to work with some of the most incredible students each and every day, and for that I am extremely grateful. Our students can be both challenging and delightful at the same time. Our job can be very rewarding and frustrating at the same time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Depending on where you teach, a district may have no adapted physical educators, or like Mesa, we have seven, along with two adapted physical education instructional assistants. Some districts have one adapted physical education teacher who provides consultation services for the entire district. Consultation services means the adapted physical education teacher does not necessarily provide direct service (yes, we are direct service providers, not related service providers such as physical and occupational therapy) to students with disabilities. Instead they consult with the general education teachers who have students with disabilities in their classrooms providing possible modifications and/or accommodations for the various activities. For districts who are lucky enough to have adapted physical educators that provide direct services, we typically each have a caseload of students we work with at several different schools. Some districts divide their caseloads by grade level, some by regions and some by student disabilities. I will use Mesa as an example because it’s what I know. In Mesa we are lucky enough to have seven amazing adapted physical educators, and we have divided the district into regions to cut down on travel time between schools. We all work with students in grades K-12, with a wide range of different disabilities in various settings. For example, my caseload right now is about 40 students and throughout the week I travel to 8 different schools, several elementary schools and one high school. 

Now what do I mean by settings? Well, depending on the least restrictive environment (LRE- think back to that one 3-credit class you took) listed on the student’s individual education plan (IEP), we will work with students in their general physical education class, we may work with several students with disabilities from a self-contained classroom in an adapted physical education class (small group), or we may see an entire class of students in a modified or unified physical education class. Teaching the small groups and modified classes takes planning, as you know, as well as set up and take down. Many of our schools do not have access to the equipment we need so we end up carrying lots of equipment around in our cars and dragging it in and out of schools. 

Because there are so many different settings where we service our students, the process of coming up with a schedule that aligns with the general physical education classes, the days and times the classroom teachers will allow us to work with their students, and of course finding space to work with students can be extremely challenging. 

In addition we have to attend IEP meetings for all of the students that are on our caseload. I therefore attend about 40 IEP meetings each year. Also keep in mind that because we work with students at all of the grade levels, some days we may have a meeting that starts at 7am and then another that same afternoon starting at 4:15pm. 

And then there is the business of conducting assessments, writing yearly goals and short-term objectives (all aligned with the state standards), and writing progress reports. For every student on our caseload, we are tasked with writing goals and objectives and then collecting data on those goals every time we work with that student. We then use the collection of data to write quarterly progress reports. We make decisions on a daily basis on strategies to meet the needs of our students so they can access the general physical education curriculum.

We also do our very best to work closely with general physical education teachers providing resources for modifications and accommodations for students with disabilities that may or may not be on our caseload. We (APE specialists) understand that inclusion is becoming more and more common and unfortunately most general education physical education teachers do not have the knowledge or the comfort level for working with students with disabilities, but we are here to help! We want our general education teachers to reach out and ask questions, ask for resources and ideas for meeting the needs of ALL of our students in your classes. 

Please remember that the Arizona Health and Physical Education Adapted Physical Education conference is happening on February 16th, 2023 at Ability 360 in Phoenix. There will be sessions on working with students with severe and multiple disabilities, equipment for adapted physical education, Universal Design for Learning in Physical Education, and Special Olympics of Arizona. Our keynote speaker is Dr. Barry Lavay, Professor Emeritus, Department of Kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach. His scholarship includes the areas of positive behavior support and effective teaching practices and students with disabilities. He is the first author of the co-authored text; Positive Behavior Management in Physical Activity Settings (3rd edition, 2016)

Click on the following link for more information including a convention schedule: 

2023 AzHPE Adapted Physical Education Conference



Lytle, R., Rizzo, T., & Lavay, B. (2010). What is highly qualified adapted physical education? Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 81(2), p.40-50. 


Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, 34 C.F.R, §303.23, (2000).