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Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


What if kids felt empowered by a focus on fitness?

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Monday, Jan 08, 2018

What if kids felt empowered by a focus on fitness?

SHAPE America has taken a stand with a moonshot goal of developing physical literacy in all students through effective health and physical education programs.   This is a commitment to helping all students develop the skills, knowledge, habits, confidence and desire to be physically active and make healthy choices now and for the rest of their lives by the time they leave high school.  This commitment is called 50 million strong by 2029 (50 million = number of students in the schools in the USA, strong = physically active and healthy, and 2029 is when this year’s 1st graders will graduate from high school.)        

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to empower kids to feel good about owning their own health.  Fitness is one aspect of their health.  As a physical education teacher and teacher educator I have witnessed fitness tests being given hundreds of times.  Some kids seem excited and proud of their abilities, but many seem resigned to their fate as fitness failures.  When I meet new adults and they find out I teach physical education there is one of three responses.  A few say “oh, that’s great” and appear to value my profession.  Many however start to tell me what a failure they were, never able to do a pullup or a pushup and how embarrassed they always felt.   Still others begin to talk about athletics and whatever sport they played in high school.   What I dream about is having someone tell me that they are grateful for physical education teachers who inspired them to want to be physically active and make healthy choices, that their teacher helped them move into the healthy fitness zones, or helped them (or their children) feel confident of their ability to develop in areas of need.  What if people said, “I am healthier today because of what I learned from my physical education teacher?” 

We’ve been fairly successful here in Texas in shaping statewide policies about assessing fitness.  Teachers are required to turn in fitness scores for all student grades 3-12 that are in physical education courses or substitutions. Unfortunately we’ve been less successful in getting statewide policy that provides an environment where students can actually develop fitness. Schedule, time and class sizes are often problems.   Still, some teachers have been successful in inspiring their students and providing them an environment where they can actually develop fitness. Here are some of the characteristics I have noticed in those talented teachers. 

Those amazing teachers…

  1. Unconditional acceptance: those amazing teachers let their students know they are loved just the way they are, but also that their teacher believes that they can reach healthy zones if they are willing to work for it.  These teachers realize that their students are individuals whose genetics and life situations greatly impact their individual starting places.  Some people naturally score better than others just because of their genetics.  Not being in the healthy fitness zone doesn’t change that value or the teacher’s belief in the student’s ability to learn.  But, because of that unconditional acceptance, those great teachers feel passionate about ensuring that students own the skills, knowledge, habits, confidence and desire to do those activities that will help them develop healthy levels of fitness.
  1. Create an all-inclusive classroom environment: those amazing teachers create an inclusive, supportive environment in their classes where all students champion and help each other develop self-efficacy through verbal and non-verbal statements.  All students are able to work harder when they feel safe, believed in and encouraged.
  1. Promote self-testing: those amazing teachers encourage students to do self-testing, helping them to understand that they can assess themselves anytime they want.  It is not a mystery how many pushups they can do.  Students are encouraged to understand what is important in doing each assessment and to be careful and honest in their assessment.  They are in charge of their own fitness.
  1. Empower ownership: those amazing teachers work with their students to help them develop their own, realistic plans that will actually work to improve their fitness.  Being tested every year and never being successful or going through the motions of a plan for improvement with no tangible results can create a feeling of learned helplessness. If students come to feel that it doesn’t matter what they do because it won’t make a difference, why should they care to put forth the effort at all? Successful experiences help students develop self-efficacy, which can in turn bring feelings of empowerment to their lives.   
  1. Manage what they measure: those amazing teachers pay attention to the data they collect making sure to touch base with individual students about whether their plans are being effective, why or why not, and how to make appropriate changes where needed.  Looking at class level data is helpful, but more importantly being able to identify individuals who are likely to be empowered by their results and those who are likely to feel learned helplessness, and helping address the needs of both are vital.  Time and class size are becoming a challenge for more and more teachers to manage, but designing empowering experiences for students that will help them build sustainable healthy habits is essential.
  1. The power of practice: those amazing teachers focus on the importance of practice in learning anything.  Although I am not a huge fan of cup stacking as a physical education activity because of its lack of future application, I do believe it is a great activity for helping kids to feel the power of practice.  With practice they can improve their cup stacking times considerably.  It is very obvious to students that they are improving because they are practicing.  This experience of getting better with practice should then be applied to other areas of learning and fitness development.
  1. Engagement: those amazing teachers engage those vested in a student’s health in the process. They communicate with parents and inspire them to be partners in helping their kids learn to take care of their bodies.  In communication, repetition is key.  Sending fitness report cards home (along with other program information) reminds parents of the goals of the physical education program, reinforces why they are significant and underscores the importance of youth health-related fitness. Parents need to be part of the process – providing them with information on what students are learning and why, creating events where they can experience the positive learning environment (which may not have been part of their own experience), and providing them with a greater clarity of why fitness assessment is important and how they can help guide individual improvements outside the classroom are absolute necessities. Parents must own 50 million strong as much as educators do.

It’s fun to dream about what we must do to really help all students succeed in developing the skills, knowledge, habits, confidence and desire to be physically active and make the healthy choices now, that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.   If a dream written down becomes a goal, then I think our goal is very clear. Fifty million strong has never been more attainable. It will take hard work, but our children deserve it and our future is worth it.

What have you seen that is effective in empowering students in relation to personal fitness?
Share your story with us!

Authored by Dolly Lambdin, Ed.D.
FitnessGram Scientific Advisory Board
Career educator and accomplished author
For more information on Dr. Lambdin, click here!