Inclusion and physical activity for individuals with Special Educational Needs

Antonio Ascione, Vittoria Molisso, Pietro Montesano, Department of Sport Sciences and Wellness, Parthenope University, Naples, Italy.

Special Educational Needs include all the possible learning and understanding difficulties that undermine and invalidate the subject’s path of growth, education and inclusion. At school, pupils with Special Educational Needs show difficulties in learning and social participation and this requires a targeted educational intervention aimed mainly at their inclusion. As part of the educational projects, inclusion aims to meet everyone’s needs, setting up learning environments allowing everyone to participate in class life and acquire skills in a more active, independent and valid  way. In Special Educational Needs there are different dimensions that overlap and intersect one another: that of parents, teachers, child and group class. All these aspects contribute equally to the achievement of support and inclusion, where every element of a whole is part of the other, and it can be implemented through the development of appropriate motor pathways.


I Bisogni Educativi Speciali comprendono tutte le possibili difficoltà di acquisizione e conoscenza che vanno a compromettere ed invalidare il percorso di crescita, di educazione e di inclusione di ogni soggetto. In ambito scolastico gli alunni con Bisogni Educativi Speciali evidenziano una difficoltà nell’apprendimento e nella partecipazione sociale rispetto al quale è richiesto un intervento didattico mirato, che abbia come obiettivo principale l’inclusione. Nell’ambito dei progetti educativi l’inclusione ha lo scopo di rispettare le necessità e le esigenze di tutti, organizzando gli ambienti di apprendimento in modo da permettere a ciascuno di partecipare alla vita di classe e di acquisire le competenze in modo più attivo, autonomo e valido possibile.  Nei Bisogni Educativi Speciali convergono diverse dimensioni che si sovrappongono e si intersecano l’una nell’altra: la dimensione dei genitori, degli insegnanti, del bambino e del suo gruppo classe. Tutti questi aspetti contribuiscono in modo paritario al raggiungimento di sostegno ed inclusione, dove ogni elemento di un insieme fa parte dell’altro e può essere implementato attraverso lo sviluppo di adeguati percorsi motori.


The term education, although having an extended meaning, is often considered complementary to the concepts of teaching and/or instruction, representing the transfer of social and cultural values and knowledge and becoming an integral part of the educational process. The educational process  generally consists of a project employed and finalized by the competent bodies in their objectives, and implemented through appropriate didactic tools.

Every didactic/educational project must aim to transfer knowledge and understanding, and more specifically, should aim at the development of the individual’s quality and expertise level. It must first consider the contents to be transferred, the ways to do it and, last but not least, consider its addressees.

For the past, it was considered important to focus mainly on the didactic contents at the expense of a not always homogeneous audience. Probably, the aspects that have helped change this approach can be connected both to the social changes and developments, and to an ever greater attention to the world of diversity, differentiation and diversification, where attention is paid mainly to every individual’s potentialities and skills.

In this sense, we must say that there has been a strong conceptual growth that has substantially changed the overall perspective, and that has finally led to analyze and consider, in an in-depth and appropriate way, the context in which the educational projects must be included.

For example, in the Sixties of the last century, when there was some kind of “diversity” in schools, there was the concept of exclusion. Only later, after several intermediate steps, in the Nineties, we have moved from school inclusion and integration to the concept of inclusion, in the post Nineties.

In the light of this, it was considered appropriate to introduce services able to protect different learning and educational needs by developing the Special Educational Needs, involving all the possible learning and understanding difficulties that undermine and invalidate the subject’s path of growth, education and inclusion.

Legislative sources and inclusive purpose in the SEN

At school, students with Special Educational Needs are those who show difficulties in learning and social participation, which require targeted, individualized and ad hoc educational intervention aimed at their inclusion.

In brief, Special Educational Needs (Ianes, 2005) refer to all those individuals who have difficulties and need individualized interventions that are not necessarily supported by a medical and/or psychological diagnosis, but that refer to difficult situations, such as cultural and socio-cultural difficulties or problematic evolutionary development.

So in the school context there is the need to respond appropriately to any difficulty in the evolutionary path, developing a project that can support any problem. The complexity and heterogeneity of these difficulties are described by Ianes : <<In the classes there are many children with difficulties in learning and developing skills, there are students with autism spectrum disorders: from those suffering from autism involving mental retardation to those with the Asperger syndrome>>.

Among the developmental difficulties there are also students with various emotional difficulties: shyness, anger, anxiety, inhibition, depression, personality disorders, psychosis, attachment disorders or other psychiatric conditions. Currently, very popular are the behavioral and relationship problems, aggressive behavior, self harm, bullying, eating disorders, behavioral disorders, opposition and anti-social behavior (Ianes, 2005).

Here’s how, through Ianes’ detailed description, we can understand more concretely how extensive and complex the world of Special Educational Needs is, which provide for every situation and circumstance in which the emerging problematic issue becomes the cause and obstacle in getting appropriate answers to their developmental and educational needs.

This definition, which is broader in some ways, derives from an extensive analysis of the changes and their social needs occurred in recent years. In fact, the change is a physiological stage of a complex society in which ideas, theories, habits, opinions, and the same organizational standards are susceptible (almost continuously) to changes, revisions and reformulations.

The current legislation allows for a greater degree of equity on the formal and operational level, because it considers also uncertified disorders worthy of attention, and allow for a greater protection of the socially weaker school community members. The Ministerial Directive of December 27, 2012, entitled “Intervention tools for students with special educational needs and territorial organization for school inclusion” and the subsequent circular n° 8 of March 6, 2013, establishing the operational details for its implementation, are the main interventions with which our legal system has adapted to the guidelines given by the European Community on the subject of school inclusion.

Such interventions, in fact, complete a path already started in our country some years ago, a path in which Italy, first with the guidelines issued on April 8, 2009, and then with Law n° 170/2010 and the following guidelines of July 12, 2011, regulated aspects of the school inclusion of disabled students and students with Specific Learning Disorders (such as dyslexia , dysgraphia, dyscalculia and dysorthographia).

Therefore, through these latest interventions, the Ministry has provided the organizational guidelines aimed at the school inclusion of students who are not recognized as suffering from disabilities nor SLD, but that have learning difficulties resulting from personal, family or social disadvantage. The directive has expanded the categories of students to whom the principle of personalized didactics enshrined in Law 53/2003 should be addressed: <<The area of school disadvantage is much bigger than that referred explicitly to the presence of deficits. In every class there are students who submit requests for special attention for a variety of reasons: social and cultural disadvantage, specific learning disorders and/or specific developmental disabilities, difficulties arising from the lack of knowledge of the Italian culture and language because of different cultural groups of belonging>>. So every student, continuously or for certain periods, may have special educational needs resulting not only from physical, biological and physiological reasons, but also because of psychological and social reasons, something that requires schools to provide adequate and personalized answers. The directive extends the benefits of Law n° 170/2010, thus the compensatory and dispensatory measures, also to these types of subject (paragraphs 1.3 and 1.4 of the directive identify students with attention and hyperactivity disorder deficits, and students with borderline cognitive functioning). Unlike students with disabilities or SLD, these categories do not require a medical certification.

So it will be up to schools, through decisions adopted by the class councils, to determine which subjects require specific intervention in the light of clinical documentation provided by families, or on the basis of psycho-pedagogical and educational considerations.

The Class Council and all the members of the teaching staff of a school deliberate an individualized and customized path (Law n. 53/2003) for every student with SEN (M.C n. 8 of March 6, 2013), also in the absence of a certification, giving rise to a personalized didactic plan (PDP). The directive assigns the PDP the double function of  in-itinere working tool for teachers and documentation for families about planned intervention strategies. The PDP can be individual or referred to students of a whole class, and must be signed by the school director (or a specifically delegated teacher), teachers and family.

At this point it needs to understand and analyze the concept of inclusion that, in the context of special educational needs, represents the focal point to establish optimal routes for every child who shows special needs. Inclusion invokes the concept of belonging that is equivalent to a state of interpersonal fairness and equality, and in doing so, it is intuitively extended to all individuals and ignores any kind of difference or diversity between individuals themselves. This means that it does not exclude, but conversely expects and tends to build up a context within which there are diversities that, inevitably, are present in every social sample taken into consideration.

If we refer to the mathematical set theory, the inclusion of a set in another one means that the set A is a proper subset of  B if an X element of the set A also belongs to the set B, even if the sets A and B are different. So school inclusion is crucial not only because it allows all children to deal with their own educational process, but also because it allows preserving their own characteristics by developing a solid relationship network in diversity.

A project of inclusion has basically the aim to ensure the individual’s complete integration by making it necessary to use a variety of tools to achieve it, in addition to requiring (in its planning) knowledge and a thorough analysis of the basic individual and cultural conditions with which he must deal. In other words, inclusion is aimed at reducing disharmonies and differences between the included individuals, caused the presence of diversity, thus making the environment itself suitable.

The concept of inclusion starts from a reference model in which the society is seen as a human-scale community and school inclusion should be considered as a commitment to respect the needs and demands of all, organizing the learning environments and their related activities so as to allow every person to participate in the classroom life and acquire skills in a more active , independent, and useful way.

The perspective is broadened thanks to inclusion by moving away from the model adopted before that of school integration, where the latter is the result of a series of processes that serve to make an individual a member of a community. However, this mechanism provides similarly for the individual’s ability to adapt to society, so the risk (at least theoretically) is that the process is not complete and that the integration is only partial, inadequate or quite strenuous for him. On the other hand, joining a certain context does not mean inevitably adhering fully and completely to it, if this appears as too distant from everyone’s peculiarities.

These considerations fully justify (in the educational field) the need to employ appropriate means that allow every child to enjoy educational tools adapted to his needs without any constraints in having to adapt to another one and, in this respect, the principle of inclusion is an essential component.

Multidimensional aspects

The concept of inclusion (Banks, Frawley, Mc Coy, 2015) finds its maximum expression at school (Lindqvist, Nilholm, 2011) which represents a place of passage where the child can have his need for protection/care and autonomy satisfied, and can discover his potentialities and abilities: he can find in school a place where to explore and learn about himself and the world. School, together with families, represent a fundamental context for a child’s cognitive and emotional development by constituting the main area for socializing and testing his first individual autonomy.

We can say that, in this place for growth that is so considerable and important,  different dimensions that overlap and intersect one another converge in the special education needs: that of teachers, parents, child and his peer group. All these dimensions contribute equally to achieve support and inclusion, where every element of a set is part of the other.

In order to make a comprehensive analysis of the Special Needs and achieve inclusion, it needs to observe a child in his relationship with his peers, teachers and parents, so to have a global  (especially circular) vision of the problem.

<<Attention is centered mainly on the meanings that people attach to the situation, and on the chance to develop together new meanings that lead to change. The goal is to create a collaborative process between all the systems involved (school, family, services), and the path to follow is the one marked by a “new idea” developed by everyone and where, therefore, everybody recognizes himself>> (Ciucci, Scamperle, Todini, 2014).

Glancing toward a wider and comprehensive perspective, it is immediately clear how, in fact, inclusion is the result of participation, support and contribution of numerous variables that are characterized and defined  in different relational ways. Therefore, it seems necessary to offer an alternative and evolutionary vision that could aspire to inclusion by making an intervention that involves the collaboration of the school and family system(Malagoli Togliatti, Lubrano Lavadera, 2002).

The child at school will begin to deal with other adults; teachers and parents will be, for several years, among his main reference figures.

More specifically, with their attitudes, teachers can contribute to declining and excluding behavioral proliferations towards the diverse, or develop an area of education to diversities designed to promote and disseminate the culture of inclusion and acquisition of educational methodologies and tools to be used in the teaching practice of the respect of equal opportunities and interest in diversities.

The type of relationship that will be established between the child and the teacher is crucial as it will also influence school performance. By taking up the concept of “self-fulfilling prophecy”, teachers who believe in the abilities of a student can facilitate the effective educational success of the latter, since there will be a positive circuit for which the teacher stimulates the student, strengthens him positively and, in turn, the student will perceive himself as competent and skilled. “Punctuating the sequence of events” (Watzlawick, Jackson, Beavin, 1971) alternatively allows the child to re-interpret his abilities and skills according to new perspectives. The perception of a competence raises the child’s desire to participate and be active in the class group, thus supporting sharing and solidarity and feeling part of (and then included in) a group. Vice versa, if the teacher doesn’t believe in the abilities of a student, he may be influenced by some negative bias, so the student’s desire of participation and presence will not be stimulated and strengthened.

The child at school, in addition to his teachers, will be confronted also with the peer group. The group class becomes a membership system in which the child develops his relationship skills. In the class group the child has his needs for acceptance, competence, involvement and confidence satisfied, and develops the ability to negotiate and distinguish different roles. The class group is an important social lab where there are issues related to the performance of the task and others related to the relationship, so it can create complex dynamics ranging from cooperation to competition, from involvement to exclusion. In the framework of inclusion, the class group is of fundamental importance at both relational and educational level; in fact, it represents an essential resource in defining relationships supporting fellowship and cooperation for students with special educational needs.

By orienting the interest towards the group class and its way of establishing relationships, we could detect how the perception of the school experience by the child with special educational needs affect positively or negatively the inclusion process. The child experiences difficulties in everyday life that, inevitably, are experienced as situations of failure and frustration; so it is understandable that he makes an assessment of his abilities through his group class, which can represent the mirror image of himself and his skills. The growth of the individual occurs through ties of belonging that allow for mobility and evolution. The ties of belonging, in fact, provide a network of relationships essential to the identification process. In this way it is possible to recognize oneself through the group by strengthening self-esteem and autonomy. The bonds that are formed in the group class provide support, protection and learning environment in the subject’s growth process.

For a proper child’s inclusion at school it is essential to take into account the meanings that the family attaches to school, the parents’ relationship with school and teachers, and the specific role of the teachers themselves. Between school and family there should be a relationship based on cooperation and mutual engagement in the respect for the boundaries of roles, tasks and skills according to every child’s needs. In some cases, however,  the interactive school-family pattern on the dysfunctional mode that can put the child in a position of obvious discomfort, which inevitably will affect or hinder the process of inclusion (Striano, 2014), could be hardened. Parental support is crucial as it represents the connection point, the glue between the child’s world and that of school/teachers, helping and cooperating in the path towards acceptance and belonging.

Physical Activity

The subjects with SEN follow the same Sports and Physical education disciplinary program of  their class. The structuring of a physical activity path consistent with the ministerial guidelines and Directives for the Inclusion must include afternoon sessions exceeding the usual two hours of physical education per week for the subject with SEN to bridge the motor gaps associated with those determining the discomfort at school. The educational and inclusive meaning of Motor Science is critical because  < <corporeality and motor skills are basic conditions for a physical, cognitive, affective, social and ethical development and  growth. It also plays a significant role in the health education processes, since it allows to develop and maintain a physical and mental structure that represents the natural defense for health in a broader perspective of well-being development >> (Pento, 2014).

The mixed paths (Carraro, Bertollo, 2005) and the circuits representing a  programmatic performing modality aimed at making students exercise on different dimensions and abilities. Learners can practice in a funny way as the activity they are proposed has characteristics of variability of dynamism, comparison with others (individual/team and score/penality-based time dexterity courses), participation in the course design and realization without necessarily being assessed.

Running a course always requires the ability to orient oneself in space and time, and to memorize the sequence of actions required. The arrangement of tools can facilitate or complicate the orientation and memorization processes. A straight line course or another one placed along the perimeter of the area of a playing field does not create problems even to individuals with more difficulties, a serpentine courses that uses a larger space is already much more complex to manage, another cross- designed one  with a central turning point, like a Harre’s dexterity course , can create difficulties to many adults.

To design a mixed course (Gibala et al., 2006) needs to follow specific steps like the definition of the objectives to be achieved (to realize a course does not only mean to arrange the tools in the gym and wait in line for one’s own turn to start), the arrangement and the sequence of tools in the space, the positioning of the students at the start line, the provision of adequate assistance where necessary.

It is possible to design courses involving the ride as the main movement action, others that involve rolling and crawling, others involving climbing and staying balanced, and even others, maybe performed outdoors, that may provide for the use of the bicycle, skateboard, kick scooter or roller skates. Additionally, it is possible to define motor courses aimed at the creation of a basket (for basketball), shots on goal (for football or handball), jumps and smashes (for volleyball).

Similarly to the circuits, also the courses are effective as the activity is carried out on different exercises stations. The stations are pre-defined places with specific tools where to stop for a while to perform certain motor actions. The number of stations of a circuit can vary according to the work objectives, the number of students, the gym equipment, the possibility of providing assistance in the case of movements that involve a degree of risk like some gestures of artistic gymnastics. Generally there are from six to ten stations in the school circuits. A particular example of circuit is the circuit training (Tjønna et al., 2009) that is primarily used to train endurance or strength skills.

The circuit, like the mix course, is a valid educational methodology to optimize the organization of classes, and increase time of motor commitment for students. Moreover, the circuits are particularly suited to develop personal autonomy and the  self-control ability, because the student, after the teacher’s input, becomes responsible for some aspects of the motor situation realization, such as the rhythm, start and end moment, recovery period, number of repetitions, intensity.

The main difference between a circuit and a mixed course lies in the performance modality, while, in the course, start and arrival are defined accurately and students are encouraged to move on tools without pause; in the circuit, the class is divided into small groups and each group starts from a different station, performing the next exercise at the teacher’s signal, or after a set time.


The school context appears as one of the key elements in the inclusion of children with Special Educational Needs (Janes, Cramerotti, 2015). In this sense, Bateson (1972) asserted that the context is a social place, a place of learning where a certain behavior acquires meaning : <<Learning the contexts of life is a matter that has to be discussed, not internally , but as a matter of the external relationship (…) the context is the matrix of meanings and it will need to pay attention to the influence exerted by all the groups of which the person with difficulties is part (school, family, work), by the reactions of the social medium to the deficit behavior of which the individual has become the protagonist, but also to the development process of his way to relate to others, or better, to his learning context>>.

School as a social and learning context is defined by its constituent elements (parents, teachers, peers); these elements are, in fact, a fundamental aspect supporting inclusion as they are rich in meanings and strongly influence the child’s needs, by determining his social and educational path.

In the complex world of the Special Educational Needs it is not possible to refer to a single viewpoint by analyzing the issue from a unique perspective, it is necessary to accommodate different territories, in the general considerations, that cannot be limited to their boundaries, but that can converge in a multiplicity of points of observation and explanation by interconnecting continuously, creating a strong network of cooperation and collaboration.

In this regard, it is important to provide inclusion paths that take advantage of the education and training value of physical and sports activity. Paths that can be developed by using different methods, but that must pursue the goal of ensuring the students’ well-being and facilitating learning and relationships.


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Leggi l’articolo su Scienze e Ricerche: Antonio Ascione, Vittoria Molisso, Pietro Montesano, Inclusion and physical activity for individuals with Special Educational Needs, in Scienze e Ricerche n. 46, marzo 2017, pp. 37-41