We often focus on what we can’t do and where the risks are and forget that greater competence, confidence and support help us to achieve. Therefore, when a child (like Joshua) suffers a life-changing accident we focus on what he can no longer do and forget to focus on what he can still do. If we focused on the strengths of our students and found ways to motivate them to be physical active – in what ever form that takes – then perhaps we could prevent the numerous crises of health and participation that are reported daily in the news.


Volume 2.16 (Blog 111):

Macdonald, D., Beckman, E., Bailey, D., Mallett, C., & Trost, S. (2014). Joshua, Optimising assets: (Dis)ability and the path to active participation. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 211-221). London: Routledge.



Six years ago Joshua was involved in an accident that resulted in the trans-tibial amputation of his right leg. At the time he was often described as naturally sporty, self-motivated and “built” for most athletic endeavours but now he is mainly sedentary and is reluctant to be active for fear of falling and hurting himself. Now, aged 15, it’s been noticed by more than one person that Joshua is putting on weight beyond that expected as part of maturity and this is a concern.

At school, Joshua is popular but he has found it hard to make close friends because most of the boys spend their free time playing handball or soccer and he has neither asked nor been asked to get involved. He prefers reading at school and video games at home and he doesn’t get involved when his dad and brother practice soccer skills in the back garden. His mum has noticed that he often finds excuses for not getting involved, not walking to school and not playing out with friends and these behaviour choices have been somewhat supported by those around him. His teachers have been wary of putting him in situations where he might experience pain or risk falling and he is often assigned the role of coach or umpire in Health and Physical Education (HPE). This suits Joshua because once where he might have sought out opportunities to play and/or watch sport he now has other interests.

Things are changing, however, with the arrival of a new teacher. Karen is keen to take a strength-based approach to physical education and for the first time Joshua is being noticed for his lack of physical engagement. She is adapting rules and equipment to make it easier for Joshua to overcome mobility issues (and make them less noticeable) and is engaging the rest of the class by enhancing their understanding of disability sport. Most recently she showed some YouTube videos of athletes with disabilities participating in Paralympic sport. This has had a marked effect on Joshua who is now excited and inspired by these athletes and he is now picturing himself as an elite Paralympian runner. The key now, as the pedagogical case that follows explores, is to help Karen, the family, and the community “build on Joshua’s assets to help him obtain his goals”.


The Pedagogical Case

Joshua, while understanding the benefits of physical activity is undecided about the prospect of engaging in regular physical activity. Disability athletes have recently inspired Joshua but he also values what he ‘gets’ from his sedentary lifestyle. Furthermore he is concerned about the potential costs of becoming physically active, i.e. pain and embarrassment. Helping Joshua to identify and explore the costs and benefits of both lifestyle choices (sedentary and active) will be useful.

If he makes the decision to be active then, as a family, they depend heavily on social support. Joshua has emotional support from his family and he will need to know that they support him in his desire to be an elite Paralympic athlete. He will, however, also need instrumental support in the form of “the provision of tangible aid or services that directly assist a person in need”: particularly the resources to purchase specialized equipment and funding for travel to events and training. He will need to set longer-term goals and meet other athletes who are undergoing similar experiences. He will need help to create a structured and broad-based programme that is individualised to his specific needs. All of which requires expertise that lies outside of his school and immediate family.

Psychologically there is a chance that Joshua and his family are experiencing some stress and have focused on what “he could not do (a deficit model approach) rather than what he could do (a strength-based approach)”. By focusing on Joshua’s limitations, the family (himself included) may inhibited his coping resources and resilience when dealing with the challenges of daily life. This, in turn, may have resulted in “lack of autonomy and competence, and subsequent amotivation”. In contrast, by taking a strength-based approach Karen, and now the family, is focusing on what Joshua can do and what he wants to do.

There will always be a general concern to protect Joshua from further pain and discomfort but this is now focused and foster through strategies and interventions that develop his self-motivation. He needs an adaptive learning environment that can help him develop perceptions of autonomy, competence and belonging. By focusing on his own goals and not external goals Joshua will start to perceive increased competence that, in turn, will enhance his self-motivation and positive engagement in sport.

Peers will be important in this process (i.e. his immediate community) and there are a number of bridges to build at school. Joshua’s “avoidant behaviours” have hindered his ability to make friends at school and consideration needs to be made of how to rectify this and expand his circle of friends both within and beyond the school, and to include both able-bodied and disabled athletes.

From an exercise physiology perspective Joshua is motivated but he needs help to manage and develop his potential engagement in elite disabled running. He finished last in the events he ‘ran’ on sports day and it is important that the competitions he engages in going forwards are seen as fair. To do this he needs help to ensure that his disability has as little impact on the outcome of any competition as possible. To that end he needs to have his “limb deficiency’ acknowledged as an impairment. By contacting the Australian Paralympic Committee his family can better understand how to do this and they can begin the steps needed to have Joshua assigned a classification. From there he can begin to engage in appropriate levels of physical activity. Working with a physiotherapist or biomechanist, for example, Joshua can spend some time ensuring that his “gait is efficient in order to minimise the risk of injury”.

In seeking to synthesise these suggestions Macdonald and colleagues position Karen as a key “player” in Joshua’s development. They suggest that alongside the new Australian National Curriculum, which takes a strong position on inclusion, Karen (and the school) are well placed to help Joshua build his “confidence and competence in a range of physical activities”. By using a strength-based approach and celebrating the achievement and inclusiveness of disabled sport the school (through Karen) are “sending an inclusive message to all students”.  Importantly, and as Karen is realising, what is good for Joshua is good for all students as they all need to understand and develop “lifelong investigative and problem-solving skills”.

The role of the school environment and extra-curricular activities is important. By developing an environment that promotes physical activity, through perhaps an active transport approach, the school can help its students to be more active. The after-school programme can also be adapted to provide opportunities for all in activities such as skill development, the setting and meeting of personal goals, and affiliation.

The key is the strength-based approach and the engagement of relevant expertise in help students like Joshua. Karen has been able to access the relevant expertise and has found the time to research and plan appropriately. This requires a work environment that “values professional reading time, provides access to the Internet, supports attendance at a variety of seminars and conference, and encourages postgraduate study”. By prioritizing this and focusing on what people can do and what keeps them healthy and active, rather than what they can’t do and what is slowly killing them, teachers can take a “resource orientated and competence-raising approach to teaching and learning. In this way we focus on can’s and not can not’s and aspire to “preventative health aspirations and a future-orientation for positive schooling that is interdisciplinary and learner-centred”.

What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor. Her help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.