I was sold physical education as team games. I think I was probably given a harder sell than my friends because, compared to them, I was good at team games. Lots of different team games. They, I suspect in hindsight, were ‘encouraged’ to take an interest in other subjects and other ‘fringe’ sports and activities. 

In doing this I suspect my teachers, with the overriding responsibility they felt for the success of the school’s sports teams, sought to spare themselves from the indignity of having to pick lower achieving students for any of school’s teams. Out of sight and out of mind perhaps?

What is clear to me now - having read this paper and others of its kind – is that in including and excluding students (in their perceived role as player rather than their real role as learner) my teachers (and many others since) deprived my friends of the wider learning opportunities that physical education is reputed to provide. If, as many say, our subject teaches for example leadership, responsibility and resilience, then why do we continue to deprive students of such learning? That’s a fairly wonky moral/educative compass in my opinion. 

That said, Hellison (whose work is featured in this week’s paper) argued that there is no evidence, beyond the anecdotal, that physical education teachers ‘things’ like leadership, and instead argued that such things need to be taught explicitly. 
So, we have a conundrum. Team games are the preferred content of physical education because they teach students across multiple domains and yet we are denying students this learning because they are not yet good enough. On the other hand, we are sticking rigidly to our belief that the skills inherent in team games benefit all students despite the evidence to the contrary. But what are our options? 

Well, we could stop teaching games all together but that’s been suggested on more than one occasion to no avail, or we could teach both fundamental motor skills and social and emotional learning (thus the SEL in the title). By taking team games off its pedestal and putting it on an even footing with other important outcomes of physical education, and then by teaching both to all students, then there is a much better chance that we will witness and enjoy the full benefits we ascribe to our subject. 

The Paper

Richards and colleagues explore the potential benefits of combining Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) and the Skill Themes Approach (STA) in elementary physical education. Theirs is not an argument for the implicit use of TPSR as a background to skills development but the explicit teaching of social and emotional learning (through TPSR) alongside the explicit teaching of skills (through STA). 

Although TPSR first reached popularity as a pedagogical model when it featured in Mike Metzler’s (2001) compendium of models, it owes everything to Don Hellison’s vision for physical education through the 1970s, 80s, 90s and beyond. Hellison’s drive to start a conversation and a practice that focused on personally and socially responsible behaviour. Importantly, he didn’t seek to place such behaviours above physical activity and motor skill-development, but he did want to place them on an equal footing.  

The focus of TPSR is on “empowering students to make personally and socially responsible life choices both within and beyond the gymnasium” and sets out to achieve that focus through five responsibility-focused goals: respect (e.g., “accepting difference, and being patient with each other”), participation and effort (e.g., taking part in activities), self-direction (e.g., working without direct supervision), caring for others (e.g., going beyond taking care of yourself and taking the time to help others), and transfer (e.g., taking responsibility skills out of the gym and applying them elsewhere). 

Taking on the rule of five, Hellison developed five components of any TPSR lesson/session: relational time (e.g., “dedicated to building positive relationships among students”), awareness talk (e.g., “time spent introducing the goal of the day), physical activity plan (e.g., “practicing the responsibility goal while learning psychomotor and cognitive skills”), group meeting (e.g., “discuss the lesson and their overall performance…and suggest modifications”), and reflection time (e.g., “self-evaluation”). 

It is important to note at this time that while TPSR provides a framework for use it doesn’t prescribe a particular physical activity setting and this is where STA comes in to provide the context. 

Skill themes are defined by Richards and colleagues as “the fundamental movement skills that form the foundation for success in sports, dance, gymnastics and other physical activities later in life” and focus on teaching skill themes and movement concepts. Skill themes include “locomotor (e.g., skipping, hopping), manipulative (e.g., throwing, kicking), and non-manipulative (e.g., bending, twisting)” while movement concepts include “special awareness (i.e., pathways, levels, directions…) effort (i.e., time, force, flow), and relationships (i.e., with people, objects).”

Significantly, both TPSR and STA focus on the current attainment of each student rather than their age or grade/class. In STA this is defined as precontrol (not constantly in control), control (more reliable movement which is in line with intensions), utilization (using skills in response to the environment e.g., the defender, wind), and proficiency (movements appear effortless). In TPSR this is represented in forms of levels (from 0 to 4). These are not, however, discussed in this article but can be found in the TPSR literature.

Having explored both TPSR and STA, Richards and colleagues make a connection to social and emotional learning (SEL) and argue that “students learn better in supportive environments in which they are empowered to make decisions and provided opportunities to build relationships and demonstrate competence.” Furthermore, they hold that the combination of TPSR and STA provides physical education teachers with a vehicle to teach and prioritize SEL but only if they “put students’ needs first and to develop an ethic of care in the gymnasium.” 

\Richards and colleagues recommended four strategies for teaching SEL through a combined TPSR and STA approach: Develop a student-centred learning environment, create and implement progressions for personal and social responsibility, be explicit when teaching and assessing students social and emotional learning, and use developmentally appropriate and relevant examples for promoting transfer. 

Develop a student-centred learning environment: research shows that when students are empowered to make decisions and build relationships then they learn better. This, according to the authors, indicates that physical education classes should be structured around students’ needs and not a fixed curriculum. This, in the words of Hellison requires teachers to “develop an ethic of care in the gymnasium.”

Create and implement progressions for personal and social responsibility: utilising TPSR and its focus on personal responsibility for progression and social responsibility for the progression of self and other, can play a key role in helping students move from precontrol to proficiency. It is key, however, to focus on each child’s development because “well one second-grade student may already be demonstrating the ability to help others, another may not be participating in any activities.”

Be explicit when teaching and assessing students social and emotional learning: One of the key aspects to the use of TPSR (either in isolation or in combination with STA) is that it is used explicitly. Tell the student that they are focused on SEL and give them opportunities to practice. “Skill cues for social and emotional learning competencies can be developed and taught in a similar manner to the ways in which they are used for teaching physical skills. Teachers can then provide feedback in line with the cues and implement assessment to measure learning.”

Use developmentally appropriate and relevant examples for promoting transfer: “the grand aim of the TPS our model is the transfer of personal and social responsibility to other settings in a child’s life.” But again, this doesn’t happen by chance. It is important that the teacher provides “heavy initial guidance” and an understanding of both a child’s developmental level and their life outside school for while it may be appropriate for one child to take the dog outside int her morning it may not be appropriate for another. 

In concluding this blog, it is clear, to me, that teacher’s need to explicitly teach personal, social and emotional learning if we want students to have a chance of learning about it. Equally, we need to be mindful of each child’s development level and play “the long game” because while some students may make progress quickly other will need ongoing support over months and possibly even years. This type of sustained engagement in SEL (in this case through TPSR and STA) may not be best supported by our current curriculum so we with er change our approach or change the curriculum. In doing that we might need to go out and better SEL(L) physical education to the world. 

What’s next? As part of this series of 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 Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe 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.


Richards, K.A.R., Ivy, V.N., Wright, P.M., & Jerris, E (2019). Combining the Skill Themes Approach with Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility to Teach Social and Emotional Learning in Elementary Physical Education, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 90:3, 35-44.