Middle school teachers’ perceptions of environmental constraints for inclusion of overweight students into physical education
Using a theoretical framework of social ecological constraints theory, the purpose of the study was to assess teachers’ perceptions of environmental constraints that influence the inclusion of overweight students. Constant comparison and cross case analysis was used to analyze observations, interviews and artifacts. Three themes emerged from the data: 1) School culture, 2) Parental committee and administrative constraints, 3) Parental constraints when dealing with disengaged overweight students. Teachers can work at multiple levels to change constraints within and outside the school to create inclusion and extend their influence to meet physical education goals. Supportive administration and parents can be key constraints to creating inclusive environments in schools where students feel safe, comfortable, and motivated to engage in physical activity, and learn skills and knowledge about their bodies.
Introduction and/or background
Increasing numbers of inactive and/or overweight children has created a challenge for physical education (PE) teachers to create inclusive classrooms where overweight students feel safe, comfortable, and are motivated to be engaged. Not only is inclusion impacted by the rules, policies and best practices of the PE teacher, it is constrained by school, family, and societal factors (e.g., Bauer, Yang, & Austin, 2004).
Moreover, the support of the administration for physical education and cooperation of the parents with the school agenda can facilitate or limit the quality of the PE learning environment. Previous literature has discussed inclusion in the general education classroom or with disabled students in physical education (e.g., Hodge, Ammah, Casebolt, Lamaster, & O’Sullivan, 2004), but little with the inclusion of overweight students.
Overweight students enter PE with many barriers to living a healthy active lifestyle. One barrier is the stigmatization associated with being overweight, which manifests itself in negative behaviors in PE such as teasing and weight criticism during physical activity (e.g., Bauer et al., 2004; Fox & Edmunds, 2000). Overweight students can experience emotional and psychological trauma (Storch, Milsom, DeBraganza, Lewin, Geffken, & Silverstein, 2007), learned helplessness (Trout & Graber, 2009) and lack of enjoyment from physical activity (Faith, Leone, Ayers, Heo, & Pietrobelli, 2002).
Potentially overweight children can become resistant to physical activity interventions from the teacher (Bosch, Stradmeijer, & Seidell, 2004). According to ecological perspective, students’ activity levels and skill acquisition arise from the interplay of individual, task, and environmental constraints (Newell, 1986). This theory, however, is situated in motor behavior, which neglects many aspects of social learning and learning based outcomes that are meaningful in physical education teaching and program design. Individual or student constraints should be expanded to include social constraints, such as social economic status and race. Also, the environmental constraint classification lacks level differentiation (i.e., gym, school, community, and society), which limits the application of the model in instructional PE settings.
Through the integration of constraint theory and the social ecological model in health promotion (Green, Richard, Potvin, 1996; Richard et al., 1996), a new theoretical framework is proposed to specifically study the issue of inclusion of overweight students in PE (Li & Rukavina, in review). The social ecological constraint model suggests that the complex interaction of constraints at multiple levels either facilitates or inhibits students’ engagement and learning in PE, and inclusion is created through the understanding and strategic configuration of particular constraints at levels where teachers have influence. Thus, inclusion is defined as the holistic engagement of individuals through socially, culturally, and developmentally appropriate teaching practices.
The social ecological constraints model has several assumptions. First, everything in a situation is considered a constraint. A constraint is a neutral term that delineates any factor that either inhibits or facilitates engagement for an overweight student relative to a situation. For example, a students’ height can facilitate inclusion in basketball, but can inhibit performance in wrestling. Constraints interact with each other to inhibit or facilitate student engagement and learning.
Constraints exist on 5 different levels of the ecology: student or individual, gym, school, community and society (see figure 1).
Figure 1. Social Ecological Constraint Model for Inclusion of overweight students into PE
Figure 1. Middle school teachers’ perceptions of environmental constraints for inclusion of overweight students into physical education
Constraints have a greater impact on student engagement and learning on the outer levels than on the inner levels, and within a level, constraints are differentiated further. The individual constraint classification includes functional (motivation), structural (height) and social (SES). The gym level includes task (goals, task rules, equipment), teacher policy (PE rules and policies), interpersonal (peer attitudes, teacher knowledge). School level constraints consist of policies and rules from the parent teacher association, school rules, guidance counselors, administrator, and PE director.
At the family level, the constraints include parental attitudes, policies and strategies. The fourth level, which is the community, includes physical infrastructure, neighborhood environment, and community organizations and resources. Finally, the societal constraints include socio-cultural beliefs, such as obesity bias that affect the students, their parents, teacher and the general population. The constraints at the societal level interacts with lower level constraint to often affect PE and school policies, and the engagement of overweight students.
Research has shown that overweight students are often “excluded” in PE: the climate is discriminatory and not socially supportive, and the tasks are not developmentally appropriate for them (e.g., Fox & Edmunds, 2000; Trout & Graber, 2009). Potentially, overweight students may accrue emotional and psychological damage from stigmatization, and not meet PE curriculum goals. The social ecological constraint model provides a theoretical framework to illustrate how PE teachers can think about the interactions among constraints at multiple levels and its effect on inclusion in the gym. However, little is known regarding which family and school constraints are highly influential and how they interact with other constraints. More specifically, how do parental and school constraints influence teachers’ strategies and policies when creating inclusion.
Knowledge of these influences can help the teacher create a positive learning climate and differentiate instruction to meet the individual differences of overweight students. One way to understand these processes is to study the practices of experienced and committed teachers. From in-depth interviews and observations of real classes that teachers select to show how they work with and challenge overweight students, we can reveal ways to develop increased sensitivity for these students and create strategic interventions for teachers to improve instruction and create a climate for overweight students.
Participants. Nine middle school teachers from the Eastern U.S. were recruited from each of 3 different social economic status stratifications (low, medium, high). The teachers were identified as experienced and committed to effective teaching of overweight students. IRB approval was completed from the University and each of the students that participated in the study.
Data collection. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with teachers on how they created an inclusive climate that included overweight students. Questions related to teachers’ overall PE curriculum and policies, school policies and initiatives to create a positive and safe school learning environment. After the first interview, observations on how teachers taught and interacted with overweight students and about the overall learning climate were collected. We observed a minimum of 3 classes. Follow-up interviews were conducted; questions were asked based upon interactions observed with teacher working with overweight students. Artifacts were collected that were pertinent to understanding how overweight students were included in physical education, such as lesson plans, assessments or schedules.
Data coding and analysis. Interviews were transcribed and returned to the teachers for a member check. Teachers made either substantive or grammar edits depending on their perception of the quality of the transcript. All changes were made as recommended. An inductive analysis and constant comparison of observations, artifacts, and interviews were used to analyze the data (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). After transcripts were edited, all members of the data collection team determined units of analysis and coded from a single manuscript. Units of analysis were identified as any policy, philosophy, or instructional strategy or method that was used to include overweight students. The coding sheet included codes of: instruction and assessment, behavior management, parental interaction strategies, teacher observations, collaborations with others, teachers’ feelings and limitations. As guided by the theoretical framework, each unit of analysis was coded by level: teacher, program, school, and district or greater levels.
The research team met, discussed each code and agreed upon each code until a consensus was reached. All researchers analyzed one teacher’s transcript and other data. The primary researcher coded all the transcripts met with each researcher who compared their codes and annotations to assure consistency. The code sheet was refined as each manuscript was coded. Finally, the data was entered in Nvivo7, a qualitative data management software program, by the lead researcher using the final coding sheet. For the inductive analysis, data was gathered by using Nvivo7 to gather units from any codes at the school level and related to interactions with parents.
The primary researcher inductively analyzed the data using constant comparison. In essence, each unit from the clusters were constantly compared each unit to each other unitcreating initial categories in relation to the theoretical framework (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Categories were compared and themes emerged from data. Subsequently, a cross case analysis was completed; cases were compared as to how each teacher interacted with parents within their specific situation or how constraints interacted at the school and district levels with lower level ecology constraints
A series of debriefing sessions occurred to establish trustworthiness as the themes emerged (Patton, 2002). Each case was analyzed and confirmed by the lead researcher. Triangulation of the field observations, artifacts and interviews were done at this stage. Subsequently, all cases were provided to the other researchers for reference in debriefing the final themes across case. At this time, an outside researcher reviewed all the themes that emerged.
Three themes emerged from the data: 1) School culture, 2) Administrative and parental committee constraints, 3) Parental constraints when dealing with disengaged overweight. The themes presented here are a part of a larger data set.
Two 2nd order themes emerged within school culture: Effect of behavior management and teaching of teaching personal and social responsibility.
Effect of behavior management. School culture was perceived as an important constraint to create an inclusive climate in the gym. Some administrators created a school climate that had a policy of “no tolerance” and provided large amounts of support to prevent and respond to any misbehavior and bullying. Potentially, school culture can have an impact on inclusion in the gym. For example, in Roy’s school, the administrators provided a school climate where misbehavior and bullying toward anybody was not tolerated.
….Throughout the year there is a zero tolerance, I’m proud to say in my department I know how it is, but I would say throughout the school, name calling, teasing, stuff like that, it’s not tolerated. I would think that any teacher would have a problem with any kid saying that [bias toward overweight student]. Any adult, any human being would have a problem. I don’t see that happening. As a result, Roy was able to have a no tolerance in his classroom. If any weight-related teasing occurred in the classroom, he stopped it immediately. Obviously, in the past if I ever heard someone make a fat joke to someone, I squashed it immediately. I get on it immediately to the point where it’s just not tolerated. I would never tolerate it.” Deidre’s school was much like Roy’s in the large amount of support by the administrators. If anything happened, the school administrators handled it and the other teachers supported the system as well.
Deidre said, I would say there’s a no tolerance policy. Like I said before about this building, everything is handled through the deans, I think the kids, if someone does get in trouble it’s handled right away. All the teachers are on board for the most part” However, laissez-faire administrations made classroom actions more difficult for teachers. Chad, located in a lower social economic district, discussed how the school culture does not provide much support to help teachers handle misbehavior, thus he was “own his own” to create a climate in the gym and deal with students.
Our school will look negatively if we just send a kid out or to the principal or Dean or something like that. So I never do. That’s one of the things, that’s a drawback I think because I have nowhere to send a kid out to. I haven’t sent a kid out or to the principle all year, not one kid. The [kids]….pretty much do what they are supposed to do. I think they like me and I try to do the best I can, but it is looked negatively at if we send a kid out. So if I see a kid bullying I’m dealing with him. If I see two kids getting into a fist fight I’m dealing with it on my own.
In addition, Chad discussed how the school culture afforded negative interactions for overweight students. He discussed how even teachers engaged in teasing of overweight students. There was a kid that the teachers, 2 or 3 teachers, were bringing around school making him shake his neck because he had so much extra fat and skin under his chin. So, the teachers were bringing around this kid, now I would never do this and I wouldn’t even laugh at this because I felt so bad for the kid, but they would go around and they would go, “gobble, gobble” Chad did everything he could despite the school culture. Chad not only has to confront teasers, but has to teach overweight students coping mechanisms to handle negative interactions and resultant emotions.
Teaching personal and social responsibility.
Another aspect that led to positive school culture was proactive personal and social responsibility school initiatives. School wide proactive programs to teach personal and social responsibility were viewed as positive constraints by teachers. Several schools had different initiatives depending on the configuration of constraints at each school. Roger talked how his school had bullying program events, such as no name calling week. Bernard’s school had both a character education program and the use of school personal and social responsibility themes. He said, Well there’s a new theme every year. And there’s, you know, the school will have a theme and we try to focus on that theme. “Choose kindness” was a theme 2 years ago.
“Choice not chances makes your destiny” was another theme. He said certain themes were easier to incorporate into his lessons than other themes. However, some teachers had “agency” in his school, some teachers incorporated the themes and others didn’t. Regardless, he believes there is an unwritten code of personal and social responsible behavior that all teachers follow in his school. Mary’s school had another way to teach personal and social responsibility at the school level. They used clubs. There are so many clubs in the building that we have you know[called] Organization People hood, we have-which is an anti-bias club, an interracial club…..Natural Helpers; they help the handicap, like there’ll be a regular class of gym and they’ll bring some of the handicaps where kids will be assigned as their buddy to help them. So, we do have clubs within the building that naturally the social workers and psychologists work with the classes in their guidance groups to promote naturally the elimination of this [obesity bias]; what we’re speaking about.
On the other hand, some teachers did not talk about personal and social responsibility initiative on the school level; the initiatives were employed in physical education. For example, Deidre’s program previously taught personal and social responsibility through a series of videotapes; however, the curriculum got “too full” and the school administrators decided to teach pro-social behavior using physical education activities. In the beginning of the year cooperative games (i.e., get to know you activities) were employed and adventure education lessons with social objectives toward the end of the year, like trust falls. One other teacher, Faye especially focused on personal and social responsibility objectives in PE, which she used as a cornerstone of her program.
Administrative and Parental Committee Constraints.
Teachers reported that administrative support for PE goals was an important constraint. Administrators had confidence in their programs but had different levels of support which were shown in different ways. Some teachers, like Deidre, discussed the large amount of support for PE from the administration. Other programs had minimal support and the administration took the philosophy of benign neglect; administrators tried to help when asked, but left the teachers to do what they wanted. Chad had the permission of the administration to pull overweight children from their lunch or reading time to work out with him; however, the administration had no involvement beyond that.
One type of support that teachers asked for was support for physical activity initiatives. Some teachers discussed that their administrators had support for initiatives that could increase physical activity levels of children outside of physical education. ….Here, they’re [administrators] very supportive. If I went up there and said, I’d like to do- like last year, I did a walking program during lunch time, my principal would say: Do it! And I’d say, “Well how are we going to work it out?” He’d say: We’ll find a way of working it out”. Similar to Mary, other teachers talked about initiatives that were supported by their administrators. These initiatives consisted of open gym and/or fitness room, which most teachers perceived as successful. Roy perceived the after school program he had was successful because it was reinforcing his PE goals. After school we have an intramural program when the weather is inclement, which is a good part of the year, it’s in the fitness room.
Sometimes we have 1 teacher, sometimes 2 and it’s basically for working out, exercising, jumping rope. It’s a supervised open fitness is what it is. It’s been very successful. Sometimes we even have to turn students away. Most days we have to turn students away because it gets too crowded. The kids do have the desire to be there which is great. I’m proud of that. Another teacher, Bernard, had a similar initiative, but it was focused on skill content taught during physical education. …..we usually let the kids come into the school early and do the physical activity that we’re doing in P.E. For example for 2 months or a month and a half, the kids came in 40 minutes before school and played badminton. Starting Monday, the 7th graders will be coming in and playing golf before school…..We’ve done it with double dutch, badminton, and golf Most of the physical activity initiatives that were discussed were just supervised free time with similar content related to physical education goals.
Only one teacher discussed an organized program that had content different than PE. However, the school district did not hire trained personnel to run these programs. Joy says we have an after school program and all the schools in the district, which, it’s more babysitting for a lot of these parents that don’t have anywhere for their kids to go and they are doing homework and yoga, tai chi, tai Kwan do, and they’re incorporating. And honestly a lot of those kids are my overweight kids in class. So they’re…getting something, but it’s not a focus…You don’t want to see it because you’d die”. Some teachers discussed parental committees in their school district but did not report any significant contribution to support PE goals or inclusion of overweight students.
Brenda discussed the nature of the wellness committee in the district There is a wellness committee within the school district, which exists of parents and teachers that are on the committee and it’s really the parents that the teachers are there to listen and bring back, but the wellness committee talks about issues in the school, whether it be nutrition and programming and what not. So, there is an outside view to the program within the district, not just towards phys Ed, but just wellness in general. However, these wellness committees or parent committees had nominal authority on PE, physical activity programs, and school nutrition.
Joy talks about the conflict between nutrition and competitive foods by parent teacher associations They took out vending machines and put in the good stuff. But they still have snack shack down here at the end of school which is full of every candy bar you can think of because it’s run by the PTA. So on one hand they think they’re doing something and it looks great because on paper we have a wellness program that says we don’t have all this stuff. You walk downstairs here at 3 and where’s every child gone?
Working with Parents of the Overweight
Teachers perceived that parents were an important constraint when working with disengaged overweight students. Initial contact and continued interaction with parents was a “touchy subject” due to the societal stigmatization associated with obesity that parents had internalized. Teachers had to tactfully engage parents to find out the level of support available for individualized interventions. Jamie discussed her careful approach to talking with parents of an overweight child and sensitivity parents have to the issue of obesity I contacted the parents and said you know so and so is struggling in phys ed and I think it’s because you know, they’re carrying baby fat right now….
I knew it wasn’t but I put it that way………I said she’s not doing too well….we can’t get her to do anything, she doesn’t do anything, so I said do I have your permission to talk to her, and they allowed me to do it, and we got somewhere with that. She went on weight watchers, so, but then there are others that you can feel from the conversation that you are having that, don’t go anywhere with that because you’re going to get into trouble, “you told me that my kids fat”. Even though the teacher is tactful, some parents are so sensitive that they become “defensive” when the topic is brought up.
Brenda, another teacher explains the complexity of the situation with parents; Parents are not only dealing with their son or daughter problems, but they are dealing with their own as well. I’ll kind of feel out the parents and I’ll have to say ninety five percent of the time, the parent starts expressing, you know, we’re trying so hard, if she’s overweight um we’re starting weight watchers, diets at home, I’m trying to lose weight, we’re trying together, you know, do you have any ideas or exercises we can do?…..
Brenda theorizes that the issue is the parents are “in denial”, and that hurts the child because what parents do counteracts what the school is doing. Because parents did not want to accept reality. Their parents do not want to accept responsibility for what their kids are, like they are. I personally believe it is not the child. It’s the parents and the behavior going on at home. A kid can not just get overweight by just being overweight. A lot of it is going into the mouth and it is what the parent keeps in the house for the kid to get overweight. That is what you see is a lot of kids struggling and they will eat very healthy in the cafeteria and when you ask them what they have when they go home and have for dinner, it is mind boggling.
They are telling me, being honest, my parents don’t cook healthy foods, not like here. Faith talks about an overweight girl who had diabetes and how the family did not make her job very easy. Not only did Faith have to intervene with the child and use all of her school resources, but an intervention was needed with the family ….that family is all over the place….she was the only one where there was parental intervention and it was because of the diabetes. And she was continually coming unprepared and not doing anything…. that was the whole family’s’ problem…. The medical issue allows the teacher to access more resources, like administration and school nurse, counselor.
Linda works in a district with an entitlement culture that has many restrictive rules in relation to obesity. They are prohibited against talking to individual students about diet and obesity, and they can’t measure BMI. They can only address issues in general, with whole class activities You know the parent will come in and say, “I don’t do anything. I’m heavy. So I appreciate anything that you do” I had that happen a few times and you know we just worked with that kid. But, we can’t be specific with them about diet and obesity.
According to the social ecological constraints model, there are many levels of the ecology that influence a teachers’ ability to create inclusion in the classroom for overweight students (Li & Rukavina, in review). The purpose of the study was to investigate the environmental constraints that are highly influential toward creating inclusion for overweight students in PE. Data from the present study have demonstrated that many constraints at the school and family level affect how PE teachers create inclusive learning climates for overweight or obese students.
In the present study some schools had positive school cultures where administrators helped with behavior management problems. In these situations, teachers felt very confident to enforce no tolerance policies toward negative behavior. Also, teachers discussed the benefits of programs that helped create a positive climate. However, in other schools where the school culture was not as supportive, teachers had to rely upon their own agencies to handle any type of obesity bias and negative behavior and create a positive climate.
However, there was benign neglect for promotion of physical activity programs or support for PE goals by the administrators of these schools. Most schools created “babysitting” like programs that allowed students to engage in physical activity in an unstructured way. Ideally, organized and staffed programs need to be offered after school that structures content or strategically reinforces messages in physical education and health classes. Also, parents were a constraint that teachers had to deal tactfully with if they wanted to conduct any individual interventions with overweight children. Because of the societal stigma on being overweight, parents were overly sensitive or “in denial” about their child’s overweight level.
This created the need for teachers to use sophisticated strategies to deal with parents so that they could individually help overweight students. The findings of the present study have great potential to facilitate the development and refinement of future interventions and inform PE teachers’ decisions on including overweight or obese students by acknowledging and manipulating those influential constraints.
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