Teaching PE for the First Time: Where are Your Students Starting From?

Young people at the start line on a race track with a teacher or coach beside them.

In yesterday’s blog post, we considered how your experiences, attitudes, confidence and training affect how you approach teaching PE.

Now, we turn attention to your students. Like us, they come to school with their own experiences and attitudes towards physical activity. Like us, some will love it and others with loathe it.

Attitudes towards PE

Some students will consider themselves ‘sporty’ and will brim with confidence. They will engage in lessons enthusiastically. These students will have a very positive attitude towards PE and may struggle to understand their peers who dislike physical activity.

Other students may have had bad experiences with PE. Some people I interviewed for my book sadly described it as a ‘living hell’. These students may be reluctant to join in or try to avoid engaging in the lesson.

Find out how your class feels about PE. Understanding where your students are coming from will help you build on positive experiences and challenge negative ones. Asking questions is a great way to learn their perspective. You could ask ‘what are the best things about PE?’ and ‘what are the worst things?’. Get them to write down their answers.

Andy Vasily, finishes the first PE lesson of the year by asking his students – ‘What do you need from me to be able to help you try your very best in PE this year?’

Answers students have given in response include – ‘be kind to me’, ‘let us take breaks’ and ‘ensure teams are fair’. Interesting, isn’t it? How might your students respond to this question?

What do your students enjoy?

Discover what sports and physical activities children in your class enjoy: ask them what games and activities they like and dislike and get feedback when you try new things.

If you can include activities that your students enjoy or want to try, the lesson is more likely to be a positive experience for them. This is crucial, as research shows that positive experiences of PE make it more likely that children with engage in physical activity throughout their lives. (I cover this in more depth in my book with information on including gamification, novelty and choice in your lessons.)

Personality Type

Sport England identifies six sport personality types that can provide further insights into the kind of activities students may enjoy. As you begin to get to know your students, see if you can identify them in the descriptions below:

• Sports Enthusiasts – They love sport and are good at it. They are body confident and enjoy competition. Their friends and family play sports. They are more likely to be male.

• Ambitious Self-Starters – They are achievers who are involved in lots of extra-curricular activities and sports. They have a powerful drive to improve and enjoy being challenged. They are often from wealthier backgrounds and likely to be male.

• Thoughtful Improvers – They are mature, with a wide range of interests. They often feel unhappy with their bodies and they aren’t competitive. They are more likely to be female.

• Everyday Youths – They are easy-going and relaxed. They are quite positive about physical activity but rarely make time for it. This group don’t enjoy competition. They are likely to be male.

• Cautious Introverts – They stick with the familiar and have a small group of friends. They often lack self-confidence and dislike trying new things. They don’t see themselves as sporty and are more likely to be female.

• Confident Intellectuals – They enjoy music and technology. They are focused and motivated, but sport makes them feel embarrassed and they aren’t competitive. They are more likely to be male.

Impact of Covid

It is also worth considering how Covid has impacted children’s relationship with physical activity. Covid reduced the opportunities children had to experience some sports. Lack of opportunity means children may not have developed skills or confidence in an area or may simply not know it is something they would enjoy as they haven’t tried it yet. An example of this is the impact of swimming pools closures during the pandemic. Swim England warns of a ‘lost generation’ of swimmers, as many children missed the opportunity of doing school swimming lessons.

These missed experiences not only impact on children’s skills but also their confidence. A survey showed that not only did children’s participation in exercise significantly decrease during the pandemic, but children’s perception of their confidence and competence in doing sport also decreased.

Parental Influence

Parental beliefs and practices also have an enormous influence on students. How involved parents are in physical activity and their attitudes towards sports and exercise will have an enormous impact. Parents’ attitudes towards physical activity will have been shaped by their own childhood experiences of PE. A negative experience can have a lifelong impact.

To break a generational cycle of negativity towards PE, it’s important to acknowledge that parents may have had unpleasant experiences of PE at school and to reassure them you are working to make PE as inclusive as possible. Ways of doing this could be through a video or letter home explaining the ethos of PE or an open evening where you acknowledge parents’ bad experiences and concerns.

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

Of course, another thing your students bring to their PE lessons are their skills, abilities, and disabilities. What additional needs do you know about in your class? What are the needs of children who have Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP), or are on SEN Support?

How about other children who are not yet on the SEN register but have physical, sensory, communication, learning or social, emotional and mental health needs?

Do you have children who find social interactions difficult? Does sensory stimuli overwhelm them? Do your students struggle with coordination and balance? Which needs are the most common?

Find out as much as possible about the needs, strengths and challenges of individual students and learn more about making PE inclusive.


Many factors impact on how students show up to a PE lesson – their previous experiences, their personality type, their parent’s attitudes, the impact of Covid and any Special Educational Needs or Disabilities that they have. Being curious and learning more about how these things affect your students allows you to make your lessons as inclusive and educational as possible.

This blog post is adapted from the book ‘Inclusive PE for SEND Children’ available on Amazon and Ingram Spark from September 15 2023. Check it out!

You may also be interested in the previous post – Teaching PE for the First Time: Where are You Starting From?