The Intersection Between Goals on the Field and Goals in the Classroom for Students with Exceptionalities

The purpose of this post is to share and critically reflect on an experience spent immersed in a culture different from aspects of my own cultural identity with the intention of gaining insight and developing understanding of how to interact with students of diverse backgrounds. The immersion experience I selected was with students with exceptionalities, and I attended a soccer game in the Mebane community where the focus of the team was to develop ‘positivity amongst peers’ by playing on teams where about half of the players had special needs. After reflecting before and after the experience in detail below, I will identify several applications from this experience that will enhance my teaching and inclusivity in the classroom, specifically related to special education and culturally relevant teaching.


Pre-Immersion Experience

Prior to attending my selected immersion experience, it was essential that I critically reflect on my own cultural identity so that I was aware of the lens through which I was viewing and observing the youth soccer game. Researchers identify why critical reflection is important by commenting that “teachers need to have a thorough understanding of their own cultures and the cultures of different groups, as well as how this affects teaching and learning behaviors” (Gay & Kirkland, 2003, p. 182). Though I was attending this event as a spectator and not as a teacher, reflecting on my own cultural identity allowed me to recognize at a personal level the privilege of having positive experiences with sports teams and coaches growing up as well as having strong and independent physical and mental abilities. That said, by reflecting on the educational side of this culture I recognized my limited exposure to and experience with special education students because the public schools I attended growing up provided primarily separate instruction for special education students. Additionally, no one in my immediate or extended family has a disability and therefore I have only worked with special needs students for a brief time when in high school I interned for a special education inclusion class at a local elementary school.

By way of critical reflection, I realized that I wanted my cultural immersion experience to take place in a setting with exceptional children or adults because I had limited exposure and experience working with that group and desired to build understanding before becoming a teacher. After talking to several parents at my church about different opportunities and programs in the area, I selected the ‘positive peers’ soccer game because I hoped to compare and contrast my observations in an extracurricular setting to what I might encounter in a classroom. I also found that the inclusive team structure mirrored what I envision for my future classroom and felt that observing special education in the lens of an inclusive soccer team could provide for possible applications of the coaching/playing style to the classroom. While I did not have specific expectations, the areas I was most interested in observing were the coach-to-player, player -to-player, parent-to-player, and parent-to-coach interactions.


Post-Immersion Experience

From the welcoming parents on the sidelines to the cheery soccer players despite the gloomy weather, I could not have asked for a more enjoyable immersion experience. While it was evident that I was not a coach, player, or parent, the families were welcoming to me watching the game and I sat by the family I did know with a son on the team. The most notable aspects of the experience were related to the positive interactions I observed between players, parents and coaches, which definitely aligned with the mission of promoting positivity amongst peers. The other notable observations focused on differences between soccer games I had played in or watched before and the game for this team. First, I noticed the relationships between the two coaches and the players were personal and the comments made from the sidelines were relatively uplifting. I also noticed that parents were shouting tips and advice from the sidelines to encourage various players to do certain plays or run towards the goal to attempt to score. The relationship I found most distinctive, and also incredibly heartwarming, was the mutual encouragement and respect between players regardless of any disability or special needs. That said, it was evident that many players would guide their teammates in the game if there was confusion, and they would share and pass the ball to multiple players. This level of collaboration was strikingly different from the competition I am used to encountering on the field because players, coaches, and parents alike are usually so focused on scoring a goal and finding the fastest way to do so and less focused on making sure everyone is following along and understanding what plays or moves to do. The relationships modeled on the team provided insight into positive relationships in the classroom because research identifies peer coaching as a method of collaboration, and “the focus is on teachers working together with an assumption that collaboration leads to improved student achievement” (Lingo, Barton-Arwood, & Jolivette, 2011, p. 6).

In regards to structural differences between this game and other games, I noticed that the game was played amongst one team that was split into two smaller games in what I would think of as a scrimmage. Additionally, there was no scoreboard present and so even though someone kept track of the score it was not displayed at this field for players to see. Though small examples, the idea of focusing on collaboration and relationships and less on competition relates to the special education concepts of modifications and accommodations. Just like on the sports field, classrooms are a place where changes (modifications) or adaptations (accommodations) can be made to alter standards for achievement or lower the expected performance level slightly (Laprairie, Johnson, Rice, & Higgins, 2010, p. 28). In the game, it produced positive results because all players were engaged and seemed to have positive attitudes regardless of their disabilities. Additionally, the specification of the sports program to the make-up of the team reminded me of the intentionality that goes into developing IEPs for special education students (McLaughlin, 2010, p. 275). Parents on the sidelines talked highly of the fun their children had playing these occasional soccer games, and I felt their praise spoke to the success of the program’s goals and mission.

Reflecting further upon how this experience impacts my instruction and future classroom, I saw how a positive, inclusive, and diverse community created strong relationships and success, which in this case meant fun and positive attitudes, on the field. The role of the coaches was especially significant in the game, and I remember one of them, Coach Bryan, saying the phrase “I want to see your smiles on the field” multiples times to the team while they were playing. That phrase stood out to me because it implied that engaging them to the point that they felt welcome and were enjoying themselves was his priority. The dimension of Diversity pedagogy Theory this connects to is the teacher pedagogical behavior of a culturally safe classroom context, “a classroom environment where students feel emotionally secure, psychologically consistent, and culturally, linguistically, academically, socially, and physically comfortable” and the student cultural display of self-regulated Learning, “demonstrations of the self initiated, managed, directed, contained, and restrained conduct required to meet self- determined personal and group goals” (Hernandez-Sheets, 2009, p. 14). Just as the players felt comfortable on the field, my role as a teacher is to make each student feel comfortable in the classroom. The other main aspect of instruction is the applications of culturally relevant teaching, specifically helping students whose educational and social futures are most at risk to become intellectual leaders in the classroom and utilizing cooperative learning (Kroeger & Bauer, 2004, p. 24-25). Just as these coaches empowered children with exceptionalities to become athletes and soccer players and for peer coaching relationships to develop on the team, my goal as a teacher is to empower students with exceptionalities to become leaders in their areas of interest and to develop relationships with all students in my classroom.



Overall, this experience revealed that the primary benefit of immersing oneself in diverse communities is that in every experience, even for as short as an hour in the afternoon, one can grow in cultural and critical consciousness. It is through an awareness of other cultures and life experiences that a teacher can create a classroom where the use of DPT and CRT celebrate diversity and cooperative learning. Additionally, an immersion experience provides an incredible opportunity to get to know children, or students, and their parents better. Villegas and Lucas’s research tells us that “when students are given opportunities to explore topics of interest to them, they are more apt to engage in learning than when instructional topics have little relevance to their lives” (2002, p. 28). Just as I learned about the enthusiasm for soccer and having fun with peers shared by the players on the team with special needs, I can learn about and connect with students in my classroom by attending activities (e.g. games, performances) that excite and interest them so that my teaching will reflect that I know them well and can engage every student on a personal level. 



Gay, G, & Kirkland, K. 2003. Developing cultural critical consciousness and self-reflection in preservice teacher education. Theory into Practice, 42 (3), 181-187.

Gollnick, D.M, & Chinn, P.C. (2014). Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society 8th ed. Pearson Publishing, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Hernandez -Sheets, R. (2009) What is Diversity Pedagogy. Multicultural Education, 16 (3), pp. 11-17.

Kroeger, S.D, & Bauer, A.M. (2004). Understanding Culturally Responsive Teaching. In S.D Kroeger & A. M Bauer,(Eds). Exploring Diversity: A video case approach (pp. 21-28). Upper Saddle River, NJ , Pearson Education Inc.

Laprairie, K., Johnson, D. D., Rice, M., Adams, P., & Higgins, B. (2010). The top ten things new high school teachers need to know about servicing students with special needs. American Secondary Education, 38(2), 23-31.

Lingo, A S, Barton-Arwood, S, Jolivette, K. (2011) Teachers working together, improving learning outcomes in the inclusive classroom practical strategies and examples. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43 (3), pp. 6-13.

McLaughlin, M (2010). Evolving Interpretations of Educational Equity and Students With Disabilities. Exceptional Children, 76 (3). p. 265-278

Villegas, A.M & Lucas, T. (2002). Preparing culturally responsive teachers: Rethinking t he curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education, 53 (20), 20-32.


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