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  • Writer's pictureADHD low-down

The Sports-Behavior Connection - #ADHD

How sports can improve behavior and strengthen critical life skills, especially for children with ADHD, who don’t often get the chance to be a team leader.


The students at University School, a college preparatory, independent day school for boys, do a lot more in phys ed than play sports. Sure, the boys are developing their motor skills and burning off excess energy. But thanks to Bill Jones, the school’s director of physical education, they’re also practicing life skills that allow them to think about and control their behavior.

Utilizing a program from the book Teaching Responsible Behavior Through Physical Activity, by Dr. Donald Hellison, Jones’s students, many of whom have ADHD, are learning that there are five levels of personal and social responsibility.

Level 1: Irresponsibility Level 2: Self-control Level 3: Involvement Level 4: Self-responsibility Level 5: Caring

These five levels define behavior within a basic discipline system. The system enables positive behavior to be identified and reinforced for the boys in the physical education class. Students are consistently asked to set goals for themselves and to evaluate their own behavior. Utilizing the five-level bull’s-eye chart, they’re asked at the beginning of class to touch the level on the chart that they want to be in for that period. At the end of class, they touch the level they thought they achieved during the class.

A key element of the program is the discussion that goes on throughout gym period. Over time, the boys become increasingly aware of how their behavior meshes with their classmates’. The goal is for students to understand, to reflect upon (through journal writing or group brainstorming and sharing), and then to extend their positive behavior toward classmates, friends, and family beyond the gym walls.

All students are given opportunities to be group leaders, team captains, referees, rule makers, coaches, and dispute resolvers. These are not often the roles you find teachers designating to ADHD students, but they are necessary roles to take on if students are to understand and empathize with a peer’s feelings and emotional situations.

The responsibility program, which has been field-tested in both inner-city and suburban school settings with positive results, gives students choices and enables them to make personal connections while they engage in energetic, physical learning. In addition, Coach Jones talks with each student individually at the end of every class. He asks him what he did well and to which level of behavior he was able to function. In this way, he recognizes positive behavior — something that can’t happen too often for a child with ADHD.

Jones knows that this program works. He sees its effects beyond the gym’s walls and beyond the school’s walls. Case in point: One enthusiastic mother reported her pleasant surprise when her son willingly gave up his seat in the family car. When she questioned this gallant gesture, he simply said that he was working at a Level 5: Caring.


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