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For as long as I can remember, I have loved to run. Whether it’s a race, trail run, or to get outside and move, running has been a significant part of my life. I have completed over 600 races of varying lengths in the past thirty years.

Some were easy, and everything was effortless. Others a struggle, every step torture, painful, and doubtful if I would finish. Somehow though, I manage to cross the finish line and look forward to the next race.

My learning support students (special needs students to some) don’t believe I run in 5ks, 10ks, or half marathons. They see a mid-sixty, chubby, balding old guy. They can’t imagine him running – except if it’s for the last doughnut in the break room!

I can show them the medals I won or photos, but they are skeptical. Nothing convinces them otherwise until they see me in a race or their parents see me.

Then I have credibility. You may ask, what does running have to do with relating to kids with disabilities? I’m glad you asked!

I ran across (no pun intended) this young man on the most recent Global Running Day. I might not have noticed him except for the t-shirt;

DISABILITYNo feet, No excuses!

Special needs students running in a race

His shirt was much more than a saying.

It was a mantra, a belief statement nothing would keep him from the finish line. It was an audaciously bold statement of his goal. Goal setting for my learning support students success is nearly always more important than the lessons. They need to know how to measure their improvement and where all the work leads.

Special Needs Support

Set Goals

I set little goals along the way to get my mind off the overwhelming distance to the finish line. Runners find a way to finish the race without getting stuck on the difficulty or distance. Runners focus on completing small goals knowing each step is one step closer to finishing. 

I teach kids it’s not how you start or run the race. It’s how you finish it! Set a goal, line up, and go for it. Every improvement is one step closer to a destination, no matter how seemingly small the step seems. 

Change your Stride

student running shoes

 Runners know when the geography changes, so must their stride.  They tweak stride length a few inches to run a personal best. We want students to understand progress is progress, no matter how small. A few tweaks will produce positive results over the long haul.

For example, glaciers move a little bit each day, but we can’t see it with our eyes. Glaciers grind land for miles, carving gullies and valleys out of rock, changing the landscape. One inch of progress for a kid will change the landscape of their life.

Don’t Compare

Every time a runner lines up for a race, it’s only natural to compare yourself to others. Some runners are tall and lean. Others are stubby and strong. Sometimes you watch runners warm up; they look sleek and fast.

Over the years, I’ve learned not to compare myself to other runners. Comparisons don’t help me to run faster or longer.

Comparisons don’t matter. For students, it’s about what they can do, not what others do. Students aren’t competing against others.

 Runners are all about collecting information to improve performance. Runners discuss personal best almost as much as shoes or what to eat before a race! Comparing how you perform similar tasks and monitoring performance over time provides insight into how to improve.

I want students to achieve a new personal best every school day. To do that, students need to know the starting point, where the middle lies, and where the finish is. Comparisons with others do little to get to the finish line.

Teach Perseverance

pokemon card

We have no control over how quickly the person next to us runs, the weather, or the surface condition we run. The runner controls their pace, mental determination, and desire to finish.

Students can learn and develop the same attitude as runners. Perseverance is a teachable skill. Incorporate teaching perseverance into every lesson. Use examples children can relate to.

Recently when working with an autistic student, I learned the Charizard card was the most prized Pokémon card. The character flies at an altitude of 4,600 feet looking for opponents to battle. Charizards breathe fire, and their flames can melt any material.

If I observe him struggle with a task, I ask how the Charizard handles a challenging opponent. And my autistic student will pretend to breathe fire on the assignment. If you are unwilling to relate to a child at their level, they will not connect to you.


Relationships lead to results when you communicate with students on their level. Teaching has always been about connecting to the learner. 

People who enjoy running tend to have strong connections with others who share their interest in the sport. They often read, eat, and engage with anything related to running. We know that some children may not be interested in sports, Pokemon, or music. They have different passions.

It is essential to know a child’s individual interests and make an effort to connect with them emotionally. This may require sharing your personal emotional space and making room for their interests, even if they do not match yours.

Foster Community

Runners share an emotional connection to the sport and each other. All runners have lousy races every now and then. Runners empathize with other runners having bad race days and offer encouragement.

A sense of community is an essential aspect of being a runner.

A community is a feeling of fellowship with others because of common attitudes, interests, and goals. Create a sense of community with a child. Children need to know they are an important part of the community, despite any limitations.

The community will rally when needed, protect them from harm, and never desert them. In the community, a child’s voice matters. 

No one gets through setbacks and challenges without help from someone who cares. Being someone to support and encourage a child is a way to give back. Remember, it’s not how you start or run the race, it’s how you finish it!

special needs shirt

-Written by, Doug Carroll, Ed.D.

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