September 5, 2018

Dress For Success: Changing How We Approach Having Students Change For Physical Education

Basing a student’s grade based off of how often they change into their PE uniform for class is easy, right? If you teach a kid 50 times in a school year and they brought their uniform 40 times, that’s an 80. The math is super simple and the sheer convenience of the “yes/no” tracking is undeniable.

Here’s a question for you: did reading that opening paragraph upset you? Did it sound ridiculous? I hope so, because it was painful to even just type it out! However, the reality is that grading students based off of how often they bring their PE clothes (or knocking points off their final grade for each time they forget their clothes) is something that still currently happens in physical education lessons around the world.

To call it a “dated” practice doesn’t do it justice as I can’t think of a time where it could have been appropriate. The fact that it gets passed off as assessment is an insult to our profession and to teaching in general. Not only that, punishing a student for not bringing in their uniform often happens without anyone having taken the time to question why they didn’t do so. Maybe they’re parents are divorced and their clothes were at the other parent’s place. Maybe they’re dealing with body issues that make it extremely uncomfortable for them to get changed in public places. Maybe they don’t even have athletic wear and can’t afford to purchase any. Imagine a student in either one of those situations, think of what they could be secretly going through, and then imagine them being punished for something that they have no control over. Is it worth it?

Here’s the thing though: I get it. A lot of teachers have never had training or experience in regards to assessment in physical education. They legitimately don’t know any better and are so focused on surviving their day-to-day that they haven’t been able to take a step back to reflect on why they want their students to wear their uniforms in PE.

I also know how challenging it can be to constantly be going back-and-forth with students who don’t get changed for PE. It can be really frustrating as a teacher as you feel that the energy that goes into those reminders/conversations could be used to serve greater purposes in your lessons. Again, it comes back to whether or not your students know why it is important to develop appropriate dress habits when it comes to physical activity (and physical education class).

Alright, confession time: I’m notoriously bad at “enforcing” expectations related to PE uniforms in my teaching. I get flack from my colleagues about it all of the time (rightfully so: they have to sit with all of those sweaty bodies in their classrooms!) My lame justification: even though I’m blessed to get to teach each of my students for 150 minutes per week, I still feel like that’s so little time! I’m never going to have a student sit out of my lesson and miss out on opportunities to learn because they don’t have their PE uniform. It’s just not going to happen.

That being said, I want to be doing a better job of educating my students on the reasoning behind why we should all have healthy habits when it comes to how we dress for physical activity. I want to change their perspective from “this is a box I need to check” to “this is a habit that can have a positive impact on my health”. Here’s what I’m thinking:

Knowing The Why

During the first unit of my school year, my students and I discuss what it means to be responsible in physical education (and beyond!) Using the Character Shield graphics that I created for my gym (and that you can download for free on the Visuals page) we brainstorm different examples of responsible behaviour in physical education. “Wearing your uniform for class” is always listed as an example of a responsible behaviour.

My plan is to introduce a new set of visuals at this point that explain why it is important to get changed for physical education class. To me, there are four main reasons:

Be Healthy

The first reason has to do taking care of our personal hygiene. As we exercise, our body releases sweat, oils, and dead skin cells that can accumulate in the clothes we wear. These by-products of physical movement can foster the development of bacteria that can cause odour and/or damage our skin.

By wearing a separate set of clothes when engaging in physical activity, we put ourselves in a better position to maintain the health of our skin, feel great, and positively contribute to a scent-free environment.

Be Free

Wearing athletic clothing that is appropriate for physical activity allows to us experience movement through our full range of motion. This means that we can push ourself further into our learning and discover new ways of moving through space. We become more comfortable in movement and gain a better sense of what our bodies are capable of doing. This can help us develop additional confidence in physical activity settings.

Be Safe

When we wear clothing that is inappropriate for physical activity, we run the risk of having our movement restricted or finding ourselves slipping, tripping, or falling over because of our choice of dress.

Appropriate clothing means that we are wearing clothes that won’t get in our way and that will perform as expected (i.e. not slip or slide). This keeps us safe by preventing injuries that may result in us having to miss out on opportunities to be active.

Be Ready

We never know when adventure can come knocking on our door. Opportunities to be active can present themselves at any time and that’s why we want to make sure that – when they do – we’re ready for them. This means working hard on developing the competence we need to engage confidently jump into adventure and developing habits that support participation in physical activity. These habits include those related to dressing appropriately for physical activity: choosing clothes that maximize range of motion, taking weather and terrain into account when selecting what clothes to wear, and keeping active clothing on hand (e.g. in your locker, in the trunk of your car, at your office) so that you’re always ready to squeeze in a few extra active minutes into your day!

Dress For Success Printable Set

To help promote the “why” behind having a change of clothes for physical education, I created a set of printables that showcase the reasoning I just shared with you.

I’ve put this printable set up on the door of my gym so that it’s always front and center when my students come into the gym for PE. I’ll be introducing it to my students, piece by piece, during those first few lessons of the school year.

Dress For Success Printable Set

Here’s how the set looks when printed, laminated, and posted in my gym!

If you’d like to use these printables in your gym, the set is now available on the Visuals page! Thanks in advance for your support, it really means a lot!

Managing PE Uniforms

Ok, so what do I do when students don’t bring their uniforms in? Here are some steps I’ve outlined for myself that I plan to follow this school year:

If I notice a student doesn’t have their full PE clothes (i.e. athletic top, shorts/athletic pants, appropriate footwear), I will:

  1. Bring this to the students’ attention and ask if there was a specific reason why it may have happened.
  2. If the student has a reason, we will quickly come up with an idea on how we can make sure that they have their full uniform for the next class (e.g. set a reminder, make a calendar, bring the uniform on Monday and keep it in their cubby until Friday). Using the Dress For Success Printable Set, the student and I will have a conversation that focuses on why it is important to dress appropriately for physical education.
  3. If the student forgets their uniform again, I will contact the parents using an email template to bring the issue to their attention and see how we can work together towards a solution.
  4. If, despite all of these efforts, the student continues to not bring their uniform, then the conversation will need to refocus on personal responsibility. In this case, where I have reason to believe that the student is actively not bringing their uniform due to irresponsible decisions*, the decision will be treated as any other irresponsible behaviour in class (i.e. it will fall within my class warning system).

*This happens. I’ve had students who won’t wear their PE clothes even though they have them as a way to test whether or not I will follow through on my expectations. Again, I won’t automatically assume this and will have to have enough evidence to start treating the irresponsible behaviour as one that is actively being made. I always want to do what I can to understand my students before making assumptions.

The only situation in which I won’t let a student participate in class (when I say that, I mean as in the same way as their classmates) is if they show up to class in clothes that are unsafe for physical activity and that could cause an accident. In these situations, the student could take on a different role in class (such as a mini-coach for their classmates). As for having a student forgetting to bring their PE uniform affect their grade, my grades are meant to represent a students’ progress in their learning journey. Grading students on changing out just doesn’t fit within my teaching philosophy.

My hope is that by taking this approach – one that focuses on teaching rather than punishing – I can have a bigger impact on my students’ learning and the development of their healthy habits. It’s about fostering understanding and responsibility rather than compliance.

I know that this is a touchy subject for our profession and I realize that so many of you have wildly different realities in your teaching. That said, I’d love to hear your thoughts and have a constructive conversation in the comments below!

Thanks so much for reading and happy teaching!

Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of
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