November 29, 2021

Teaching Personal & Social Responsibility in Physical Education (Part One)

This is part one of my three-part blog post mini-series on the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) model. Here are links to the other posts in this series:

• Part One: Introducing The TPSR Model and The Five Levels of Responsibility.

• Part Two: Nine Teaching Strategies That Support TPSR In The Classroom.

• Part Three: How To Structure A TPSR Lesson. (Coming Soon)

Throughout my career, my teaching has been influenced by pedagogical models. I had the opportunity to be exposed to and play with various models in my undergrad and I've always considered my teaching to be a smorgasbord of model components that I've put together into an eclectic collection.

Of these models, Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) has been one of the heaviest influences on my teaching. As I dove deeper into the world of Social and Emotional Learning this past summer, I realized just how powerful and important TPSR can be in this moment we're all living together.

In this blog-post mini-series, I'd like to walk you through the basic principles and components of the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility model. Along the way, I'll be providing you with resources that can help you bring this model (or at least parts of it) to your teaching.

Let's dive in!

What Is The Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) Model?

Don Hellison first developed the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility model in the 1970s.

At the time, Hellison was working with underserved students in urban high schools. He wanted to develop a program that would help these kids take responsibility for their development and support the well-being of others.

From his efforts, the TPSR model was born.

The Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility model's purpose is to help youth learn how to take responsibility for their well-being and development, to be able to navigate and live in social situations in healthy ways, and to be caring and compassionate towards others.

The model promotes five cumulative levels of responsibility:

  1. Respect for the rights and feelings of others (Respect),
  2. Effort and cooperation (Effort),
  3. Self-direction (Self-Direction),
  4. Helping others and leadership (Helping Others),
  5. Transfer outside of the gym (Transfer).

As an instructional model, TPSR focuses on four core themes:

  • Strong teacher-student relationships,
  • Empowering students,
  • Integrating responsibility into physical activity,
  • Promoting transfer of responsibility.

With a growing body of evidence to support its validity and effectiveness, the model is considered one of the best ways to promote responsibility, values, and life skills in physical activity settings (including physical education).

What Are The Five Responsibility Levels Of The Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) Model?

The most iconic feature of the TPSR model is its five levels of responsibility. You've probably seen these displayed in gyms or featured in curriculum documents.

The levels provide a powerful framework that can be used to help guide students towards deeper levels of personal and social responsibility. However, this doesn't just happen on its own: to empower students to move through the different levels, we need to help them acquire key skills and knowledge through intentional pedagogical practices. In other words, just showcasing the levels doesn't help kids become more responsible: we need to teach our students how to make sense of them.

How can we teach something that we ourselves do not have a deeper understanding of? We can't! That's why I'd like to use the next section of this post to break down and explore each of the levels of responsibility from TPSR.

Level Zero: Irresponsibility

Level Zero represents students who demonstrate irresponsible attitudes and behaviours in class.

Students at this level may resort to name-calling, bullying, creating conflicts, blaming others, refusing to adhere to classroom expectations, disrupting classmates’ work and learning, and denying any personal responsibility for their actions.

Although students at Level Zero can be incredibly challenging, Hellison believed that almost all students could make progress within the levels of responsibility over time.

For students who cannot make any progress, there needs to be an option to opt-out of the program or bring in additional support (e.g. a behavioural specialist) to help those students who may require it due to a pre-existing psychological condition.

Level One: Respecting Others

Students may not be participating in the classroom activities at Level One, but they show a base-level amount of respect and responsibility towards others.

Students at this level demonstrate self-control. This means that they can control their attitudes and behaviours in ways that respect the rights and feelings of others.

Hellison refers to this as “controlling your temper and your mouth.”

Students can demonstrate this self-control without teacher support, but that does not mean that the students are doing so from an actual place of respecting others. The kids understand that staying in control of yourself doesn’t get you in trouble. Over time, students can learn how to become sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

Self-control also means not being controlled by the actions or words of others. It can look like showing restraint when others are being irresponsible or disrespectful.

If self-control is the first component of Level One, then peaceful conflict resolution is the second.

To resolve conflicts peacefully, students need first to understand that differences in opinion can co-exist. People don’t always need to be “right” or “wrong”: sometimes, we see or believe things differently. However, kids need to learn that there is always a peaceful way to find a middle ground. Sometimes this compromise can be obvious, and other times it can require negotiation and deliberation. Regardless of the path we must take to get there, it exists.

Knowing this is fundamental to believing that engaging in peaceful conflict resolution is worthwhile.

The third component of Level One is recognizing that everyone has the right to be included. Nobody should feel excluded based on their skill level, gender, race, identity, or sexual orientation.

Allowing others to participate in activities is the most basic way of showing respect. Regardless of what students may think of others, including them says “I see you, and you deserve to be here as much as I do.”

Being at Level One is not binary: it can be that the student is showcasing some behaviours from this level and maybe some from others as well (including Level Zero). This is true for all of the levels.

Students’ position on this spectrum of responsibility can fluctuate from day to day, week to week, or month to month. It’s important to remember to zoom out and look at overall progress trends rather than becoming hyper-focused on daily data points. In other words, we’re all allowed to have a bad day, and those random bad days don’t need to define us or mar the progress we’ve worked so hard to make.

Level Two: Effort & Cooperation

Level Two is all about students being able to get the most out of their experiences.

At a fundamental level, choosing to participate helps counter self-defeating attitudes and behaviours. These can include anything from passivity, learned helplessness, or discrediting everything as being meaningless.

Self-motivation is the first component of Level Two, as students need to find the will to participate and put in effort.

As with so many other components in the TPSR levels of responsibility, helping students develop their self-motivation can and should be scaffolded and approached progressively. This can start with something as simple as moving to the next station once you've completed the previous one. Over time, opportunities to self-motivate can become more complex, and the use of external motivators (e.g. teacher directions) becomes less present.

The second component of Level Two involves exploring effort and trying out new things.

To help students move past a state of nonparticipation, they should be encouraged to "give it a go" when trying new things.

Eventually, this can progress to a point where students recognize that training and practice can help them increase their skill levels, grow their confidence, and improve their health and well-being.

However, none of this can happen if students give up when the going gets tough.

That brings us to the third component of Level Two: the courage to persist.

We can support this by talking to our students about the different ways one can define success. For many kids, success means winning. Although that is one way to define success, it is not the be-all and end-all for feeling successful.

By helping students understand that success can be defined in other ways (e.g. making progress towards a goal, improving a result, having fun), we can help them reframe challenge, see different ways they can feel successful in challenging moments and persist despite temporarily falling short of their goals.

Something I heard recently that pairs well with this ability to persist is helping students see how when they "take the L," the "L" can stand for "Learning."

Level Three: Self-Direction

Level Three is all about putting students in the driver’s seat of their own experiences.

For obvious reasons, this will look very different for students at various grade levels.

The goal here is to move away from having the teacher direct everything within the lesson and have the students practice staying on-task without direct adult supervision.

This progression towards on-task independence can happen in various ways, from independent skill practice to station work or even small-sided games.

If on-task independence is the first component of Level Three, goal-setting is the second.

Teaching students to set goals for themselves should be approached intentionally and progressively. As I’ve learned the hard way, expecting students to “just get it” and set attainable goals that contribute to self-motivation is a great way to set both yourself and your students up for failure.

One way to avoid this is by having younger students set and state atom-sized goals for their learning and behaviour in class. For example, one student could state that their next goal is to complete three consecutive basic jumps with a jump rope. Another student may set a goal to freeze within three seconds of the teacher calling for attention.

Over time (and with teacher support), students can learn how to set longer-term goals and create action plans for their learning. Ultimately, we want students to set goals that consider their individual needs, current levels of skill and understanding, and interests. This process can help students become more in touch with themselves as individuals and set personal standards for their work and lives.

The third component of Level Three has to do with resisting external pressure (especially from peers).

Until students can resist the urge to be approved by others, how will they be able to set goals that are indeed their own?

To support this ability to resist, we need to help students understand the value they bring to this world simply by being themselves. From this place of strength, we can then encourage students to practice healthy levels of assertiveness so that they may advocate for themselves when situations call for it.

Level Three may seem pretty advanced for kids, especially our younger learners. That’s why it is essential to view the TPSR model as a multi-year program. By backward designing outcomes and planting tiny seeds of responsibility early on in our students' lives, we can help them grow into some of the more advanced skills, attitudes, and beliefs that the model promotes.

Level Four: Caring & Compassion

At Level Four, we begin to see students moving beyond caring for themselves, their attitudes, and their behaviour and start actively caring for others.

The level encourages students to focus on the well-being of others and to find ways to make a positive contribution to the various communities (e.g. class, teams, groups) that they are a part of.

To support this, the level is built around three main components:

  • Showcasing caring and compassion
  • Being sensitive and responsive to the needs of others
  • Demonstrating inner strength through leadership

Much of Level Four is based on the development of one’s character: to act in ways that are aligned with our values and to “do the right thing” even when it is challenging or scary to do so.

By helping our students develop positive interpersonal skills such as empathy, perspective-taking, and active listening, we can set them up for success when the moment calls for them to care for and lead others.

Level Five: Transfer

Transfer is built into the TPSR model in various ways, so it makes sense that it would be the fifth and final level of responsibility.

Level Five brings all of the skills and attitudes that students have developed through the other model levels and asks students, “how can this be applied outside the gym?”

Rather than waiting for students to “reach” this level, teachers should be helping them become aware of the role and importance of transfer throughout their TPSR journeys. We can help students achieve this awareness through various talks and group discussions in which students can begin to build links between what they are learning in class and how it could apply/serve them in other contexts.

Ultimately, we want our students to be able to be role models for others. The earlier we can help our students understand that they ALL have the potential to become role models, the sooner we can help them grow along that path.

You can now download the TPSR Levels of Responsibility Posters in the Shop!

TPSR Resources

My intention was to create a set of posters that represented the levels of responsibility and broke each level down into its components for both students and teachers.

The result were the four TPSR Responsibility Levels Posters that you see above.

Each poster features the level's title, a brief description of that level, and three "look fors" (i.e. components). The idea is to have the posters displayed in your gym in a place where students can see them as you engage in awareness talks or invite students to self-reflect on their level of responsibility throughout the lesson.

A few things that you may have noticed:

I didn't make a poster for Level Zero (Irresponsibility). I know that many teachers use these kinds of posters as part of a "touch & go" self-assessment at the end of the lesson. As I put the posters together, I tried to reflect on what it would feel like for a student to leave class immediately after touching the Level Zero poster. I didn't see how doing so could benefit the student but I did see how doing so in front of their peers could result in feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. That being said, I decided to not include the poster in the set.

The second thing you may have noticed is that there are five levels of responsibility but only four posters. That's because the idea of the fifth level is to transfer everything you have learned along the way to situations outside of the gym. Instead of making a fifth poster, I decided to make Level Five a part of each poster for the four first levels. My hope is that this promotes the idea of transfer throughout the learning process, which is one of the core themes of the model anyway.

If you'd like to access the TPSR Responsibility Levels Posters for your teaching, you can find them in the Shop!

Download the TPSR Posters


That's it for this first post in my Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility blog post mini-series. In the next post, I'll be going over nine key teaching strategies you can consider to bake the model into your teaching in an effective way.

If you enjoyed this blog post, feel free to share it with a colleague! You can also subscribe to my newsletter to make sure that you don’t miss out on any future posts that I share.

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 ThePhysicalEducator.com.
View all posts

Similar posts


Sign up and never miss another blog post!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.