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Marrying clinical practice with community service

Kathryn Kao

October 7, 2015


A line of noodles, beach balls and rubber chickens may seem like the perfect props for a summer pool party, but for students taking the adapted physical education class offered by the Department of Kinesiology, they make up an essential component of a long-established program.

Every week, more than 20 children from around Athens-Clarke County meet at the Ramsey Student Center for a one-on-one clinical session with a UGA student. While the participating children all have different needs and impairments, the goal is always the same—to facilitate and assess their physical and motor development.

"I've always looked at the class as a clinical practicum for the students first," said Michael Horvat, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology. "It gives them hands-on experience because who wants to sit through three lectures a week?"

Horvat, who is also the director of the Pediatric Exercise and Motor Development Clinic (PEMDC), has been designing and providing activity programs for children with disabilities for over three decades.

Since his arrival to the university, the clinic—which previously focused on game playing and recreational activities—has evolved into a vital source of first-hand knowledge for a large pool of students, including future physical therapists, physical education teachers and athletic trainers.

"This is one of the classes that the College of Education offers where students actually get hands-on practical experience," said Ashley Fallaize, a doctoral student studying motor behavior. "For physical therapy majors, it's invaluable because they have to get clinical observation hours and have an opportunity to interact with children with special needs."

The clinic offers students a rare opportunity to touch, move and expose the children to new physical activities. Ranging from ages 2 to 14, each participant has a disability that hinders physical and motor development, such as cerebral palsy, autism, mitochondrial disorder, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and more.

In addition to offering one-on-one child-clinician interaction, PEMDC also serves as a unique resource for the local community. The program, which has gained popularity by word of mouth from parents, as well as hospitals, organizations and schools, is open to families at a very low fee.

"The practicum is a time for students to take theory and put it into practice," said Horvat. "But it's also an opportunity for kids who aren't traditionally active to participate in some type of exercise program. And that's why a lot of those kids like to come back semester after semester."

Unlike traditional therapy settings, parents are invited to participate in their child's progress, often providing important information about their child's medical history, preferences and prescribed medications. After all, the goal of the program is to facilitate skills that the children can then use at home or in school settings.

In fact, many students will discuss their goals with a parent before designing their exercise programs. According to Horvat and Fallaize, it's important to consider each child's individual needs and rate of progression when developing a new plan.

Generally, student programs involve half an hour in the gym and another half an hour in an aquatic setting. The latter sometimes poses a challenge to participants who are initially reluctant to get into the pool. As a result, it's also the place where the most obvious progressions are seen.

For Laura Stevens, a senior majoring in exercise and sport science with a disability certificate from the Institute of Human Development and Disability in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, the pool was where she remembers feeling the most excited about her student's accomplishments.

Chase Jones, 5, has autism spectrum disorder, which is often characterized by low spatial awareness and a short attention span.

"I was super excited when I got Chase to float on his back," said Stevens. "When he floats, he stops scripting. So with autism, a lot of times kids will talk extraneously, but he was very relaxed and focused on the task, which was a lot of fun for me to see. He's just a joy."

Like many others who have enjoyed the clinic, Stevens has returned for a second semester as a supervisor. And because Chase still attends the weekly program, she can track his progress for an extended period of time.

"What really sticks out for me is that I'll invariably come across a student, and they'll remember who they worked with," said Horvat. "They'll remember their names, and they'll ask specifically about them. And to me, that shows that the students really care and enjoy their experience."

According to Fallaize, PEMDC is one of the few clinics that take advantage of the pools at Ramsey. The students are not specifically teaching the children how to swim, but instead, use the water to develop physical and motor functioning. However, several children do end up learning some important survival techniques like floating on their backs, said Stevens.

"Our goal is to help the children as they try to keep up with their siblings in playing catch or when they go bowling and swimming with their family," said Fallaize. "Every child has made progress, and they've all benefited. They stay consistent, and they come back each semester to work on different skills."

No matter the outcome, the clinic aims to benefit everyone involved—the students, who may one day have a child with autism in their physical education class; the parents who want to take a more active role in their child's progress; and most importantly, the children who are learning new, life-changing skills.