OTTUMWA — Not all students have the ability to participate in things others take for granted, like music class or gym. Cardinal Elementary School remedies this problem with a pair of adaptive classes, one for music and one for physical education.

“I absolutely love adaptive PE,” said Kristin Thrasher, who teaches physical education at Cardinal Elementary. “When you have the full class for 30 minutes, it’s really hard to work individually with students. So having this time period every couple of days is awesome to just work with them one on one.”

This is the first year Cardinal has offered adaptive PE. Any student that qualifies for the program has a lesson plan tailored to fit their needs and abilities.

The program’s 13 students each work with Thrasher one-on-one in weekly 20-minute sessions on top of attending regular PE classes. Each student qualifies for adaptive PE based on different mental or physical disabilities.

Delilah Dick, a second-grade student at Cardinal Elementary, is one student in the adaptive PE program. Born with cerebral palsy, Dick spent most of her early life in a wheelchair. While she still uses one to get around, Thrasher said Dick’s mobility and coordination have improved greatly since she started adaptive PE. Her lessons primarily focus on skills like walking, throwing and catching.

Thrasher said that when Dick began the program, she couldn’t walk far without a belt and lead to help keep her balance. Now, one semester into the school year, Dick can walk the length of the hallway largely on her own, with just a hand on the wall for support.

Dick’s sense of joy and accomplishment were apparent. She spent the short lesson laughing and smiling as she and Thrasher threw the ball back and forth.

“This changes her whole day,” said Lucy Terrell, Dick’s aide.

While this is the first year Cardinal has offered adaptive PE, the program is based on an established adaptive music program the school has provided for the last three years with great success.

The concept was introduced by music teacher Brooke Lunsford, who taught modified music in Iowa City for a time before applying to Cardinal.

“In my interview, I said what my past experience was, and being the progressive school Cardinal is, they were immediately like, ‘This is a really cool opportunity,’” Lunsford said. “[Special education students] can get overstimulated in large classroom settings sometimes, and it’s nice to have that extra time with them and their unique learning needs.”

Lunsford’s adaptive lessons work the same way as Thrasher’s. They’re one-on-one and are spent working on various music skills. There’s dancing, beat recognition, singing and some work with instruments.

Her lessons also have a lot of crossover with what the students are working on in class. Lunsford pairs music with counting and colors, but also sharpens the students’ motor skills and body awareness by dancing and playing with instruments.

“It doesn’t feel like work when they’re shaking a shaker,” Lunsford said. “But fine motor skills, dexterity and mobility are things we work on, too.”

Adaptive music at Cardinal has a therapeutic element as well. The music room, which is quiet and removed from the rest of the building, provides students with a break from the stress induced by class.

“They can be having a rough start to their day, or they just need a break from their work or their classroom,” Lunsford said. “They come in here, and they walk out feeling refreshed and ready to keep going. It’s almost like pushing a restart button.”

“The kids absolutely love it,” said Heather Buckley, principal of Cardinal Elementary. “They have fun going each and every day. It’s something they look forward to. They do a variety of things that meet their interest level, but that also help them with coordination and brings music into their lives and their exercise.”

The students aren’t the only ones that enjoy the practice.

“I love it,” Lunsford said. “It’s a very special part of my job.”

Jack Langland can be reached at


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