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Early adolescence is a unique and fascinating period in human development. This period of great transition marks the end of childhood and the introduction into young adulthood. As children make the transformation into adults many developmental changes will occur.  For instance, young teens experience a time of accelerated growth second only to infancy (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development [CCAD], 1995), the roles of peers and family will take on new meanings (Schickedanz, Schickedanz, Forsyth, & Forsyth, 1998), and thinking patterns will be altered (Adams & Gullotta, 1989). With all of the developmental changes occurring, early adolescence is truly a fascinating period in the human life span.

Because early adolescence is a time of metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood, it serves as a ripe opportunity for young people to establish patterns and habits that could continue into the future. One such pattern is the choice to initiate and maintain a physically active lifestyle. Individuals who are physically active during adolescence are more likely to be physically active during adulthood (Dishman, 1988; Kuh & Cooper, 1992). This is of eminent importance due to the recent surge in research substantiating the health related benefits that come to those who consistently maintain a physically active lifestyle (Biddle, 1995; Calfas & Taylor, 1994; Covey & Feltz, 1991; Lee, 1995). With this in mind, health professionals are alarmed at the decrease in levels of physical activity that begin during early adolescence and continue throughout adolescence.

Physical Activity Trends During Early Adolescence

The National Children and Youth Fitness Study [NCYFS] examined the physical activity habits of individuals in grades five through twelve (Ross, Dotson, Gilbert, & Katz, 1985). Using a self reported physical activity recall instrument the results indicated that boys in grades seven through nine averaged 118 minutes of physical activity per day, while girls averaged 107. For both genders there was a sharp decrease in physical activity between grades seven and ten.

In more recent times, The National Health Interview Survey-Youth Risk Behavior Survey [NHIS-YRBS] and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey [YRBS], added to the research on adolescent physical activity trends (as cited in United States Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 1996). The NHISYRBS confirmed that as adolescents grow older, levels of physical activity decrease. For instance, 6.3% of males and 8.3% of females are sedentary at age fourteen. By age eighteen, the numbers have inflated to 18.8% for males and 18.7% for females. The percentage of young people reporting participation in vigorous physical activity for at least 3 days per week also decreases from 76.1% of 14-year-old males and 63.1% of females to 48.4% for males and 37.5% for females. These reports clearly illustrate that levels of physical activity begin to decrease during early adolescence and continue decreasing into adulthood.

The Call to Physical Education

In an attempt to combat the decline in physical activity during adolescence, health professionals are calling upon physical education to equip students with the skills and knowledge to maintain a physically active lifestyle. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion [NCCDPHP] (1997) recommends that physical education implement curricula and instruction that emphasize enjoyable participation in physical activity [and] help students develop the knowledge, attitudes, motor skills, behavioral skills, and confidence needed to adopt and maintain physically active lifestyles (p.


Although secondary physical education is seen as a promising setting to encourage adolescents to begin and maintain a physically active lifestyle, historically it has come under severe scrutiny for its inability to provide meaningful learning experiences for students (Graham, 1990; Griffey, 1987; Locke, 1992; Siedentop, 1987; Stroot, 1994).  For instance, many programs offer a very limited curriculum, that in no way takes into account the needs and/or desires of students and many teachers utilize inappropriate pedagogical techniques which hamper the success of students. Despite these flaws, many still believe that secondary physical education still has the greatest potential to promote life long physical activity to the early adolescent (Armstrong & McManus, 1994; Haywood, 1991; McGinnis, Kanner, & DeGraw, 1991; Morris, 1991; Pennington & Krouscas, 1999). Sallis and McKenzie (1991) share this view when they write the public health goal for physical education is to prepare children for a lifetime of regular physical activity (p. 133).

Recognizing the enormous potential physical education can have in the promotion of lifelong physical activity, several nationally acclaimed documents were recently developed to assist middle school physical education programs meet the needs of the early adolescent. These documents for the first time give physical education a national platform on which to proclaim its goals and purposes.

One of the initial documents to provide physical education with a national statement of purpose was published by the National Association of Sport and Physical Education [NASPE] and was appropriately entitled, Outcomes of quality physical education programs (1992a). The document which is intended to guide the development of sound instructional practices in physical education (NASPE, 1992a, p. 5), offers the following definition of a physically educated person:

1.  Has learned skills necessary to perform a variety of physical activities.

2.  Is physically fit.

3.  Does participate regularly in physical activity.

4.  Knows the implications of and the benefits from involvement inphysical activities.

5.  Values physical activity and its contributions to a healthful lifestyle.

Following the outcomes project, Guidelines for middle school physical education (1992b) was developed by the Middle and Secondary School Physical Education Council [MASSPEC]. This document identified appropriate middle school physical education guidelines on issues such as: curriculum, instruction, student health and safety, scheduling, time allotment, class sizes, facilities, equipment, supplies, measurement and evaluation. Additionally, MASSPEC published Program appraisal checklist for middle school physical education programs (1992c) to be used as a program assessment tool.

To further bolster physical education into the 21st century MASSPEC produced Appropriate practices for middle school physical education [APMSPE] (1995a). Following the pattern set by the Council on Physical Education for Children in the publication of Developmentally appropriate physical education practices for children (1992d), the APMSPE document gives examples of appropriate and inappropriate middle school physical education practices. The examples offered are taken from four general areas: curriculum, instruction, assessment, and support.

As an attempt to ensure credibility and accountability for physical education NASPE published, Moving into the future: National standards for physical education (1995b). NASPE reports the purpose of this document is to


establish content standards for the physical education school program that clearly identify consensus statements related to what a student should know and be able to do as a result of a quality physical education program, and establish teacher-friendly guidelines for assessment of the content standards that are consistent with instructionally integrated orientations the role of assessment in the teaching/learning process.

This document, if utilized, has the potential to assist middle school physical education programs in creating and implementing curricula, as well as formulating ways to assess student outcomes.

Although not written exclusively for middle school physical education, a recent report from the United States Department of Health and Human Services entitled: Physical activity and health: A report of the surgeon general (1996) has also contributed to the promotion of quality physical education. This first ever report, documents the health benefits that derive from prescribing to a physically active lifestyle. In recognizing the importance of physical activity to the health of young adolescents, the report recommended that the amount of K-12 physical education be increased.

The information provided in these documents has the potential to assist middle school physical education program leaders in their goal of promoting physical activity among early adolescents. However, to heighten the likelihood of that goal becoming a reality middle school physical education programs should also encompass the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of students (NCCDPHP, 1997). This is especially important when considering the positive relationship that has been found between attitudes toward physical education and participation in physical activity (Ferguson, Yesalis, Pomrehn, & Kirkpatrick, 1989; Zakarian, Hovell, Hofstetter, Sallis, & Keating, 1994). With this in mind, student attitudes towards physical education and the factors influencing those attitudes, should also be considered as middle school physical education attempts to provide programs that encourage the early adolescent to engage in consistent patterns of physical activity.

Attitudes Toward Physical Education

Student attitudes toward physical education has been under investigation since the 1930’s. Traditionally, the purpose of such inquiry has been to identify factors that contribute to positive and negative feelings toward physical education. Investigators believed that having such information would improve the quality of physical education by allowing teachers to consider student insights when making curricular or program decisions. Subsequently, research in this area has been plentiful. The preponderance of attention, however, has focused on college (Alden, 1932; Bell & Walters, 1953; Brumbach, 1968; Brumbach & Cross, 1965; Bullock & Alden, 1933; Campbell, 1968; Figley, 1985; Keogh, 1962) and high school students (Carr, 1945; Earl & Stennett, 1987; Luke & Sinclair, 1991; Rice, 1988; Tannehill, Romar, O Sullivan, England, & Rosenberg, 1994).

The few studies conducted on junior high and middle school students indicate that positive attitudes toward physical education appear to be strongest at the sixth grade level for both boys and girls. With each passing grade, however, attitudes toward physical education become less favorable (King, 1994). Although this attitudinal decline transpires in both genders, it is more severe in girls (Treanor, Graber, Housner, & Wiegand, 1998).

The identification of possible factors which contribute to students overall attitude towards physical education have varied. In one of the earliest studies in this topic, Nemson (1949) while attempting to identify specific annoyances that lead students to have negative feelings toward physical education, discovered that boys with positive attitudes towards physical education were most irritated by the personal hygiene of the physical education teacher (e.g. smell of tobacco on the breath of the teacher). Conversely, boys who were categorized as having a poor attitude by their teacher were most annoyed with the requirement of having to take physical education. More recently Tannehill and Zakrajsek (1993) reported winning, success, performing well, being included, teamwork, participating and having fun as the factors which many middle and high school students associate with positive physical education experiences. On the other hand, negative experiences related to fitness exercises and injuries. Carlson (1994) found student attitudes toward physical education were influenced by culture (gender, idolization of elite sports figures), society (family, mass media, sporting experience, skill level, peers, previous physical education experiences, and perceptions of fitness), and school (teacher influence).

Additional research in 1995 set out to "describe and analyze what students think, feel, and know about various aspects of their physical education programs" (Graham, 1995, p. 364). Researchers found that 21% of junior high school students sampled, strongly disagreed with the statement, "I enjoy gym class". Reasons for discontentment included: irrelevant subject matter, perceived lack of ability, public display of athletic inadequacy, uneasiness with competition, and feelings of isolation (Carlson, 1995). Portman (1995) while studying unskilled sixth-graders also found that physical education was an unpleasant experience which led to feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and humiliation.

Based on this literature it is apparent that for some junior high or middle school students physical education is a miserable experience, while  for others this content area is enjoyable and worthwhile. In either case, as students progress through each grade overall attitudes towards physical education decrease. This is especially noteworthy, when considering the decline in physical activity that transpires during adolescence. In other words, as adolescents age, attitudes toward physical education become less favorable and levels of physical activity decrease. The parallelism of these two trends, indicate the importance of providing a physical education experience which will encourage young adolescents to initiate and maintain a physically active lifestyle. However, in order to provide meaningful physical education experiences for middle school students additional research investigating student attitudes toward middle school physical education must be undertaken.

Statement of Purpose

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine middle school students’ attitudes toward a physical education program and to determine the various aspects of the program that appear to contribute to positive and negative attitudes toward middle school physical education.

Research Questions

1.      What aspects of physical education do sixth, seventh, and eighth grade boys and girls with positive attitudes toward physical education find most and least enjoyable?

2.      What aspects of physical education do sixth, seventh, and eighth grade boys and girls with negative attitudes toward physical education find most and least enjoyable?

Significance of the Study

Through the investigation of student attitudes toward a physical education program, and the incidents which influence those attitudes, it is hoped that  middle school physical education programs will be better equipped to provide a meaningful physical education experience to all students by considering such information when making curricular, pedagogical, or other program decisions.


The sample for this study was delimited to those students attending  one specific middle school located in a suburban community in the southeastern region of the United States.


Due to ethical considerations, this study was limited to those students who provide written assent and parental consent forms. Additionally, this study was limited by the responses given by the middle school students sampled. Although subjects were encouraged to respond honestly and genuinely to survey questions, response sincerity may vary.

Definition of Terms

For the purpose of this study the following terms will be used:

Attitude is "the affect for or against a psychological object" (Thurstone, 1931, p. 261).

Critical Incident Technique is a set of procedures for collecting information about human behavior "in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems" (Flanagan, 1954, p. 327).

Early Adolescence is a period of human development which extends r

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