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Super Engaging

Graduate student uses animated characters to connect with students

The children’s animated television program PJ Masks likely isn’t on the binge-watching lists of many Bridgewater State University graduate students. But Nikki Maloney, ’16, G’22, has a good reason for immersing herself in the show’s world of superheroes.

For Nikki, an adapted physical education teacher for the West Bridgewater Public Schools, it’s about connecting with and inspiring the special education students she serves.

“I was trying to find a way to engage my students,” said Nikki, who is pursuing a graduate degree in adapted physical education. “I started (in West Bridgewater) last year during the middle of the pandemic where half of the school kids were remote learning. It was really difficult for me to get to know my students.”

After learning about students’ favorite heroes, Nikki made activity books based on those characters’ worlds. Students eagerly completed challenges cleverly designed to improve their gross motor skills (defined as tasks that involve large muscles in the upper body, as well as whole-body movements). A student needing to work on balance, for example, crossed a balance beam to help a favorite character escape a predicament.

“They got to take over a little more,” Nikki said. “It was more self-directed.”

This out-of-the-box thinking is a great way to relate to students, said Dr. Matthew Patey, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology.

“Sometimes that’s all you need,” said Patey, who specializes in adaptive physical education and is advising Nikki on her thesis. “It’s a brilliant strategy on Nikki’s end to incorporate things kids like and get that fun factor.”

Nikki excels at connecting classroom lessons to her job and has the right attitude for a successful career, Patey said.

“This whole area is clearly Nikki's passion,” he said.

Serving students with disabilities runs in the Maloney family. Nikki’s mother, Maura, ’17, has worked in special education classrooms as a paraprofessional, and, more recently, teacher. And Nikki befriended students with disabilities while growing up in Foxboro.

As an undergraduate, she appreciated a course with Dr. J. Edward Carter that covered the developing of individualized education programs and working with parents.

“We had such great conversations because it was a small class,” recalled Nikki, who majored in special education and psychology. “It was a safe environment to ask questions.” 

Now in the adapted physical education program, she praised Patey for highlighting how physical education lessons transfer to other classes.

Nikki sees that on the job as her students apply the confidence they gain in physical education to other courses and interactions with their peers. They grow and flourish, just as she did at BSU.

“I learned so much in terms of being an educator and how to create an inclusive environment for my students,” she said.  

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