My colleagues and I were quick to denounce Pauline Hanson’s comments about why children with autism should be removed from mainstream classrooms. Politicians have a public duty but it’s disappointing when they get it wrong. It’s our role as advocates of teachersin our education system, and ultimately kids in our education system, that we are a voice when politicians get it wrong.
I hope we were very balanced in our response because my feeling is that her position didn’t come out of nowhere. There would certainly be teachers in Australian schools saying they are struggling with the diversity of kids in their classrooms. And there would certainly be parents of children who have certain conditions on the autism spectrum who are saying we want a separate education for our kids.
Her comments may not have been ill informed but her solutions were misguided. The solution isn’t that we need to target kids and remove them from the system. We need to fix the system and that’s where we need our politicians to work with us to understand what those solutions might look like.
When I started teaching I was at a high school that had been set up to see if children with disabilities could go to mainstream schools. So there were only 200 children and 40 per cent of those had a diagnosed disability. So it was a really interesting place to work and not what I anticipated.
They were certainly kids with autism and Attention Deficit Disorder in the classes. The numbers would suggest we have a higher prevalence now because we have a much better understanding f these conditions but also because the stigma attached to labels such as autism is not so great.
But kids with autism are not the largest group I offer advice to teachers about. It’s kids who are struggling with managing their behaviour in schools. And that can be for an array of reasons. It could be family trauma. It could be that that a child has a diagnosed disability that presents in a particular kind of behaviour.
Learning intervention is critical in schools. What we’ve seen is a shift from a model of education that provided special education. At the University of Melbourne we made a decision to reframe special education into learning intervention. What we focus on are the interventions we know work when you’ve got a kid who presents a particular profile, as well as interventions that tell us the reason why a child is learning or behaving in a particular way.
If you think about any type of behaviour that a kid might present in school, a really obvious one that kids get in trouble for is turning up in the wrong uniform. A standard response is to give them a detention. If you think of the array of reasons why kids might come to school in the wrong uniform – they stayed at one parent’s house and the uniform they needed was at the other parent’s house, they’ve outgrown it, it’s itchy, it makes them hot – a detention might not be best solution to help that child change that behaviour.
In terms of the education of kids with disabilities there are a few things that need to happen. Some would argue that there’s a lot of money already available for the education of kids but some of the ways those funds are being spent are not the most efficient. We need to rethink the way we design our classrooms – open plan classrooms work really well for some kids but not so well for others. We also need solutions that are multi-faceted, that reconsider how to best use available resources. There’s enough knowledge within our education sector for the solutions to be ground up driven instead of being top down.
Politicians are not across this. They can’t agree and we only need to look at Gonski as an example of that. And we have politicians who are completely divided on what’s the best way to resource schools. And political deals are being done that affect kids. So we still have Gonski coming out with a decision yet to be made on how we are going to retrofit it to work for kids with disabilities.
Recently I had a chance to teach ice-skating to kids with disabilities. If we are coming from a position that kids with disabilities have a place in society, we have to make sure that all aspects of society are accessible, and there are many benefits for kids who learn ice-skating. For kids with physical impairment, we know that they have the least opportunities for movement and those of us who are involved with sport have an onus to ensure we can make ourselves accessible for everyone.
In my current research I’m looking at children with and without disabilities in schools who have concerns around their behaviour and how schools respond to that behaviour. So I look at things like the use of suspension, expulsion, as well as the use of seclusion and restraint. I’m looking at how we can eliminate seclusion and restraint. I also do a lot of work on positive behaviour interventions and supports which is a framework that has come out of the United States and is being used by a lot of schools in Australia now.
When I moved from being a teacher to a government advisor I saw that there were more children with disabilities who were going to their local school, which was the aim of government policy. I also saw that the needs of kids with disabilities in special schools were complex and at the time there was more that the system needed to do before we were going to be able to successfully include all kids in mainstream schools.
I think I was a teacher from when I was about four years old. I used to line up toys and teach them concepts - things like algebra and other areas of maths. So I taught maths from a very young age!
As told to Graham Reilly, University of Melbourne
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