Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Responding to the needs of students with complex needs

A 10-year-old boy with autism would likely not have been held in a cage, albeit briefly, had his teachers felt the ACT Education and Training Directorate had been there to help them.

Submissions to the expert panel review released last month show ACT teachers felt overwhelmed by the growing numbers of students with disabilities and learning difficulties, and didn't know where to turn.

The 280-page report praises "an excellent school system" but points to woefully small numbers of school psychologists, to gaps in supports for students with challenging behaviours, to inadequate training and professional development for teachers, and to inadequate infrastructure; especially withdrawal and calming spaces for children.

So even though there was public outrage about the purpose-built blue cage the 10-year old boy was held in, the expert panel recommends the development of spaces with the same aim. Except they would be sensitive to the needs of the child. They must uphold a student's dignity.

Withdrawal spaces include tents and low-lit "nooks" with cushions. They must be monitored, have no locks, and most importantly, be used by students on a voluntary basis.

The independent report finds that many teachers believe in inclusive schooling but have been unable to deliver it in classrooms as they have been pulled in many directions by multiple demands. It acknowledges that physical restraint is sometimes necessary but says teachers should be open about it to avoid situations where "a well-intentioned response is inappropriate or becomes abusive".

It says ACT schools are not always good at providing documentation and oversight around seclusion and restrictive practices, and criticises the Directorate for not having clear and practical guidelines to direct teachers.

And it says teachers are being pressured by the Commonwealth to teach with less flexibility in order to meet minimum national standards. Rigorous testing satisfies the Commonwealth, but it can get in the way of building relationships that make schooling work.

Central themes in the report are relationships and "classroom climate", the environment in which schooling takes place.

Teachers and leaders who have time to observe and understand students are more likely to tailor their teaching and support for those students. Those who build high-quality relationships with students have considerably fewer disciplinary problems than those who don't.

It's not just the teacher-student relationships that matters but also relationships between teachers and parents and carers. Developing a strong home-school rapport takes time and often needs to be initiated by the school because of barriers that prevent some carers from engaging. They include negative past experience of school, financial stress, poor health or lack of childcare.

Sometimes parents' grief over a child's disability or disorder makes it hard to see what their child's education needs are and how to advocate on their behalf. The report urges school leaders to go the extra mile to develop these relationships early because family involvement in a child's learning is linked to reduced challenging behaviour.

The expert panel consulted widely, hearing from students, teachers and agencies. They talked frankly about their experiences, holding out hope the Directorate listens. The fact the Directorate has adopted all 50 recommendations signals it wants to honour their input.

There are some interesting statistics too. The numbers of students being suspended in ACT public schools has significantly dropped over the past four years. It's a surprise to learn that despite receiving public funds, there is no requirement for Catholic and Independent schools to report to the Directorate on suspensions and exclusions. Surely that has to change.

As children with complex needs and disabilities are entitled to integration, then all states and territories have to find and justify the expense of supporting integration. The ACT is too small a jurisdiction not to deliver an effective and coordinated multi-agency, whole of government approach, especially now with more evidence of what works.

Strengthening the Network Student Engagement Teams, as the government intends, is welcome. Better case management, pulling in experts from across disciplines, is key. The new ACT student resource allocation program, which kicks in from next year, offers complimentary reform that gives school leaders more autonomy to better address student needs.

The relationship between the Directorate and schools has clearly been under-nourished. The sustained and hard work needed to implement the recommendations should result in schools knowing and trusting that the Directorate is there to help rather than ready to pounce and scapegoat when things go wrong.

First published in The Canberra Times, November 30 2015