- What is inclusion in education?
- Why include?
- Inclusion and the law
- Creating an inclusive class culture
- Supporting peer connection
- The role of education assistants
- Including ALL students in the same curriculum
- Behaviour support in the inclusive classroom
Let’s start with what we all know – ALL children are learners and ALL children are unique.
Inclusive education is not a passing “fad” or the latest educational philosophy. It is a legally-supported, evidence-based way of delivering education that recognises the individual characteristics of all students, offers pedagogic alternatives that cater for the diverse educational needs of each child and respects the right of every child to be a part of their communities. It is also a fundamental human right of the child recognised in a range of international human rights instruments and treaties.
To implement inclusion in your classroom and school, it is important to understand what it is and what it isn’t.
When it comes to the word “inclusion” – you may find the people you are talking to don’t have the same level of understanding about what this means. Put simply, inclusion is much more that just physically “being there” – it’s what happens when you make sure that someone isn’t left out – of the classroom, the learning and curriculum, the playing, the relationships and every other aspect of school life. Children with disability or diverse learning needs are at greater risk of being excluded – so inclusion is all about making sure this doesn’t happen.
- all students included in the general education classroom all day, every day;
- all students working in naturally supportive, flexible structures and groupings with other students regardless of individual ability;
- all students presumed competent;
- students are supported (where needed, such as through curriculum adaptations and differentiated teaching) to access the core curriculum; and
- all students known and valued as full members of the school community, developing meaningfulsocial relationships with peers and able to participate in all aspects of the life of the school.
Inclusion IS NOT:
- segregation of students with disability in "special" schools, units or classrooms;
- students only being allowed to participate in the general education classroom if they are “keeping up”– this includes:
- frequent “pull-outs”;
- working separately in a corner of the classroom with the education assistant while the teacher instructs the rest of the class; or
- students being given a separate “special curriculum” or “program” (as opposed to being supported where needed, including through curricular adjustments, to access the same core curriculum); or
- demonstrating independence or self-sufficiency as a condition of entry.
This handy checklist by The Inclusive Class can help you to identify whether certain common practices are inclusive or not!
Comprehensive definition of inclusive education
The United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities has defined inclusive education to help governments make sure that they are complying with their obligations under Article 24 of the Convention, which has been ratified by 177 countries including Australia. After extensive consultation over 2 years, the Committee issued in August 2016 its guidance document on "The Right to Inclusive Education", General Comment No. 4. Article 24 and General Comment No. 4 together provide the most authoritative statement on of the human right of people with disability to an inclusive education and are important in advocating for access by Australian students with disability to an inclusive education.
For parents, teachers and school administrators, General Comment No. 4 provides a blue print for implementing inclusive education and for identifying whether a child is being excluded or segregated, offered merely “integration” in a mainstream school or being provided with an inclusive education. Too often, inferior delivery of education to students with disability is wrongly labelled “inclusion”. When this results in poor experiences and perceived “failures” in educating students with disability in regular schools and classrooms, inclusive education itself is blamed when, ironically, it is the very lack of inclusion - in culture, in practice and in the physical environment - that often results in such “failures”. In that sense, the General Comment No. 4 provides a guide for testing educational practices against the key principles and characteristics of an inclusive education and an inclusive education system. Every Australian parent, whether or not they have a child with disability, and every Australian educator should take the time to read General Comment No. 4. You can read our summary of General Comment N.4 here.
Myths about inclusive education
- Myth #1: The general education classrooms won’t provide the support that students with disability need. REAL DEAL: Our laws provide for supports in regular schools and good inclusive practices happen in schools in Australia and elsewhere (eg Italy has been educating ALL students together since 1977!).
- Myth #2: Students with disability do better when they are educated in separate schools or classrooms. REAL DEAL: 40 years of research emphatically disproves this myth.
- Myth #3: Students with disability in the general classroom have a negative impact on the learning of other students. REAL DEAL: Research shows no academic detriments and some academic benefits plus socio-emotional gains for ALL students.
- Myth #4: A student can’t be included unless they can keep up with the pace of the general education curriculum. REAL DEAL: Universal design for learning and adapted teaching are about making the general curriculum and learning in a regular classroom accessible to ALL learners!
- Myth #5: Schools include students with disability as a favour, to help them feel part of society. REAL DEAL: Inclusion is a fundamental right, enshrined in international, Commonwealth and State legislation and instruments.
Schools that have inclusive school cultures and adopt structures, systems and methodologies that are aimed at responding to the diverse needs of ALL its students – like “universal design for learning” and differentiated teaching – generally don’t need to make as many adjustments to accomodate students with disability or diverse learning needs because they have already done the work to establish a school climate, premises and processes that assume their participation.
Sometimes it is hard for people, including teachers, school adminsitrators and parents, who probably did not grow up in inclusive learning environments themselves, to imagine how some students with a disabilities can be included in a regular school – this is where looking and good inclusive practice and finding out about how others are making it happen is invaluable. Some real stories illustrating good inclusive practice can also be found in this document – “Exemplars of Practice” – released by the Australian Government.
School is the gateway to society and inclusive communities start with inclusive neighbourhood schools that value diversity and respect the right of ALL students to be welcomed and to belong – they benefit not only students with disabilities but ALL students.
An inclusive school …
- Welcomes ALL children, regardless of background ability or other “difference”
- Recognizes that ALL children are capable of learning
- Respects the diversity among children: age, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, social status, health
- Adopts structures, systems and methodologies for education that respond to the diverse needs of ALL children
- Embraces its role in promoting an inclusive society
- Understands that education is a dynamic process that continues to evolve to respond to the needs of today’s children – tomorrow’s citizens
Inclusion matters because …
- LEGAL AND HUMAN RIGHTS
- Inclusion is a right.
- Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the right to an inclusive education as a human right of people with disability. The General Comment No. 4 issued by the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities on 26 August 2016, gives guidance to governments, including the Australian government, about what is meant by “inclusive education” and what they need to do under Article 24. It is an important document that every parent, educator and school administrator should read.
- In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 ensures equal access by people with a disability to education by making it against the law for an educational authority to discriminate because of disability.
- State Equal Opportunity laws also offer discrimination protections.
- Inclusion is a right.
- Inclusion is best evidence practice for students with disability.
- The case for inclusive education over “special education” models (“special schools” or “education support units”) is overwhelming. Over 40 years of research shows that when students with disability are included, all students learn and achieve more. A comprehensive review of all studies over a 40-year period that compared education outcomes for students with disability in segregated “special” versus regular education environments found that NO study supported better outcomes in “special” settings.
- Research also shows that when they are included, students with disability have:
- greater access to the general education curriculum
- more time “on task”
- more academic gains
- more progress on literacy skills
- increased communication skills
- improved social skills
- more friendships.
- Inclusion is better for ALL students.
- The research has also shown consistently that children who share inclusive schools with children with disabilities have more positive attitudes towards difference, better social skills and awareness, less disruptive behaviours and more developed personal values and ethics.
- Inclusive learning environments have also been shown to have no detrimental impact, and some positive impact, on the academic performance of non-disabled students, as confirmed by a 2017 meta-analysis covering a total sample of almost 4,800,000 students.
- A systematic review of 280 studies from 25 countries established clearly and consistently that inclusive educational settings can “confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities.”
- This includes research that shows consistently that children who share inclusive schools with children with disabilities have more positive attitudes towards difference, better social skills and awareness, less disruptive behaviours and more developed personal values and ethics.
- The SWIFT Schools project in the United States, which is based at Kansas University and supports whole school transformation to deliver quality inclusive education to all students, outlines the research basis for its model here.
- Inclusion is best evidence practice for students with disability.
- REAL FUTURES
- Inclusion at school is the foundation of inclusive futures and welcoming communities. In inclusive schools, ALL students of ALL abilities, learn the skills they need to live full lives as part of their communities and to build the communities of the future.
- A 2018 comprehensive review by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education of over 200 papers from a range of countries (including the United Kingdom, USA, Australia and continental Europe) into the relationship between inclusive education and social inclusion, titled "Evidence of the Link Between Inclusive Education and Social Inclusion" concluded that:
“The research evidence presented in this review suggests that attending segregated settings minimises the opportunities for social inclusion both in the short term (while children with disabilities are at school) and the long term (after graduation from secondary education). Attending a special setting is correlated with poor academic and vocational qualifications, employment in sheltered workshops, financial dependence, fewer opportunities to live independently, and poor social networks after graduation.” [p14]
Inclusion is happening EVERYWHERE! All over the world, there are schools practising excellence in inclusive education. Countries like Canada have been implementing inclusive education for several decades and in Italy 99% of students with disabilities have been educated in regular schools since the late 1970s. Most developing countries are also on the path to inclusive education.
Want to know more?
Research on social and academic outcomes:
"Does Inclusion Work?", Dr K. de Bruin (2019), Chapter 3 in L.J. Graham (Ed). Inclusive Education in the 21st Century: Theory, Policy and Practice. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
"The Segregation of Students with Disabilities", National Council on Disability (USA, independent federal agency) (2018)
"Evidence of the Link Between Inclusive Education and Social Inclusion", European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2018)
"A Summary of the Research Evidence on Inclusive Education’", Todd Grindal, Thomas Hehir, Brian Freeman, Renee Lamoreau, Yolanda Borquaye, Samantha Burke (2016)
"A meta-analysis of the effects of placement on academic and social skill outcome measures of students with disabilities" Oh-Young, Conrad & Filler, John. (2015) in Research in Developmental Disabilities. 47. 80-92. 10.1016/j.ridd.2015.08.014.
"Academic achievement of students without special educational needs in inclusive classrooms: A meta-analysis", Grzegorz Szumski, Joanna Smogorzewska, Maciej Karwowski in Educational Research Review 21 (2017) 33e54
"Research Support for Inclusive Education and SWIFT", Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT Schools), (January 2017)
“Inclusion or Segregation for children with an Intellectual Impairment: What does the evidence say?” (2008)Dr Robert Jackson, Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University.
Research on segregation:
"The impact of inclusive education reforms on students with disability: an international comparison" (2019), Kate de Bruin, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 23:7-8, 811-826.
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse "A brief guide to the Final Report: Disability" (2017)
"Disability and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse" (2016), Wayland, Sarah & Llewellyn, Gwynnyth & Hindmarsh, Gabrielle
Research on "gatekeeping":
"Gatekeeping and restrictive practices with students with disability: results of an Australian survey", delivered at the Inclusive Education Summit, Adelaide (2017), Shiralee Poed, Kathy Cologon and Robert Jackson
"Improving Educational Outcomes for Children with Disability in Victoria" (June 2018), Eleanor Jenkin, Claire Spivakovsky, Sarah Joseph and Marius Smith
The right of children with disability to attend their local government schools is a right protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 established under it) which reflects Australia’s international law obligations under Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (see Article 24) and the priorities of the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 which states “The shared vision is for an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens”.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 a school or other education authority is not permitted to discriminate on the grounds of disability:
- in deciding an application for admission;
- in the terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit a student (e.g. by requiring higher fees or accepting payment of the cost of an education assistant or aide);
- by denying or limiting a student’s access to any benefit provided by the school (e.g. excursions, sports or extra curricular activities and areas of the school);
- by expelling a student;
- by developing curriculum content that will exclude a student from participation; or
- by subjecting a student to any other detriment.
Although the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 makes an exception where the adjustment will cause “unjustifiable hardship”, it is up to the school or other relevant educational authority to prove this. As a matter of law, it can be difficult for schools to prove “unjustifiable hardship” even where accommodating a student with disability involves substantial costs.
The Disability Standards for Education clarify the obligations of education and training providers, and the rights of people with disability, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 . You can read more information and view Factsheets about the Standards, including about making complaints, here.
Where complaints of discrimination in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 are not able to be resolved at a more local level, the Australian Human Rights Commission is responsible for investigating and resolving them.
Equal opportunity/anti-discrimination legislation in each State also applies in the area of education and complains may be made to the relevant boards or commissions.
One of the most important things that teachers can do is to ensure that they create an environment in their classroom that fosters an inclusive classroom culture.
Research demonstrates that an inclusive class culture is conducive to maximising academic, independence and social outcomes for students with and without disability.
The following are some practical tips for teachers trying to create or improve the inclusiveness of their classroom:
- DON’T UNDERESTIMATE YOUR STUDENT.
Don’t assume a student with disability won’t be able to “do it” so that it is “not worth the effort”. Students with intellectual or cognitive disability might learn it in a different way or it may take them longer … They might not learn it this time but learning is incremental and something will always be learnt. Sending the message to your student and their classmates that you think they “can do it” is the most important and “inclusive” message you can send. Discouragement is a self-fulfilling prophesy, but encouragement nurtures and realises potential.
- DON’T UNDERESTIMATE YOURSELF
Inclusion is not rocket-science. A big part of it is common-sense.
No one expects you to “overcome” your student’s disability – diversity is a natural part of life and that goes for the way that each of us learns as well. Recognize that your student has strengths as well as challenges. Your goal is to help each student learn as much as they can and in a way that will help them to exercise their right to be full and equal members of the same future community as their classmates.
- YOU ARE THE TEACHING PROFESSIONAL
You are the teaching professional and you know your student and the class.
Just because an administrator or senior teacher gives you advice or a health professional says something might help your student in some way (like a bright vest to highlight them in the playground, an incline bench for writing or a special support cushion for sitting) that does not mean it is in the best interests of that student. It is often a cost/benefit decision – the impact of “exceptionalising” the student is a relevant consideration.
Ask yourself, “Will this advice help this student feel part of this class and school?”
- YOUR STUDENT WITH DISABILITY IS PART OF YOUR CLASS
This seems like an obvious statement but it is critical to an inclusive classroom to ensure that the appropriate relationship between the teacher, a student with disability and an education assistant who may be providing additional support, are established.
Your student with disability should feel that you – not the education assistant - are their teacher and they are part of your class.
The education assistant may be experienced and trying to help, but you need to instruct them on how to help without always hovering over and shadowing the student. Their role for your student with a disability is to help carry out academic instruction, build independence and nurture social relationships. Classmates will naturally see a “mothered” student as a “baby” and that perception will impact upon broader acceptance as a peer. An overactive aide can have a detrimental effect by teaching the child to be “helpless” rather than fostering independence.
The appropriate relationship between the teacher, a student with disability and the education assistant is often overlooked but it is a crucial part of creating an inclusive environment.
- TEACHING THE SAME LESSON MATERIAL
Look to always include your student with a disability in the same lesson material. If the material needs to be adapted, think:
- “what do I want every student to know at the end of the lesson?”
- “What do I want most students to know at the end of the lesson?”
- "What do I hope some students will know at the end of the lesson?”
In most cases, the first question will point you to material that the student with a disability should learn. If your student shares learning with peers, this shared-experience is more likely to continue into the playground.
- YOU SET THE CULTURE OF THE CLASS
You set the culture of the class. You decide how welcome, included and respected your student with disability will be. How you talk to and act towards them will influence how everyone treats them as well.
Students, other teachers and even parents of other students will take their lead from you.
- LISTEN TO AND UNDERSTAND YOUR STUDENT
The view of your student matters.
If your student is having trouble following instructions, don’t assume them to be “naughty” or “defiant”– it is probably their way of expressing that they are having a tough time. Ask yourself what is happening. Talk to them. Look around them – is there something you can do to help?
The way you respond can either add to your student’s distress or help them move beyond it in a positive way. And their classmates will be learning from you about how to respond to a friend who is having a difficult time.
- DON’T LET YOUR STUDENT BE EXCLUDED OR “SINGLED OUT”
Your student with disability should be given the same opportunities as their classmates, including the opportunity to learn together with and amongst them, sitting with them and not on their own. It is important to be especially sensitive to actions or initiatives that may exclude or single out your student with disability in particular.
- DON’T LET YOUR STUDENT BECOME THE “CLASS MASCOT”
Look at the nature of the relationships that your student with disability is forming with their classmates – help classmates include the student in their play rather than use them for their play.
- COMMUNICATE AND COLLABORATE …
- … WITH YOUR STUDENT’S PARENTS.
Parents are an important source of “real-time” information and they will want to be “included” in the school community too. They are probably a bit anxious and will want to know more than most parents about how their child is going. Teachers experienced in inclusion report that a collaborative relationship with the parents of a student with disability is more important than an education assistant – parents should be consulted on all decisions concerning their child.
- … WITH OTHER TEACHERS.
There are decades of experience to call upon in every staff room. You don’t have to be alone.
- LOOK TO THE REAL EXPERTS IN INCLUSION – THE STUDENTS IN YOUR CLASS.
Classmates will often have great ideas on how to better include their fellow student with a disability and peer tutoring has been shown to have significant benefits for all students – to teach you have to know.
Creating an inclusive class culture is fundamental to the long-term outcomes of all your students, in particular your students with disability. It is worth investing into establishing a positive and inclusive class culture for all your students.
Teachers readily recognise the academic goals of inclusive education – and accordingly the need to apply differentiated instruction and universal design to teach a diverse classroom including students with disability. However, the life-long social and independence benefits of inclusive education are equally important but are sometimes overlooked.
Social inclusion outcomes are optimised when:
- a student’s peers accept them as a member of their group – as a valued peer; and
- peer connection is maintained through their whole schooling experience.
Academic and social benefits of inclusive education are interconnected – all students, including students with disability, are likely to achieve more academically if they are socially part of their classroom. Further, from a longer term health perspective, students who feel socially excluded and isolated are at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
Peer connection in the classroom is more likely to lead to peer connection in the playground, and ultimately social connection in workplaces, the community and life generally.
Teachers are central to the classroom experience and in a position to influence the degree and quality of each student’s peer connection and social inclusion.
Merely having a student with disability in a mainstream classroom does not mean that the student feels “included” or is perceived as “included” by their peers. Inclusion and belonging are more about the student’s relationships within the classroom. For example, a student with disability receiving most of their instruction from an education assistant in the corner of a mainstream classroom may well feel and be seen by their peers as the “other” in the classroom. Physical presence in the classroom is necessary, but not enough. Peer connection is critical for an inclusionary “all of us” classroom outcome, rather than an exclusionary “we and the other” result.
Here are some practical tips for teachers trying to support peer connection to maximise the quality of social inclusiveness of their classroom – some of the tips are particularly relevant for students with intellectual disability.
- RECOGNISE THE DIVERSITY IN YOUR CLASS
Each of your students is different. Each student has individual strengths and challenges. Class discussions about difference can foster an appreciation of diversity. Respect for diversity underpins true inclusion.
- BRING EQUALITY TO YOUR CLASS
Each student has the same right to be in your class. Your students will more readily accept each other as equal members of the class if they see you treat each of them as equal participants, valuing each student’s unique contribution as individuals and as learners. Students take their cue from you as to each other’s “value” in your class.
- INCLUDE ALL STUDENTS IN CLASS ACTIVITIES
If a student with disability is regularly NOT being actively involved or engaged in particular class lessons or activities or is being regularly EXCLUDED from particular activities, whether because of one-on-one learning or separate programs, then peers are less likely to see that student as a “full” or “equal” peer. Asking questions that your student will be able to answer, requesting your student repeat another student’s answer or simply using teaching examples that give the student the opportunity to be involved and contribute, each represent ways of enhancing the connection of that student with the class lesson, even when they are learning at a different pace. All students should be engaged in the core class lesson.
- USE PEER TUTORING AS BOTH AN ACADEMIC AND SOCIAL CONNECTION TOOL
The students in your class can help to teach concepts to a student who may require additional learning support. Some students will relish that opportunity as part of, or after completing, their own work. Teaching another student forces a student to first understand the concepts themselves and accordingly reinforces those concepts for their own benefit. From an academic benefit perspective, peer tutoring in inclusive classrooms has been shown to be mutually beneficial to both students. From a social perspective, it also provides the opportunity to develop quality peer connection. Peer tutoring is academically beneficial, socially powerful and personally enriching.
- AVOID THE IMPACT OF A “VELCRO” EDUCATION ASSISTANT
Clearly some students will require a high degree of education assistant support, but that support must be given overtly on the basis that you, and not the education assistant, are the student’s teacher. As the class teacher, providing direct instruction to your student is critical to that student feeling and being perceived to be part of your class.
Even with students needing significant support, your goal should be to progressively decrease reliance on the education assistant – whether, for example, by building up “independent learning” time (even if starting from a few seconds or minutes in each lesson) or through substituting some peer tutoring for education assistant support. These strategies also free the education assistant to support and form an assistive relationship with the broader class.
Extensive international research has shown that an education assistant closely attached to a student hampers effective social and academic development of the student and sends the exclusionary message that the student “belongs” with the education assistant, rather than to the class.
A “velcro” education assistant can inhibit the development of connection between a student and their teacher as well as a between a student and their peers. Further, a student who is perceived as “being mothered” by their education assistant is more at risk of not being socially accepted by their peers.
Creating an appropriate relationship between the education assistant, the class teacher, the student with disability and all the other students is critical to the inclusive class.
- MINIMISE UNNECESSARILY “EXCEPTIONALISING” YOUR STUDENT
Many adjustments and accommodations are necessary and appropriate for a student with disability to realise their right to an education. However, most students, including students with disability, have a conformist inclination not to be conspicuous in the eyes of their peers and it is important for teachers to be sensitive to this.
The benefit of some classroom adjustments (eg a special support cushion for sitting recommended by a health professional) may be marginal, but the “exceptionalising” cost in terms of the impact of the adjustment on the student’s perception of themselves and the effect it has on the willingness of peers to accept and connect with that student may be significant.
Maintaining peer connection is a valuable objective in itself that may not always be appreciated by health professionals or parents. Always consider, including by consulting with the student themselves, whether a particular objective can be achieved in another way that minimises or avoids “exceptionalising” the student.
- FOSTER UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTANCE OF NECESSARY INDIVIDUAL ADJUSTMENTS OR ACTIVITIES
Consistent with building an appreciation of diversity in your classroom, you should facilitate acceptance of any adjustments that are necessary for your student with disability by explaining their beneficial purpose to the student’s peers. Explanations also assist other students to see adjustments as ‘fair’. Adjustments that are understood are more readily accepted. Necessary adjustments are consistent with diversity within the informed classroom.
- SHARE THE EXPERIENCE OF NECESSARY ADJUSTMENTS
When it is considered necessary or appropriate that a student with disability should undertake a particular activity or have a particular adjustment, consider whether that activity or adjustment can be delivered as an experience that is shared with other members of the class. For example, a “sensory” break or “sensory” exercises involving some physical activity may well benefit a number of other students or could be presented in a positive way as a reward for other students. Further, teaching sign language to your class can dramatically increase the inclusion of a student with hearing or speech difficulties. Sharing, by definition, makes the experience or adjustment more inclusive.
- PUT YOURSELF IN THE PLACE OF YOUR STUDENT.
You should regularly ask yourself “How would I feel if I was in the place of my student? What would the other students think?”
These questions will prompt considering whether your response should be to take deliberate steps to minimise “exceptionalising” the student and/or to foster understanding and acceptance in peers. Testing your class structure, practices and the impact of any adjustments from the perspective of all of your students is an important cross-check.
- LISTEN TO YOUR STUDENTS AND THEIR PARENTS.
What is the mentality in your classroom? How do your students interact? How do they speak about each other? Their subconscious daily conduct and language will reveal whether the underlying mentality is “all of us” or “we and the other”.
Steps to improve peer connection and the social inclusiveness of a classroom must be taken as soon as possible – exclusionary perceptions become more entrenched with time.
An education assistant can be an invaluable resource in the classroom to support the teacher to include a student with disability. They can assist the class teacher to provide a great educational experience to all students as well as increase the independence and social connection of the student with disability.
However, we know from research that if an educational assistant is closely attached to a student with disability, sitting next to them as a “substitute teacher” and closely overseeing them in the playground, the result is a poorer academic and social outcome than for a similar student with no assistant at all.
At one level it is hard to conceive of any other relationship where an individual has a greater capacity to affect the long-term development outcomes of a vulnerable person, particularly where the student has a significant intellectual disability. In that sense, it should be appreciated that the “student-education assistant relationship” necessarily involves trust that the education assistant will discharge their role in the student’s best interests. In the long term this has to include the development of maximum independence and meaningful peer relationships.
A second noteworthy aspect is that, whilst most employment roles are better performed with greater diligence, effort and engagement, the academic, social and independence benefits of inclusive education for a student with disability are likely to be maximised by an educational assistant doing, increasingly over time, as little as is necessary, as unobtrusively as possible. In this sense, “less is more”.
Here are some tips to guide teachers in setting the proper role and classroom relationships for education assistants in their inclusive general classrooms.
- AS THE TEACHER, YOU MUST BE THE PRIMARY ACADEMIC INSTRUCTOR FOR ALL MEMBERS OF THE CLASS
As the classroom teacher, you are the primary instructor of the whole class, including your student with disability. The education assistant’s role is to help you to prepare and carry out the teaching lesson, as required to be adapted by you for your student with disability.
The education assistant should not usurp your role as class teacher in relation to your student with disability. It is critical to a student’s sense of belonging and connection with his or her classroom that the student perceives, and that their fellow students perceive, the class teacher to be primarily responsible for the academic instruction of every member of the class.
If the education assistant assumes primary responsibility for academic instruction of your student with disability it will mean that:
- the student with the most challenging learning requirements will not receive their instruction from the most qualified staff member; and
- the “student-education assistant” relationship will be separate and distinct to the “teacher-rest of class” relationship – in other words, it creates micro-segregation from the class lesson and social disconnection from peers.
A useful reflection is to ask “how would it look if a student without disability was singled out to receive most of their academic instruction from an education assistant rather than the class teacher?”
- BEWARE THE WELL-INTENTIONED “VELCRO” EDUCATION ASSISTANT
Extensive international research has shown that an education assistant closely attached to a student hampers effective social and academic development of the student and sends the exclusionary message that the student belongs with the education assistant, rather than to the class.
A “velcro” education assistant can inhibit the development of the teacher-student relationship, as well as social relationships with peers – both from the perspective of stifling interactive opportunities and by creating the impression that the student still needs to be “mothered”. In time, an overly protective, yet caring and well-meaning, education assistant may, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, foster in the student an unnecessary dependence on adult assistance – “learned helplessness”.
Further, challenging behaviour in some students may well be a response to an overly attentive education assistant.
The education assistant should be instructed (empowered) by you to provide your student with as much space as possible and as frequently as possible, taking into account the student’s need for supervision and assistance. The greater the space able to be afforded, the greater the likelihood of:
- a healthy and robust teacher-student instructional relationship;
- social interaction and connection with student peers (studies show that students are much more likely to engage with the student with disability when an assistant is not with them); and
- the educational assistant developing an assistive and interactive relationship with the broader class.
A “one-on-one” education assistant should endeavour to minimise the perception in the classroom and in the playground that they are “dedicated” to a particular student.
- PLAN FOR REDUCING THE STUDENT’S RELIANCE ON THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT
Even with students requiring significant support, your goal for your student should be to progressively decrease reliance on “one-on-one” education assistant support. Initially, this may be done by substituting some peer tutoring (assistance from another student in the class) which benefits both students and promotes social connection between peers.
Over time, your objective should move to including the building up of “independent learning time” (even if starting from a few seconds or minutes in each lesson). Many education assistants feel that their primary role is to provide continuous teaching support and accordingly need to be empowered by the teacher to withdraw from the student to promote their independence and peer connection.
- EXPLICITLY INSTRUCT THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT TO FACILITATE SOCIAL GOALS, AS WELL AS ACADEMIC GOALS
For all students, including students with disability, the development of meaningful social relationships is critical to their sense of self and belonging – to their future social connection in workplaces, the community and life generally – and ultimately to their long-term mental health and quality of life.
You should instruct the education assistant to facilitate, when necessary, your student’s communication and social interaction with peers and to actively monitor the quality of that interaction. Students with disability are susceptible to becoming “class mascots” – through overtly warm but shallow “friendships” with their peers. An education assistant that is able to help initiate and deepen peer engagement and peer understanding is invaluable. Maintaining healthy and meaningful peer connection throughout the schooling experience is critical to both academic and social inclusion outcomes.
- DO NOT DELEGATE PARENTAL COMMUNICATION TO THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT
A healthy and collaborative relationship between the class teacher and the student’s parents is a key component of successfully including a student with disability in a general classroom. The teacher-parent relationship is generally more delicate than most given that the parents have greater cause for concern regarding the progress and experience of a more vulnerable child, whilst the teacher is more sensitive to his or her capacity to meet their expectations. In that context entrusting parental communications to the education assistant:
- adds an extra layer of dialogue and increases the risk for miscommunication;
- stifles opportunity to develop a collaborative parent-teacher relationship through regular direct contact; and
- sends the message to the parents that the student’s education is effectively being entrusted by the school to the education assistant, rather than to the class teacher.
There is natural tendency for a “hands on” education assistant to see their assistive role in relation to a student with disability as extending to them being the primary contact for communication and feedback to the parents. However, in the same way that each student must see the class teacher as their primary instructor, each parent must equally see the class teacher as primarily responsible for the education of their child.
- FORMALLY PLAN USE OF EDUCATION ASSISTANTS
The teacher is in reality, the manager of the education assistant in the classroom. Leaving the education assistant to manage themselves would be to relinquish that managerial role, so teachers have a responsibility to regularly formulate written plans as to how an education assistant will be used in relation to the student with disability and the class generally. This planning will prompt you as the teacher to identify new objectives and plan for their achievement, whilst creating cause to review the progress of the student and the education assistant.
The review of the effectiveness of the plans and the performance of the education assistant must include measuring the level of independence and social connection of the student with a disability. This will usually involve the educational assistant over time being less involved directly with the student with disability and more involved with you as the teacher in the overall class learning processes.
- ENSURE THAT THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT DOES NOT BECOME THE MAIN DECISION MAKER
Sometimes an education assistant can develop a strong relationship with a student with disability so that the assistant becomes seen as the ‘expert’ and increasingly relied upon to make decisions about that student’s education. Over time, such a relationship builds dependence in the student and the school overall, leading to poorer development of independence and social relationships. As the class teacher, you need to be aware of this danger, and where it is apparent, should recommend changing the education assistant as soon as practicable.
- SEE “INSTRUCTING” AS “EMPOWERING”
Although it is usual to speak of teachers “instructing” education assistants as to what is required of them, in the case of many education assistants supporting students with disability, it may be more helpful to see the giving of some instructions as “empowering” education assistants to perform their role in a manner different to the often assumed and limited “hands on” teaching assistant model. In particular, many education assistants must be empowered to see:
- their roles as extending, in particular, to facilitating and maximising meaningful social connection with peers; and
- that reducing the need for their support over time and retreating into the background is, in fact, a desired objective.
Steps to properly structure the role of the education assistant must be taken as soon as possible – to establish as early as possible the appropriate relationships between the education assistant and the student with disability, the teacher, the classroom and the student’s parents.
Want to know more?
"Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants", Institute of Education, University College London (UK)
It is often said that “the gap is too big” for some students with disability, particularly a learning disability, to be included in a general education classroom. This assumption is especially made in the high school context where many parents are advised by school staff that the student would be “completely out of their depth” in the general mainstream lesson and would be better off segregated from their mainstream peers in a special class or unit – this is all despite the research evidence clearly showing that students with disability are disadvantaged academically and socially by being segregated.
So how can your student be included in the mainstream lesson? How can a student with basic counting skills be included in the calculus lesson? Or the nuclear physics lesson? Or the lesson analyzing the plot of Hamlet? How can “differentiated instruction” apply?
To be really “included” in an activity, each participant must be doing the SAME core tasks as the other participants. If tasks are performed together and shared by all students, the peer connection from that common and shared classroom experience is more likely to continue outside the classroom and into the community. If students with disability are not included in the same lesson as their general mainstream peers then they are not being academically and socially connected to their classroom – at best they are just being physically included in the same geographic space – they are not being given the opportunity to maximise their academic and social development and outcomes.
First, let us take a step back for a reality check. How many of us can describe what an electron shell is? How about the intricacies of the plot of Hamlet? How much complex calculus do we remember? Even though we did these subjects at school, most of this information has been lost but we are still considered to be educated people. We retain core information and concepts. For example, we could probably define an atom, proton, neutron and electron. We know that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. We can do basic mathematics necessary for ordinary life. We only know the more detailed information if we continue to use it in some form of specialization. This means that we need to teach core information and concepts to all students, but we should not be concerned if not all information discussed is retained by all students.
So how can we do this? Students with significant disabilities have been included in mainstream university courses in Canada and elsewhere for more than 20 years, so clearly high school inclusion in the curriculum is achievable.
A moment’s reflection shows that we all know how to include a wide range of skills and abilities – we do it all the time with our own families and friends. Consider the backyard cricket game with four children aged from 5 to 15 years, plus mum, dad and grandma. Depending on who is batting, the speed of bowling and difficulty level is adjusted, greater latitude is allowed for the less competent to succeed but minimal or no latitude is given for the most competent. In effect, we have multi-level or differentiated teaching occurring with common core tasks or concepts.
This is the first principle of curricular inclusion. Everyone is involved in the SAME lesson and each individual is challenged at their level. However, we need to know what to teach and be clear on this before the lesson.
It is important to note that differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the range of abilities is a professional expectation for all teachers, as set out in the "Australian Professional Standards for Teachers" (February 2011) (see 1.5 and 1.6 in particular).
“THE BIG IDEA”
When teaching any class or course there is usually:
- core information and concepts essential to understanding the material (“the big ideas”);
- development and generalisation of these core ideas into related areas; and
- examples of the core ideas in operation.
Normally these three layers are mixed so the student has to remember and understand enough of the lesson to ensure that the core information is retained. If they do not, then the core information may not be learned and the subject will make little or no sense.
So when preparing a lesson, Dr Patrick Schwarz, a leading international academic in inclusive education, says to ask yourself three questions.
- What do I want EVERY student to know (the core material or “Big Ideas”)?
- What do I want MOST students to know (extensions and challenges for most students)?
- What do I want SOME students to know (extensions for students working at the most advanced levels)?
Now if you are realistic, the core material or “Big Idea(s)” is normally only one or two key points per lesson. We are now in an achievable area for any student, and if we do teach in this manner EVERY student will receive the core material or ‘big idea’ of the lesson. As a teacher you can readily imagine how you could include any student in learning one or two points.
For a student who can only eye point, alternatives could be written on a page and the student has to look at the correct one to indicate learning.
A student with unknown capacity (for example multiple disabilities and little or no voluntary movement) could be assisted to point to the correct answer by a peer holding his or her hand. We may not know exactly what that student understands, but they are involved in the lesson, their peers are learning critical life lessons and the class continues as it would in any other situation.
If a student has trouble retaining information, give the answer and get it back – all students benefit from the reinforcement of repetition!
In all situations, thinking through the “big ideas” and using peer involvement and flexible approaches, the regular lesson can proceed with everyone involved in that same lesson, and most importantly, ALL students will be gaining the core information necessary for life and ALL will be challenged at their level. Everyone gains!
STRATEGIES TO TEACH “THE BIG IDEA”
There are many teaching strategies used by teachers around the world to make that core information achievable for all students, or in other words, to maximise the effectiveness of the lesson for all.
Many of the teaching strategies outlined here will be known and used by you in your classroom, but it is nevertheless important to emphasise the range and importance of strategies available to connect students with diverse learning needs to the “Big Ideas” of the lesson.
In managing necessary differentiation of material and engaging students at their individual levels, these teaching strategies can be enhanced with the use of class-wide peer tutoring, considered grouping of students and the delivery support of education assistants.
- PRIMED BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE – REFRESHING STUDENTS’ MEMORY OF REQUIRED BACKGROUND CONCEPTS
The reality in every classroom is that students, like the rest of us, forget things. So when you are starting a lesson, you shouldn’t assume that all of your students will remember the background information necessary to understand the material to be covered. So in preparing the lesson, ask yourself “What am I assuming that the students will know and bring to this lesson?” This will help you identify what (otherwise assumed) core information and concepts should be briefly refreshed at the beginning of your lesson – to ensure that everyone starts from a place where they are ready to absorb the new “Big Ideas”.
If you have students who have not previously received or are unable to readily retain the required background core information (for example new students, students with limited English language skills or students with a learning disability, particularly affecting their capacity to neurologically retrieve information), you may also need to provide this background core information in a written or other concrete form for them to refer to throughout the lesson.
- STRATEGIC INTEGRATION – HELPING STUDENTS TO “LINK” NEW CONCEPTS TO PREVIOUS CONCEPTS
If the new lesson material is linked to other information that your students already know, those “links” will make the new material easier to remember (neurologically retrieve) and, in providing context, easier to understand. The new concepts become more accessible and meaningful to them.
We all know that we learn more effectively when a new concept is relevant to us, and even more so if it engages our subjective interests. Although obvious to some, many students will not clearly appreciate how new information or concepts are relevant to them or how they build on their prior learning. They will need more explicit instruction and explanation to make the required “links”.
Some basic situations where “linking” helps include maths problems written as sentences, reading lessons around science concepts, or writing about geography concepts as a writing lesson. For a student with a learning disability impacting upon their connection skills, more creative strategies such as having another student read the connecting material to them (audio reinforcement) or having them or another student draw the connection as a picture (visual reinforcement) might be used to help make the links.
Some students will benefit from an opportunity for physical reinforcement of the connecting concepts which can assist with remembering and processing information (e.g. everyone being asked to stand to receive the key connecting information or to physically bring their two index fingers together to signify that they are receiving the connecting information).
- CREATIVE SCAFFOLDING – STRATEGIES TO SUPPORT ACCESS TO THE LESSON
All teachers are aware of the need to build supports around student learning to allow students to access it, and then to remove these supports as they progress. However, for teachers who have not experienced a student working at a level that is significantly different to the class average, the degree of support needed for the student to access the material might seem daunting.
Relax a bit!
You can “give the answer and get it back“. In this way the flow of the lesson is not disturbed, the student is engaged in the lesson and challenged to contribute and all the other students benefit by hearing the information repeated. Teachers with a sound knowledge of their students can use this even more creatively. They can put a question out to the class to be answered by a more advanced student: “What is the atomic mass of boron?” If the student answers 10.8 , the teacher can then go to a student who is distracted to ask the same question (to bring their attention back), then ask the same question to a student that they know needs a little time to process, and then ask the most challenged student. The whole class has heard the answer 4 times and 4 students have been challenged and involved at their level, all in the space of a few seconds.
For students with very limited maths skills, learning to use a calculator can lead to genuine involvement in more advanced maths classes. In fact, for most of us over time using a calculator becomes a more efficient and functional skill that replaces our more complex (once learnt but now forgotten) maths skills. The student’s peer connection is increased if they are asked occasionally to “confirm” the answers of other students using their calculator (e.g. “Tom says 25 x 25 is 625, Kate can you tell Tom if you and your calculator agree?”)
Teachers should also keep “peer tutoring” (having more advanced students assist in teaching the most challenged students) at the front of their scaffolding strategies. It is possibly the most effective method of scaffolding, improving the academic development of both students as “you have to master a concept to teach it to another“, and their social development, through direct peer connection.
- CONSPICUOUS STRATEGIES – STORIES, RHYMES, ACRONYMS ETC
Primary school teachers in particular are very creative in designing strategies to help students learn difficult concepts. For example, in spelling lessons little stories like “in spelling ‘believe’, remember it has a ‘lie’ in the middle and you wouldn’t believe a lie, would you?”, and rhymes like “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” and “when two vowels go a walking, the first one does the talking” (as in ‘wait’, ‘lie’ etc.). Almost all of these rules have exceptions, but these strategies assist students to learn the “Big Idea” before the exceptions are tackled.
All classes can have conspicuous strategies like these to assist students to process or retain core information. For example, in maths we can use acronyms like BIMDAS (for Brackets, Indices, Multiplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction) to order maths sentence calculations and in science we can use LAPDOG (Latitude and Longitude, Altitude, Prevailing Winds, Distance from Oceans, Ocean Currents and Geography) for remembering factors affecting the weather.
- JUDICIOUS REVIEW – REVIEWING STUDENT LEARNING AND TEACHER SELF-REVIEW
As a teacher, you need to continually assess how well you are doing in delivering the required knowledge. This requires reviewing previous lesson material in class to check how well information and concepts are being retained by your students and whether they are able to utilise that information effectively.
For core information and concepts that are key to future learning (i.e. Big Ideas), this review needs to be done at regular intervals. For less important information, the frequency of review may be less.
For information integrated into later lessons, specific review of the earlier information may not be necessary as it will be assessed in the teaching of the new material.
It needs to be stressed that while reviewing students is part of the process of ensuring that students are learning and progressing, this review, provides direct insight into the effectiveness of you as their teacher – in other words, it necessarily also involves self-review. It is this regular self-review “cross-check”, and its prompting of adjustments to teaching strategies along the way, that is likely to have the largest ongoing impact on teaching effectiveness and therefore your students’ progress.
* The teaching strategies discussed above are considered in detail in Coyne, M. D., Kame’enui, E. J. & Carnine, D. W. (2011). Effective teaching strategies that accommodate diverse learners (4th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is based upon an idea that was originally applied in architecture – that it is more efficient and effective for a building to be “universally designed” from the outset so that it can used by all people, to the greatest extent possible – rather than the building being designed for the “average” user, and subsequently adjusted or modified in design to cater for other users.
If we try to design a building so that it is accessible to the elderly and people with disability, then we achieve a design that is accessible to most, if not all. It will include ramps and elevators, extra space in bathrooms to allow wheelchair transfer, broader doorways for wheelchair access, lever door handles, hand support rails in showers etc. The building may look much the same as any other – but its design caters for the most marginalized – and therefore for all.
In education, teachers know all too well that all students are different and that they learn differently – this fact is recognized by the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, which underlies the Universal Design for Learning framework.
Some students love to write, some hate reading, some need to visualize key concepts, some have no trouble coping with the normal classroom, whilst others feel anxious with the noise and unpredictability of the classroom or struggle to stay still at a desk. It is not surprising that with such individual variation much of the teacher’s time is involved with “managing” the class rather than teaching – with trying to “engage” students that are not readily engaged by a lesson that is designed for and pitched to the “middle”.
In Universal Design for Learning these individual differences between students are acknowledged and class processes are developed from the outset to remove or minimize all barriers to learning (i.e. physical, cognitive, intellectual and organizational barriers) and to cater for the wide range in individual difference. A universally designed curriculum is designed to meet the needs of all students in the class, thereby avoiding or minimizing the need to subsequently differentiate the lesson for individual students.
On 26 August 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted General Comment (No.4) on the right to inclusive education, clarifying the obligations of ratifying countries (including Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada) under Article 24 (Inclusive Education) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In doing so, the Committee recommended that:
“… [Governments] apply the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach. UDL is a set of principles, providing teachers and other staff with a structure to create adaptable learning environments and develop instruction to meet the diverse needs of all learners. It recognizes that each student learns in a unique manner and involves developing flexible ways to learn:
- creating an engaging classroom environment;
- maintaining high expectations for all students, while allowing multiple ways to meet expectations;
- empowering teachers to think differently about their own teaching; and
- focusing on educational outcomes for all, including those with disabilities.
Curricula must be conceived, designed and applied to meet and adjust to the requirements of every student, and providing appropriate educational responses. Standardised assessments must be replaced by multiple forms of assessments and recognition of individual progress towards broad goals that provide alternative routes for learning.” [para 25]
Universal Design for Learning is based upon three basic principles that correlate with and seek to engage the three primary brain networks (namely the recognition, skills and strategies and prioritizing networks) in delivering the curriculum. Each principle is supported by flexible guidelines or strategies to help direct its implementation in the curriculum and the classroom.
- (PRINCIPLE 1) REPRESENTATION – “THE WHAT OF LEARNING”
Teachers should provide multiple means of representation of the lesson material to give students various ways of acquiring the core concepts of the lesson.
(Guidelines) Teachers should provide options for:
- language and symbols; and
Information can be expressed through visual, auditory or other sensory ways. So consider using multiple media to deliver the core concepts of the lesson.
What are the alternative ways that the students could be engaged by audio? Audio approaches are essential for students with sight impairments.
Visually? Might be essential for students with hearing impairments, but will usually also assist students with intellectual disabilities if drawings, pictures or videos and concrete information (e.g. guides, summaries and transcripts) are used to present lesson concepts. Consider whether information can be presented through visual summaries (e.g. graphs and pie charts).
Can visual information (e.g. the structure of a cell or atom) be presented in a physical or tactile manner (e.g. through a 3-D physical model)?
Teachers should ask the following questions.
- Could I provide background material so that all students can access the lesson topic immediately? If a student with processing or learning difficulties has background material to take home the day before, they can be primed ready for the lesson the next day.
- Could I provide a video of the lesson for students to replay in part if they did not understand the first time? Is the reading material at an appropriate level (approximately 30% of the students in the first year of high school are reading at a level below the average text book level)?
Consider how comprehension can be assisted by integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization and memorization.
- (PRINCIPLE 2) EXPRESSION – “THE HOW OF LEARNING” –
Teachers should provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.
(Guidelines) Teachers should provide options for:
- physical action;
- expressive skills; and
- executive functions.
Teachers should ask the following questions.
- Could I assist students to set their own goals and monitor their own learning? International research has shown that student self-assessment is one of the most powerful means to increase learning outcomes for all student
- Could students demonstrate their learning physically (e.g. in a play or a film or by building a model)?
- Could I have students demonstrate their learning cooperatively through a joint project?
- Can I vary the level of support for individual students so that all can demonstrate mastery? For example, a student with significant learning challenges may be set part of the task, or provided with extensive support structures such as simplified versions of the information under consideration.
- Could students present the ‘essay’ in a different format (e.g. as a series of cartoons or drawings, as a poem, as a play, as a speech, by an app on an ipad?)
- Can I provide a framework for students to sequentially provide the necessary information? For example, a series of headings for students to follow when composing an essay? Or express direction as to how much time or written work should be allocated to different portions of the task. This will assist students with limited “organization” or executive functioning skills.
- (PRINCIPLE 3) ENGAGEMENT – “THE WHY OF LEARNING” –
Teachers should provide multiple means for students to be engaged in, challenged by and motivated for the learning process.
(Guidelines) Teachers should provide options for:
- recruiting interest;
- sustaining effort and persistence; and
Learning occurs when students are engaged in the process of learning, and there are multiple ways that we can hold the attention of students. If we can allow different students alternative ways to engage with the learning process, then we can maximise the learning outcomes for all.
Often a key characteristic of an engaging lesson is the students having some choice and control of the learning process and the learning environment. How could I optimize individual choice, responsibility and autonomy? Can I teach students to set personal goals, to self-assess and reflect? How can I minimize threats and distractions? Is the level of visual and sound stimulation in the classroom too high for one or more students? Should I provide a short sensory or physical activity break for the class or a group of students? These latter points may be critical for the successful engagement of autistic students.
Teachers should ask the following questions.
- Can I foster collaboration and cooperation? Can I utilize class-wide peer tutoring so all students move through the roles of teacher and learner? International research indicates that this is a very powerful strategy for increasing student outcomes.
- How can I maximize the relevance of the material taught to the lives and personal interests of the students? Can I show the students how the material relates to them or an activity or experience of interest to them? Or can I motivate the students that mastering the material will allow them to undertake a task or experience of greater interest to them?
For more information and support, All Means All's educators network the School Inclusion Network for Educators (SINE) has a closed, social media platform on Facebook. In addition, SINE’s National Convenor, Loren Swancutt has established a new web resource – School Inclusion: From Theory to Practice – in collaboration with All Means All, aimed at supporting educators to initiate, develop, and sustain inclusive schooling practices in local schools and across the education system, to improve outcomes for ALL students.
Universal Design for Learning is an approach to curriculum development and delivery that aims to minimize barriers to learning and thereby to maximize the accessibility, efficiency and effectiveness of learning for all students. Its underlying principles compliment inclusionary practices in the classroom and the engagement of all students, including students with disability.
Useful links on Universal Design for Learning:
“UDL at a glance” video https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=bDvKnY0g6e4
CAST website (for more detail on UDL and examples of classroom application see http://www.cast.org)
Summary of General Comment No 4 by the the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:
See also "Australian Professional Standards for Teachers", Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, in particular 1.5 and 1.6 on differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the range of abilities as well as 3.5, 3.6 and 3.7 on using verbal and non verbal communication, using evidence to evaluate personal teaching and planning for parent involvement.
Teachers are, or become with experience, skilled socialisers of students. A regular teacher is given 20 to 30 or more individuals with a huge range in backgrounds – from nurtured to neglected, from language-fluent to less so, from locally-born and raised to recently arrived migrants and refugees. In almost all cases, within a short period of time, the teacher has that diverse group of individuals working cooperatively. The teacher has transformed them into a socialised and inter-connected group of students.
However, we also know that teachers will encounter students, both with and without disability, that exhibit behaviour that is seen as “challenging” – often in the sense that it is perceived as having a negative impact on the running of the classroom or on interactions within the classroom.
Many teachers are finding that for all students, traditional strategies around punishment and exclusion have limited or no beneficial effect, whilst raising significant social-emotional consequences (e.g. they can be stigmatising in the eyes of peers, decrease a student’s motivation and connection to the classroom and contribute to self-esteem and even trauma issues). If the application of the traditional strategy is perceived as unfair by the student then, together with the usual approach of increasing the severity of consequences over time, the result will often be spiralling anger and indignation in the student, without the real reason for the initial ‘challenging’ behaviour necessarily being identified and therefore addressed. In addition, some traditional strategies now raise human rights concerns.
Generally speaking, most “strategies” that have been developed to address student behaviour that is perceived as “challenging”, are based on one of the following approaches to understanding behaviour:
- the “internal approach”, which frames “behaviour” as being primarily caused by the student, reflective of an outdated “medical” perspective of disability that is entirely focussed on “treating” the “deficits” of the individual;
- the “external approach”, which frames behaviour as being primarily caused by the environment (e.g. noise and light levels, how information is provided to a student, how education is delivered, including school structures, systems and culture); and
- the “interactional approach”, which considers the interaction of both internal functional factors and external environmental factors as being primary in understanding how students behave.
The “interactional approach” reflects a more contemporary understanding of disability which is consistent with the human rights framework in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In this regard, the Preamble to the Convention describes disability as resulting from “the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.
While there are many reasons why a student may behave in a way that others will perceive as challenging, it is considered by many that at its essence all behaviour is a form of communication so the beginning of any behaviour support strategy should be the consideration of the reasons for and purpose of the student’s “challenging” behaviour. In considering both internal and external factors, a number of questions should be asked:
- What is the student trying to communicate through their behaviour? When the first discrete opportunity presents itself, ask the student to explain “why” they acted in that way. Listen for clues in their response. Try to interpret the situation from their perspective.
- What unmet functional needs of the student may be driving the behaviour? Consider frustration in communicating, lack of security or anxiousness, insufficient control in decision-making, lack of engagement and stimulation, a need for a sensory break, etc.
- What environmental triggers in the classroom and school context may be contributing to or increasing that unmet need? For example, is the classroom environment further compromising the student’s communication skills, is the curriculum or nature of instruction inaccessible, is there conflict within or exclusion from the social landscape of the classroom or playground.
- Is there a pattern in the timing of the behaviour? For example, does it seem connected to a particular seating arrangement, a particular lesson or transitioning back into the classroom after playtimes.
In essence, adopt a pro-active “problem solving” approach.
We should also keep relevant neuroscience in mind – that, broadly speaking, behaviour for all children matures over time from automated behaviour (deriving from the autonomic parts of the brain) to more self-controlled or deliberate behaviour (deriving from conscious control areas of the brain). This developmental process of moving from minimal control of behaviour to comparatively full self-control typically takes around 25 years. Of course, as with all human development, this varies enormously between individuals, but in all cases it involves a learning process.
Any strategy that is adopted should be clear on what we are aiming for in our teaching: supporting students to learn and develop the skill to self-control their own behaviour, rather than for others to ‘manage’ or ‘control’, recognising though that encouraging that learning may involve some initial graduated support.
In this article, we explore some core concepts that have been identified and developed in over a century of research and are intended to help teachers to understand why a student may be behaving in a way that is challenging and to adopt appropriate strategies to support the student within a positive classroom environment.
1. WE CHOOSE HOW TO INTERPRET BEHAVIOUR. We can choose to look at what is often characterised as “challenging behaviour” in two basic ways: We can choose to interpret that behaviour as “naughty”, which suggests a negative “consequences” path to resolve it. Alternatively, we can interpret it as the student not yet being in a position to produce the expected behaviour for the situation, including developing a more positive way to express unmet needs. As teachers, clearly the second path is the choice that should be made. If a student is not doing what the situation requires, provided the expectation itself is fair, then the starting point is that they may need to be supported to learn how to do it and that educative assistance is part of the teaching function.
2. STUDENTS LEARN FASTER IN A POSITIVE SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT THAN IN A NEGATIVE PUNITIVE ENVIRONMENT. One strategy that many teachers have found to be very powerful at establishing a positive learning environment is the “4 to 1 rule”. For every criticism of a behaviour, they balance it with 4 positive consequences or statements for the student. By holding to this rule, teachers progressively reduce negativity and build a much more positive and supportive learning environment. In very effective classrooms rates of 8 positive statements per minute have been recorded (with effectively zero challenging behaviour).
3. STUDENTS, LIKE ALL PEOPLE, WANT TO BELONG. Humans are highly social animals who need to ‘belong’. They generally try to avoid doing things that will lead them to be singled out and excluded. However, the desire to belong can be over-shadowed if a student’s primary or ‘core’ needs are not being met. This means that behavioural outcomes can be greatly developed and improved by a teacher who considers the student’s perspective in trying to identify and address unmet core needs of the student.
4. TYPES OF CORE NEEDS. All humans have some core needs that have to be met if they are to achieve a positive state of mind and be receptive in learning situations. William Glasser in his text ‘The Quality School Teacher: A Companion Volume to the Quality School’ (1998, Harper. NY) identifies the following core needs.
- Survival needs. This can be as basic as need for food or as complex as the need for security. A student who comes to school hungry or who is in a constant state of anxiety is not a student who is fully open to learning. Emotions are closer to the surface and the threshold to trigger difficult behaviour is much lower. Ensuring students are not hungry and actively trying to minimise anxiety or stress for individual students can have a major positive impact.
- Love and belonging. A student who comes to school from a family where warmth is a rarity, or a student who is not included in the peer group are much more likely to respond emotionally when expectations are placed on them. This is a common experience for children with a disability who can easily remain on the outer of the peer group socially and are at greater risk of being disconnected from the class environments. That can be as a result of how academic instruction is delivered unless there is proactive and assistive action taken by teachers to minimise this risk. Students with gender identity-related issues or membership of a devalued cultural group are similarly at-risk.
- To gain power. To lose control of one’s life and the power to direct it is a frightening idea for most of us. Most teachers try to ensure that students have some degree of power by giving them choices, listening to them in a collaborative way and avoiding being overly directive. Unfortunately, students with a disability or others assumed as not having the capacity to make ‘good’ decisions can have most or all their decision-making power taken from them. Appropriate control of decisions affecting the individual is a learning issue and needs to be incorporated into interactions with all students. A student denied the capacity to exercise decision-making in legitimate contexts may seek to gain it through other means, such as through disruptive behaviour. For example, a student who is receiving a lot of “prompting” from adults throughout the day may feel that they have no control and may start to “push back” against this. In particular, push back against an over-supportive education assistant is not uncommon. Accordingly, building in greater “choice” and opportunities for independence in the classroom and playground may assist.
- To be free. This is highly related to the need for power. Freedom is the ability to choose from a range of options and not be constrained physically or emotionally. Inevitably in a school situation there are limits on both freedom and choice but maximising these two areas can reduce the pressure and antagonism often underpinning behaviour that is seen as challenging.
- Fun! All of us need to have some fun in our lives. It is what makes living enjoyable and experiences memorable. If a student feels that the whole school day is an experience of high anxiety and difficulty comprehending what is going on, the opportunity to spend some time in just pure fun activities can reduce pressure considerably. Programming some fun into every day is likely to have benefits for all students, but particularly those who are struggling.
5. BUILDING SELF-CONTROL. A powerful way to help a student to develop greater self-control is to explain the choices available to the student and the consequences of them. This is helping the student understand that different choices may result in different outcomes. It changes the dynamic from a power conflict, which will often occur with straight punitive approaches, to the student being encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and to consider possible consequences in advance. It also allows intervention by another person as a way to support more positive decision making.
6. BE CONSISTENT. Life is generally pretty disorganised but many students are able to work out the signals sufficiently to understand how it operates. They will judge whether their teacher is in a good or bad mood; they will see and interpret body language and respond accordingly; they will learn to ‘keep their head down’ at some points in the day and be extremely helpful and constructive at other times. However, for many other students the signals are way too complex or confusing. Some students may have difficulty spotting or interpreting another’s body signals; they may be overwhelmed by noise and other stimuli in the classroom; they may not appreciate why certain behaviour is accepted by the teacher in one situation but the same behaviour results in ‘big trouble’ in another; they might not have the capacity to process complex instructions or follow multiple sequential instructions. In all of these situations, the likelihood of the student becoming emotionally overwhelmed and just “reacting-out” can be quite high.
Most students and especially students with interpretative and processing difficulties will benefit from their teacher giving very clear, consistent and explained instructions well before action is required by the student – this maximises the probability of the student learning to respond in a more positive way. Some of the research suggests that consistency is possibly the most important skill for a teacher to attain in order to produce a harmonious learning environment. The classroom environment becomes more predictable for the students and accordingly stress and confusion are reduced as a reason for distraction from their learning.
7. MINIMISE SOCIAL EXCLUSION AND STIGMATISATION. When a particular strategy to assist a student is identified always consider whether the strategy would be of benefit to all or a number of your other students. Singling out a student always has a social cost – applying a strategy to a number of students is socially-binding and inclusive. For example, if a particular student would clearly benefit from a short break or a burst of physical activity, chances are that a number of students would similarly benefit in having the same short break.
8. CONSULT WITH OTHER STAFF AND THE STUDENT’S PARENTS. There is a wealth of experience in the school staff room and parents have the greatest insight into their children. Both are essential in developing a more collaborative and effective approach to problem solving and thereby maximising outcomes for your student.
Want to know more?
“Beyond treats and timeouts: Humanistic behavior supports in inclusive classrooms” by Julie Causton, C.P. Tracy-Bronson and K. MacLeod.
"Challenging control: Inclusive teachers’ and teaching assistants’ discourse on students with challenging behaviour" ,Fernanda T. Orsati & Julie Causton-Theoharis (2013), International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:5, 507-525
"The Boy on Red and the Problem with Public Behavior Charts" by Julie Causton
"Increasing Peer Interactions for Students with Severe Disabilities via Paraprofessional Training" Causton-Theoharis, J. N., & Malmgren, K. W. (2005)