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A day in the life: How can schools support their staff to ensure that special needs students are well looked after?

A day in the life: How can schools support their staff to ensure that special needs students are well looked after?

In a time of global instability, students with special needs require as much support as they can get, but the impact that this can have on teachers is phenomenal. We spoke with first year primary school teacher, Adam from Melbourne, to get his insight on how schools can support their staff to ensure that nobody gets left behind.

Based on Adam’s experiences, here are five concepts to consider when tackling this issue in your school.

  • Support comes from the top-down

While people have their own way of handling difficult situations, it is important not to forget the value of strong leadership within a school environment. 

According to “Facilitating high achievement: High school principals’ reflections on their successful leadership practices” (journal article, 2008) the responsibilities, increased workload and day-to-day accountabilities of school faculty members are increasingly becoming more multifaceted, and oftentimes, both teachers and principals have “not had the appropriate training or relevant professional development to equip themselves with the many challenges they are expected to undertake”. The article continues to express the importance of strengthening leadership and promoting quality teaching to improve student outcomes.

When it comes to supporting special needs students, as suggested in the article, teachers are not always prepared for the issues that may arise. Having open communication and support from upper management allows staff to discuss their struggles and gain perspective based on the experiences of their leaders. “I have a lot of experienced teachers who are willing to give advice, but you have to be willing to accept the advice, too” says Adam.

The concept of seeking advice from colleagues seems simple, however many teachers do not receive this sort of support. “It takes a whole school approach. I’ve heard about other schools where people have not felt the support at all, where they just felt isolated and like they need to deal with it themselves”.

Ensuring that teaching staff are well supported not only allows them to fully focus on their students, but also to maintain their own mental health; something which cannot be done without the ability to communicate their concerns and needs to their colleagues.

“[A supportive environment] is built on good communication and I would say that a good culture comes from the top-down.” says Adam.

  • Make structural changes to teachers’ education and their preparedness for special needs students

In an interview on ABC Radio, Dr James Morton, Chairman of the AEIOU Foundation and parent of a child with autism, criticised Australian universities for failing to prepare teachers to teach students with a disability. Since units that specialise in autism, for example, are not mandatory in undergraduate teacher education programs, Morton accused universities of “not investing in Australia’s future”.

Before graduating with a Master of Teaching and venturing into education, Adam studied psychology, which he believes has helped him to manage his class of 22 students, a handful of which have special needs. “I probably am a bit unique but if I didn’t have my psych background and I were just to go through the masters that I did, I would say that I would be a lot less prepared”.

This unique circumstance places Adam and his students in a fortunate position, however many educators do not have this background or the knowledge to effectively manage a large class, let alone a class with special needs students.

“I am lucky with my training but especially as a graduate in the classroom that I’ve got; if I didn’t have my training and they had given a classroom like mine to a graduate, you’d have a very different response with more issues arising…”.

… “I cannot see how someone would have been prepared to teach just from the masters.”

Contrary to popular belief, students with special needs do not need to be educated by a specialist teacher to succeed. Research consistently shows that educating students with disability in in this way does not guarantee better social or academic outcomes for the student, nor does it increase their future employment prospects or help with social inclusion. In fact, allowing students with special needs to learn within mainstream schools and classrooms has proven to be more beneficial if the school adapts their approach to suit the needs of the student in question.

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (a summary of which can be found in all copies of our Professional Teacher’s Diaries), emphasise the skills that are required for improving workforce capacity for identifying the support that special needs students require. Graduating teachers must meet each Standard to achieve registration to teach, however in many cases, the theory is not always put into practice.

As awareness around the topic of mental health develops, cases of mental health issues are becoming more common annually. Teachers now also find themselves trying to manage their students, while maintaining their own mental health. “We have had a few cases of mental health issues this year… I teach grade 5/6 and a lot of experienced teachers said they don’t feel prepared to deal with the more severe matters.” Adam continues… “That can really affect the classroom environment, which is dependent on the teacher to create”.

Considering the myriad of issues that can arise in a classroom, consistent and recurring training must happen to expose teachers to potential issues and expand their knowledge on how to deal with every student’s needs.

“There are always personal development seminars that you can go to, those go for two to three days, they cost a lot of money and [although] you do gain some skills, at the end of the day, no one has the answers so sometimes people still don’t know what to do.”

Though it seems that the Australian Curriculum prides itself on inclusivity, encouraging the theory of engaging all types of students, their statement “Students with disability are entitled to rigorous, relevant and engaging learning opportunities drawn from age equivalent Australian Curriculum content on the same basis as students without disability” (ACARA, 2016) can be difficult to implement when schools interpret and attempt to apply these practices. “Not all teachers are good examples to their students, because not all people should be teachers.” states Adam.

  • Set an example for students and other faculty members

For any student, the senior years of primary school are crucial to development, as the foundations of character and responsibility are instilled in them in preparation for their move to high school. “You hope that the things you have put into life follow the students into high school, like growing independence, developing skills, and finding their place” says Adam.

On whether he ever is concerned about the impact he is making on his students; Adam is quite confident that he is leaving a good impression. “Sometimes the results aren’t always what you want, but they are still better than if you weren’t there.”

As for the dynamic between staff, it is important that teachers trust themselves, are willing to learn and that they show initiative. Adam advises: “If you think you have a good idea or have spotted something that could be of concern, or even a good behaviour, trust yourself to speak up”. By doing this, teachers can be certain that they have played their part in creating a supportive environment for one another, while also encouraging their colleagues to do the same.

  • Maintaining a clear understanding and expectation between staff and families

As the variety of special needs is steadily increasing in classrooms, it is important that teachers communicate with families to establish the right course of action for each student. “You aim to build positive relationships and keep [families] in the loop as much as you can, not only negatively when you need to speak to them, but for good reasons as well” Adam explains. This considered, it is also important that teaching staff understand the circumstances of their colleague’s classrooms so that expectations from management are realistic.

By establishing these expectations, schools can monitor signs of stress, and make sure that their staff and their students are being adequately supported both in and out of the classroom. With cases of special needs students, teachers are often concerned with their students outside of the classroom environment. “[People] tell you not to take your work home, which is silly because of course you do. It can affect everything which ultimately can lead to teacher burn-out.”

By establishing and maintaining realistic expectations between staff and families, you can significantly improve the academic and social outcomes of special needs students. 

  • Create a culture of compassion and awareness in students

While teachers tend to focus on the academic outcomes of their students, positive social interactions are a significant part of any child’s development.

It is important that teaching staff try to inform students of their classroom dynamics and monitor behaviour toward special needs students. Often, students can become judgemental or impatient simply because they cannot sympathise or do not understand what their classmates are going through. “Some students are able to form those empathetic skills, and understanding and patience, but others aren’t [able]” explains Adam. “[My] students are very aware and very encouraging. However, they are also respectful of themselves. If a student needs to be pulled into line, they will tell [them] in a polite way”. Based on his experience in the classroom, Adam believes that open communication and awareness are key components to a healthy classroom dynamic.  

Although bearing responsibility for over 20 students can be overwhelming at times, Adam advises: “if you are not so stressed and focussed on your English and maths teaching, you can find the little things that are rewarding.”

From his experiences so far, Adam notes that “time spent planning isn’t time wasted.”

So where possible, plan ahead and have an idea of how you want to approach everything from the curriculum to effective discipline and encouraging a sense of community in the classroom. 

Although Adam is only halfway through his first year of teaching, it is evident that with the right support from school leadership both in and out of the classroom, teachers can ensure that special needs students are well looked after.                

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