The diversity of students, including students with disability, those who are gifted and talented and those for whom English is an additional language or dialect, can present both extraordinary promise and potential challenges for schools.
The Australian Curriculum promotes inclusivity, emphasising the need for schools to make reasonable adjustments to support students with special education needs.
Government organisation the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare reports an estimated 1 in 10 school aged children have a disability or different learning need. This includes physical disability, as well as sensory, hearing and sight impairments, memory problems, social or behavioural problems, and different learning abilities. Almost all students with different learning needs (89 percent) attend school.
This means all classrooms need to be inclusive learning environments. Legislative and regulatory obligations underpin and reinforce this. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 outline the requirements for education providers to ensure that all students with disability can access education ‘on the same basis’ as their peers, supported by reasonable adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their individual needs. Inclusivity, then, is not just encouraged, it is required.
Opportunities are available within the curriculum for teachers to develop inclusive learning and teaching programs, building on individual strengths, interests, goals and learning needs to ensure every student achieves to their potential.
The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) reminds educators that if a student has a learning difficult in one area, it does not mean they will have learning difficulties in all subject areas. Additionally, students with different learning needs can achieve learning standards commensurate to those of their peers. And although a student may have an identified learning need, they may not require adjustments to the curriculum, or to assessment and reporting.
Gifted and talented students benefit from rigorous, engaging, and relevant learning opportunities. These students can demonstrate varying levels of giftedness across and within learning areas, vary in abilities and aptitudes demonstrated in a single area or across a variety of domains, and exhibit different learning behaviours. ACARA research confirms between 2 and 5 percent of gifted and talented students have a disability.
To accommodate the diverse needs of students, adjustments to learning and teaching, classroom set up, communication, and learning environments may be required. ACARA encourages flexible learning models, and engaging with the curriculum to support all students to meet learning standards and requirements in a way that best suits them.
Throughout their educational journey, students should also be supported to learn skills that will benefit them throughout their life, such as the ability to relate to others, manage their own wellbeing, and make informed decisions about their lives. Students will then be empowered to become responsible global citizens, who act with integrity and compassion.
Classroom set up, working in peer supported groups, and adjusting learning models as needed are practical starting points for supporting students with different educational needs. In some instances, though, specialist tools may be needed to provide the optimum learning environment. Depending on student requirements, sensory objects, aids to assist sight and hearing, and software to adapt learning programs can be implemented.
Access to specialist teachers and teacher aides is important in supporting both students and teachers. These specialists, though, may not be available in all classrooms all the time. Equipping all teachers to cater for the individual needs of their students is paramount. To ensure teachers feel able to cater for the diverse range of learning needs in their classroom, ongoing professional development is essential.
For insight into how all students can be supported to achieve their best, School News spoke to some industry insiders.
Dr Skye McLennan, Clinical Psychologist at SPELD SA advocates for the use of phonics programs for assisting students with literacy.
“Research shows that Structured Synthetic Phonics programs provide the most effective approach to teaching phonics (decoding) skills. This approach is best practice for all students in the classroom, not just those with learning difficulties.”
Dr McLennan explained that programs share some characteristics. “They explicitly teach the links between printed letters and the sounds that they represent. Children are not expected to guess or work this out themselves.
“They are structured, and introduce a small number (two to six) of new letter+sound combinations at a time and introduce them according to a predetermined sequence.
“Programs move at the appropriate pace. They do not introduce the next set of two to six letter+sound correspondences until the student has had ample opportunity to practise and consolidate the sets already introduced.
“There is a gradual introduction of words with irregular spelling. A small number of ‘tricky’ words that have unusual spellings (e.g. ‘once’; ‘two’) are introduced at each stage. These ‘tricky’ words are also introduced in a predetermined sequence.
“Finally, these programs facilitate practise using decodable text. Students are directed to practise reading passages/books/readers that are made up exclusively of words that contain the letter+sound correspondences (and ‘tricky’ words) that have already been taught. This allows students to practise what they have been taught, which helps the new skills to become well-learned. Carefully matched decodable books ensure that children never encounter words that they are unable to decode or recognise, thereby allowing them to experience success at each stage.”
Nikki Balke from Spectronics said software offers an opportunity to help with peer to peer, or teacher to student interaction that was not available in the past. “Most software packages are intended so the teacher can design activities specific to their students and classroom environments. These can be for students with relatively low special considerations through to those with severe learning impairments whilst also catering for students with minimal learning difficulty.
“We hear of more and more special needs students who are loving getting involved with virtual and augmented reality environments which can be individually designed by a teacher for specific teaching areas. Inclusive learning technologies are another addition to the myriad of resources that are available to teachers to ensure the classroom environment readily caters for all types of learners,” Ms Balke said.
When considering the best way to set up your classroom, Ms Balke said it is important to take into account not only teaching aides, but also different areas that students can interact with or just chill out in depending on how they are feeling throughout the day.
“Some students respond well to calming light patterns or manipulatives (fidget style toys), whereas others are more hands on and have specific areas of interest. The use of comfort items work well with some students, and others benefit from quiet places or even audio reducing devices to help with noise sensitivity. Visual schedules, timers and other visual supports enable positive self-regulating classroom behaviours as well as promoting independence in students without the need for verbal prompting.”