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Heartless Monster or Effective Politician?
I don’t usually take a great interest in politics and it’s not often something I have a desire to comment on, but I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about Pauline Hanson’s claims that children with Autism and other disabilities
"…should go into a special classroom and be looked after and given that special attention."
If you haven’t heard about these claims, here’s the full video (of which a couple of select pieces) have been doing the rounds in the news this week (I would encourage you to ignore minutes 4-11 as that load of crock isn’t based on any facts I’m aware of, and check out the bit from 12:35 minutes onward):
While I disagree with many of the things she has raised in this video, it does seem, in this particular case, that the media have taken the opportunity to debate an important social issue, flipped it around and turned it into a frenzy of hate-throwing.
So, rather than focus on the political side of this debate, I’d rather talk about the end game, and what’s trying to be achieved here.
The issue (which was initially just about funding for schools) has some how turned into a debate about the (apparent lack of) current support for children with special needs in the classroom and the solution for providing the best possible education for these children.
In my experience working in schools I have seen a range of approaches for catering to children who have disabilities. I have seen cases where children with Autism are segregated and educated separately, cases where children are matched with a small class of other children with disabilities, cases where children are mainstreamed with support from an Education Assistant and cases where children have a mixture of both – segregation for some classes with 1:1 support, with partial mainstreaming.
I highly doubt that there is a “one size fits all” solution to providing support for children with disabilities. It is more likely that the needs of each child are unique and should be catered to accordingly.
Which is where the issue of resourcing and funding fits in. If you take the time to have a quick look, you can see that (in Western Australia at least) there is a student-centred funding model and the general approach taken to support the learning needs of students with disabilities is for the family, school and student to work together to identify and implement a plan that caters to the individual needs of that student.
So, I guess the question is, is this plan working and is there enough support?
I can’t speak for every individual student or school out there and I wouldn’t want to try to. I can speak to my own experience working with children with disabilities and I won’t deny that it is challenging.
In a classroom setting where children with disabilities are with mainstream students there is additional work required from the teacher’s point of view. Thinking of a recent example of a class I took, which had about 25 mainstream students and two students with special needs, I would say about 25% of my teaching time was taken up providing 1:1 support and managing behaviour of those two students (there was also an Education Assistant present providing support).
Another example that comes to mind is a classroom of about 8 students with special needs and two Education Assistants. In this particular class, 100% of my time was spent engaging the students with 1:1 support and managing behaviour, even with the assistance of Education Assistants.
When I think of these particular examples, 3 questions come to mind:
Thinking of the first example (mainstream class with 2 students with special needs and an Education Assistant) there is less time spent from the Teachers point of view engaging in 1:1 support with the students who have special needs. You can look at this as either detrimental or beneficial to the students who have special needs.
From one angle, they receive less support, but from another angle, they pick up on the social cues and learning habits of the mainstream student’s present, which contributes to their learning.
For the mainstream students present, sure, their class may be interrupted a couple of times by the behaviour of the students with special needs. However, in classes such as this, I also observe many mainstream students taking the opportunity to provide support and teach new skills to the students with special needs, an important learning experience for both the mainstream student and the student with special needs.
This also helps contribute to normalising, acceptance, socialisation and involvement of students who have disabilities within their peer group.
Looking at the second example (where the class is only made up of students with special needs), the students certainly receive more 1:1 instruction from the teacher and Education Assistants, but this approach is extremely demanding from the teacher’s point of view.
The students in this example don’t necessarily interact with one another, but at times their behaviour can influence the tone and behaviour of the rest of the classroom. The students in this scenario miss out on the opportunity to learn from their mainstream peers, and unfortunately there can be a stigma attached to segregation.
While I find it interesting to examine my own experiences and observations from school settings, I don’t think two examples tell the whole story in any way, shape or form, and as such, it is important to consider what the research has to say on this topic.
In terms of the benefit to children with disabilities, research suggests that there are both benefits and risks associated with integration of children in the mainstream school setting. One study found that in some instances, children were included by their peers and provided with support, whilst in other instances they were ridiculed or mocked.
An interesting factor that influenced these results was the mainstream students’ awareness of and education on supporting and including students with disabilities. Mainstream students who were aware of a student’s disabilities were more likely to be inclusive than students who were not prepped or prepared for a student with a disability in the classroom setting.
This study really suggests that there are benefits for both mainstream students and students with disabilities when integrated into mainstream settings, provided the students are supported withy education and prepared prior.
Another study also found that when students with Autism were integrated into a mainstream classroom and participated in a targeted social skills program, that both the students with Autism, and the mainstream students achieved a significant improvement in their social skills. The findings of this study reinforces that integration of students with disabilities into mainstream classroom settings can result in benefits for both the students with disabilities, and the mainstream students.
Taking the perspective of Teacher’s into consideration, there was an interesting study conducted on Teacher’s willingness to include students with Autism and Emotional Behaviour Disorder in mainstream classrooms. The results of the study indicated that Teacher’s identified the benefits associated with including students with Autism in the classroom, but most Teacher’s expressed reservations about the inclusion of students with behavioural disorders.
This finding is interesting as it makes sense that the greater the likelihood of classroom disruptions, the less likely a Teacher is to want to integrate that student into the classroom with mainstream students.
While a glimpse at a couple of pieces of research and some case examples can’t possibly capture every issue associated with this debate, it appears that there is enough evidence around to indicate that pure segregation of students with Autism or other disabilities is probably not in the best interests of mainstream students or the students themselves who have disabilities.
Although I’m not entirely sure what Pauline Hanson is trying to achieve by stating that students with disabilities should be segregated, if the end goal is to ensure the appropriate supports are in place for students and cater to their unique needs, at the very least I am glad that these statements have opened up the conversation, and I hope the outcome results in ensuring all students (regardless of their disability or mainstreaming status) receive a high standard of education, catered to their individual needs.
Just quietly, I noted at the end of the video, she did indicate her support of the bill in her closing statement 😉
As always, look forward to hearing your thoughts below.
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