Special needs education needs review but not in the way some would think

So this article appeared in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. Here it is in full for those who are click-averse:

Options for special needs kids

August 9, 2010

Luka, nearly 7, slips on his gumboots and stomps happily in puddles in his Drummoyne backyard on a Sunday morning. He’s a lively, affectionate little boy who loves Harry Potter DVDs. His little brother Jasper, 3, is just that bit quicker, answering questions before Luka can.

Luka has “high-functioning” autism, his mother, Marian O’Connell, explains while her husband, Julian, makes coffee. Luka was diagnosed in kindy after a paediatrician missed the signs. He struggles academically in class.

He is in year 1 in a mainstream Catholic primary school, getting an hour’s special needs assistance from a teacher’s aide each day, plus a few hours’ extra literacy coaching each week. In the long term, his parents want to find him a place in a support class run by a special needs teacher within the campus of a mainstream public primary school, and then a mainstream high school.

Such opportunities in NSW are severely limited but, Marian O’Connell argues, “it’s good for both him and [regular] children to be exposed to a broad range of human experience”.

An explosion in the numbers of in children being diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other behavioural problems has fuelled an ideological battleground, at the heart of which are the children: should they be educated together, or are children with “disabilities” and “special needs” best educated apart from “regular” children?

Launching a review of school funding in Australia in April, the then federal minister for education, Julia Gillard, said in a speech to the Sydney Institute that the number of students with special needs attending government and non-government schools nationally had risen from about 40,000 in 1981 to 95,000 in 1998 to more than 150,000 by 2008.

But a state parliamentary inquiry last month found NSW had more than 46,000 students with disabilities as well as more than 97,000 with “special needs” or “additional learning difficulties” last year; making a total of more than 143,000 in NSW (see breakout).

Yet the criteria for diagnosing special needs children with conditions such as behavioural disorder and emotional disturbance are “quite murky”, Linda Graham, a research fellow at Macquarie University’s centre for research into social inclusion, says. Students diagnosed as emotionally disturbed in NSW government schools, for instance, had risen 139 per cent between 1997 and 2007.

“Some colleagues and I are seriously questioning how some of these kids are ending up with these diagnoses, and whether they’re being verified,” she says.

Graham said the recent NSW inquiry “dreadfully neglected” this issue, which was driving up funding demands. Her research, due to be published in the International Journal of Inclusive Education this year, uses NSW Treasury documents to show that in 2002-03, 2.8 per cent of state school enrolments were suddenly carrying a disability diagnosis eligible for “special education support in integrated settings” – a 41 per cent increase on 2001-02, or 6183 new children.

Graham argues that a steep rise has been sustained in the eight years since, though figures have been difficult to verify. There is also a “massive overrepresentation” of boys: her team’s analysis due to be published next month in the journal Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood shows an “extremely disturbing” rate of autism of nine boys to one girl in NSW special schools and support classes within mainstream schools – yet the international autism diagnosis ratio is only three boys to every girl.

There has been a lot of international research on best practice for schooling disabled and special needs children, “but the problem is a lot of it is influenced by ideology”, Graham says.

“There’s a lot of people who would think I’m ideological, and a rabid inclusionist, but I’m actually not. I’m in favour of pragmatism …

“I believe special schools have a place. I don’t believe support classes [in mainstream schools] have a place … we should get rid of them … the big problem we’ve not been able to resolve is that, if you have a parallel system of special education – if you have special schools as well as support classes [in mainstream schools] – how do you determine who goes into them?”

Unaware of the debate swirling around him, Luka seeks out sensory stimulation: he likes running his hands through his special bucket of sand, but he will also be distracted in the classroom by sudden light or movement or the noise of 30 other children.

His auditory processing is delayed: he can answer a question; it just takes him time. He becomes confused and upset with changes in routine, so must have all outings explained to him in advance.

“Bullying can [also] happen to kids who aren’t autistic, but there is a definite vulnerability there, because they can be naive,” Marian O’Connell admits. “Other kids can exploit that.”

Yet like most parents, the O’Connells don’t want their boy partitioned from so-called normal society. The NSW Teachers Federation deputy president, Gary Zadkovich, concurs, and says the union supports integration “wherever appropriate” and parents and students having all three options: a place in a mainstream class; a place in a supported class within a mainstream school; or a place within a special needs school.

Schools desperately need more specialist special needs teachers and teacher aides, Zadkovich says, though he can’t quantify how many more.

“More students are now presenting in Australian schools with special education needs because of developments in medical science,” he says.

But an assistant principal, Ross Jeffery – who asks that her NSW government primary school not be named – says the push for mainstream integration has gone too far and teachers need more training to help students with disabilities.

“I’ve had [students with] cerebral palsy and I’ve had autistic [students] and I’ve had a child try to cut his wrists under the desk,” Jeffery says.

“Government wants them all mainstreamed and encourages parents to do that, because it’s cheaper for them.

“We have behaviour support people come into the classrooms to help you, and they talk about [making] lots of little pictures and putting them on their desk with Velcro to help [special needs students] order their day …

“You’ve got to run back and forward to this [special needs] child who, if they don’t get the attention, will start thumping the desk – bang, bang, bang – or if they’re emotionally disturbed, they might stand on the window sill until you take notice of them.”

She’d like to see more specialist classes within mainstream schools, “because it’s lovely for kids to see other children at lunchtime … but the sad thing is, when you put a lot of these [disabled and special needs] children into a mainstream class, no one talks to them.

“Children aren’t nice, are they? They’re children. If you can’t speak properly, and if you can’t do the work like everyone else, and the work you’re doing is kindergarten level and everyone else is in year 3, they’re not going to play with you, are they?”

A mother and teacher, Shelley Phillips, whose five-year-old twins attend a mainstream kindy class in the same Sydney school – daughter Hannah has Down syndrome; her son Christopher does not – says Jeffery’s views are “ignorant” and to “suggest that mainstream students suffer because of the inclusion of disabled students is an ill-informed generalisation”.

Hannah is doing “fantastic” at the school, “she’s really happy there”, but she gets “inadequate” support, spending an hour a day with an aide, and once a week one-on-one time with a special education teacher, given her disability is classed “mild” rather than “moderate”.

The federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, whose blindness from birth prevented him attending a mainstream school until year 11, says there is “huge value” in children with disabilities being integrated into “ordinary schools with their ordinary cohort” from their suburb.

“We need to start involving people with disabilities in our society right from the beginning.

”For hundreds of years, we have excluded people with disabilities, which is exactly what we did to women and Aboriginal people 20 or 30 years ago.”

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/options-for-special-needs-kids-20100808-11qbc.html

My initial thoughts:

1. I know why Ross Jeffery doesn’t want her school named and it’s not just because she hasn’t got approval from the NSW Department of Education to be talking to the media.

When she says this, “Children aren’t nice, are they? They’re children. If you can’t speak properly, and if you can’t do the work like everyone else, and the work you’re doing is kindergarten level and everyone else is in year 3, they’re not going to play with you, are they?” I just shake my head.

Everyone and I mean everyone said to me before Oscar started school, ‘children can be so cruel’ and yet the only, the ONLY instance of such cruelty Oscar has ever experienced was at the hands of a behaviorally challenged child whose aide had stepped away.

Children take their lead from those around them. They learn from their parents and they learn from their peers and their teachers. If you have a school operating an inclusive and progressive attitude to inclusive education you do not get bullying of children with special needs. The end.

Children at Ross Jeffery’s school not talking to children with special needs are not doing so because ‘they aren’t nice’ (can you believe that is how someone who works with children every day would feel about children) but because people like Ross Jeffery let them react that way.

Hey Ross, I have a special needs child in Year 6. He’s doing kindergarten level work and can’t talk properly. Guess what? Kids play with him! Kids talk to him! Kids run up to him and say hi and have a chat with him at the shops or at the footy or whereever we are! Kids include him!

Why? Because they have all been raised in a school environment where difference is embraced. Where every child has value. Where ‘nice gets nice’. Where just because you can’t talk properly doesn’t mean you don’t love kicking the footy just like your peers. Where just because you might look a bit different or walk a bit funny or not be able to do the same standard of work doesn’t lessen your right to the same experiences and same opportunities as anyone else the same age.

2. I find Linda Graham’s comments highly alarming considering her area of research particularly her comment that there is no place for support classes in mainstream settings. WHAT THE HELL? I am presuming that is coming from research she has undertaken as research fellow at Macquarie University’s centre for research into social inclusion. 

I used to be very up-to-date with the latest research on educative practice for special needs kids and, having Oscar in such an inclusive and progressive school, have let my reading slide in recent (as in the last four or so) years. My reading and that of every support service we have ever worked with showed that the positive outcomes for kids in mainstream settings – both special needs and ‘normal’ – far outweighed the negative, both in the short term and most definitely in the longer term.  

Just an aside: as we approached high school I must say my opinion of mainstreaming Oscar in a public high school waned very quickly. High school is a totally different kettle of fish and the options available to kids with special needs are very limited. If you have a child with mild support needs then good luck to you. There is virtually nothing, nothing there for your child. I have friends with children classified as requiring mild support and they are frantic at how little is out there in high school for their child.  

3. Gary Zadkovich is right. Schools desperately need more specialist special needs teachers and teacher aides. Full stop.

What we have seen happen, in NSW anyway, is a massive change in public opinion and attitudes and resultant actions on where people are going to send their children with additional needs to school and how they want them taught.

I know it sounds cynical, but the government relished this shift from kids with special needs being in separate schools and classes because from a financial bottom-line it – very superficially – equalled huge savings.

How utterly stupid is that. Instead of realising that those students not going into special schools or classes must be going somewhere – ie mainstream classrooms – and adjusting policy and funding and teacher training accordingly, they have just sat back and watched the train wreck unfold.

As far as I am concerned, dependent on the size of the school, every year group and in some instances every classroom in NSW should have a teacher’s aide. Every school should have teachers skilled in teaching children with specific issues – such as auditory processing or kids with Asperger’s or autism or – and this is a big one – emotional/behavioural issues- who act as mentors and information sources to the rest of the teaching body in that school.

At the moment teacher’s aides in NSW are not even permanent employees of the NSW Department of Education. They are ‘permanent casuals‘. This means they do not get holiday pay and they are not guaranteed ongoing employment. Tell me, how are you going to attract quality candidates to be a teacher’s aide if you do not even give them the same benefits as their colleagues and every single year they may find themselves unemployed?

Similarly, my alarm bells went off when I heard that Macquarie University, one of the leading tertiary institutions for a Bachelor of Education and indeed run a range of programs and schools for kids with special needs, was ceasing to offer its course in Special Education due to a lack of interest from undergraduates.

As a parent of a special needs child, in an environment seeing much greater mainstreaming of children with additional needs in our school system, to hear undergraduates are ‘not interested’ in educating such children is both panic-inducing and heart-breaking.

OH GUYS, I could go on and on and ON. But the thing that undoes me the most about all this is that this discussion is happening at all. I mean, really? We’re going to debate whether kids with special needs should be afforded the same opportunities and experiences as their able-bodied peers? Really?

That is not what should be on the table. What should be debated is the best way to fund and resource the reality that our society has difference. What is the best way to fund and resource a classroom that in any given year could have a child who is gifted and talented
next to a child with moderate intellectual disability
next to a child with autism
next to a child who is deaf or blind
next to a child for whom English is not their first language
next to a child who is abused each night in their own home
next to a child who has been exposed to drug abuse or domestic violence
next to a child who sits beautifully in the middle of the bell curve or ‘normal’.

That people are even discussing pulling one component of that mix out or worse, questioning their right to be there in the first place because of their ability or lack thereof is discriminatory, antiquated and well, just plain wrong.

My letter to the editor has been shortlisted for tomorrow. Here it is if they choose not to publish it:

I am flummoxed that the argument about inclusive education is back at square one (Options for special needs kids, SMH, 9 August 2010). For those of us ‘at the coal face’ parents who have children with special needs in mainstream classrooms and for teachers experienced at having such a diverse classroom, the issue is so much further along than whether this should be the reality. 

The real issue is not whether special needs kids can be educated in a mainstream setting, but that the funding structures and bureaucratic systems in education have failed to keep up with the change. The NSW Department of Education’s funding for classroom aides is woefully inadequate and bordering on negligent. It has been for years.

All the longitudinal studies show that the positive outcomes for special needs AND ‘normal’ children in inclusive educative settings far outstrip the negative. If we’re going to talk about ‘options’ for special needs kids, let’s start by not actually limiting what they are. 


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  • BabelBabe

    excellent response, my friend. and I wholeheartedly agree with you. the support and funding and training is key to the success of teaching all our kids. i am happy Oscar has such a great school; I wish it were such that you could take it for granted.

  • Paula

    Hey Kim,
    I'm a Year Adviser at my school and my group is currently in Year 9. I have a boy who is doing Kindergarten level work. We just modify our programs and he sits in a 'normal' classroom. I think he's much better for it than if he were in a 'special' school.
    Noone has ever said a nasty word to him.
    Paula x

  • Fiona

    I HAVE to keep saying that to most schools more funding = more teacher aides, and that often just means more bums on seats not necessarily linked to better educational outcomes. In fact does NAPLAN measure the education outcomes of SWD by reporting on types of educational supports supplied? NO. We have to be more analytical about designing supports that meet specific needs, eg children with physical disabilities in high school can do soooooo much better with technology supports than an aide velcroed to their side. But just try and get most schools, teachers, regional disability consultants and NSW DET to understand that … And where are Universal Learning Design (UDL)principles – do they exist yet in Australian teacher training courses?

  • Corrie

    well written post and response! I almost finished a grad dip ed in primary school teaching (pre twins) and one of my favourite subjects was special needs education! I honestly hope that people will be encouraged to study it further. I'm all for inclusive education and I think everyone in the classroom benefits!

    hope you get published tmrw!

  • Glee

    G'day Kim, you said "ceasing to offer its course in Special Education due to a lack of interest from undergraduates" and all through your blog you use the terms special needs kids. While we continue to put up with this Education Dept label, kids living with disability will be seen as that. "Special" and not in a positive way. When people see the words special needs they jump to descriptors of expensive, difficult, problem, challenging, separate, someone else's job/problem, separate separate separate.

    I have a disability from birth , am 53 and I wince every time I see the "special" word. There was no such term when I was a kid. Just crippled or normal and you either went to ordinary school or you went and lived in an institution or you got no schooling. It stings me like "retard" not in quite the same horrible way tho. But I wince because as long as we keep referring to our ordinary needs as humans living with disability as special, they will remain so. Special, separate, scarce, scary and remote. Now who would be keen to do Special Education? Naaa too hard. Teacher's training should be how to manage and teach ALL sorts of kids. And an aide in each classroom is a must.

    A wheelchair or a different amount of assistance is not special in any aspect of society. It's just how a decent society would work.


    Fabulous blog. You go girl.

  • kim at allconsuming

    Fiona – I agree completely, I guess the notion of an aide in each classroom and/or year group is just the best way I can see of teachers being supported in a more adequate way.

    And Glee – hello! OH MAN – talk about from the horse's mouth. Generally I refer to Oscar as having 'additional' needs (not in front of him mind you) as opposed to 'special' – but it's so fraught! Your comments are duly noted!

  • Fiona

    Re the "special" word Glee and Kim, we used to take perverse enjoyment in publicly referring to the non-disabled child as "special" and the disabled child as "ordinary". Not many got it, but occasionally you could see a lightbulb moment happening.

  • Badger

    OH DUDE, I don't even know where to start, except that dumbass who didn't want her school named and said kids should not be mainstreamed because they'll be taunted made my FREAKING HEAD EXPLODE all over my computer. Um hello, it is the school's responsibility to foster an environment of inclusion and the embracing of differences and shit! They spend a LOT of time on that here (now, not when I was a kid) and it has made worlds of difference to my particular "different" kid. I can just picture this Ross Jeffery person sitting back and snickering while her students pile on a kid who is different. "It's lovely for kids to see other children at lunchtime"?! BITE ME.

  • trash

    Talking from the other side of the fence I dislike the sobriquet 'special' as someone w a clinical condition is no more or less special than one who just daydreams; it is just another means of differentiating our children.

    In many ways I am fortunate w the primary school my children attend but this was never so clear to me as the day one child came home and told her mother that 'Rosie was different' (Rosie has Down's). They were in Yr. 2 and it had never occurred to Melissa that Rosie was in anyway different until the (bloody) teacher pointed it out. Much as I would (still) like to shake said teacher for her crass handling of the situation I love that until that point Rosie was just Rosie.

    Actually Rosie is still just Rosie and is accepted for who she is and what she brings to our community. As has been already pointed out it is the job of the school to foster just that atmosphere.

    Unsure of all the political changes in Australia but it is the system here that EVERY school and preschool has a Special Needs Co-ordinator (and this covers the gamut from gifted and talented to educational disabilities) and maintains an awareness of and repsonsibility to the children that fall within these parameters. What do you think the chances are of this being put in place? Perhaps a question if you get doorstepped?

  • Mary

    Fantastic post and fantastic comments.

    I love the word "inclusive". It rolls around my tongue sweetly.

    It is such an incredibly important word – it forms the basis from which all policy and funding should be evolved…

  • Kris

    I always took it for granted that 'kids are cruel' until my daughter started kinder this year in her outstanding (public) school. One of the kids in L.'s class is autistic and I have been so interested to see how matter of fact the kids are about E. She's just who she is – as is every other child there.

    Which I'm sure has a lot to do with the teacher, who is such a star and presents her negotiations with E. in the same way as she discusses negotiations with kids who want to spend all the time painting and those who are most keen to read books, those who want to tear about and never sit still etc – there are a range of behaviours and strengths and they are all included in her lesson plans and classroom planning.

    To think about in the terms presented in the article is a step back to square one, and also a complete stepping away from personal professional responsibility.