My recent field placement at Jackson Public School (not its real name) was the first experience I have had in a special education setting, working with students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. I went into the experience with three learning goals: to learn about the students, to observe the features of an inclusive physical environment, and to understand what curriculum and classroom adjustments look like in practice. I have chosen to reflect upon my learning across these three broad areas:
Learning about the students
It is a professional requirement that teachers understand how students learn and adapt their teaching strategies accordingly (AITSL, 2012). At Jackson Public School, I observed this in action as the classroom teacher and support staff differentiated communication methods to suit each student across a range of student needs. Day-to-day, this involved using signing for one student, eye contact and explicit direction for a different student, and visual aids for another. The ability to constantly switch between strategies required an understanding of how each student best communicated and learnt. In observing teachers, I felt the adaptations they made to meet students’ needs were much more pronounced than I have seen in mainstream classrooms.
I also saw this play out in regards to behaviour management. In many ways, behavioural issues were dealt with similarly to what I had seen on prac. Ranging from Kindergarten to Year 12, the school used Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports (PBIS), with a strong emphasis on acknowledging and modelling positive behaviours. Where I felt Jackson Public diverged was in the way that student difference was taken into account. Whereas in my prac school, behavioural expectations were blanket expectations that every student had to follow; at Jackson Public there were often different rules for different students to account for their varying needs and behavioural goals. I think this ties strongly to the principle of ‘high expectations’ as part of a quality-learning environment (Department of Education & Training NSW, 2003, p. 9), as the teacher knew the limits and expectations for each student. I admittedly found this quite difficult to navigate at first, as I had become accustomed to the culture of enforcing class rules in a fair and consistent way.
Learning about environmental adjustments
Another key learning for me was in seeing an environment that was designed to be entirely inclusive. In terms of physical adjustments, Jackson Public School provided me with a deep understanding of how environments can be designed for inclusivity. The school was entirely wheelchair accessible, with wide doorways, single-storied buildings, ramps, and level playgrounds. It had a sensory-motor room, which was particularly helpful for students with sensory sensitivity to explore different textures with their hands and feet. The school was equipped with a swimming pool and a well-stocked music room, providing students with rich art, music and physical education activities. These adjustments were designed to ensure that teaching activities supported the participation of students across the range of student abilities (AITSL, 2012).
Instructional adjustments in practice
While my pedagogy is informed by principles of Universal Design for Learning and I have a theoretical understanding of curriculum adjustments, I found it helpful to see adjustments in practice. I saw a range of augmentative and alternative communication strategies such as signing and the use of a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), as well as transition supports being used by the teacher and special learning and support officer. However, there was still an element of curriculum adjustment that I found complex to process.
As a teacher, it will be my professional responsibility to “plan and implement well-structured learning and teaching programs or lesson sequences that engage students and promote learning” (AITSL, 2012). This involves developing learning programs for students with disabilities that are “rigorous, relevant and engaging” and that are drawn from the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2010, p. 15). Reflecting upon the broad spectrum of student needs within my placement classroom, I noticed a policy silence within Australian Curriculum documents, which do not provide clear guidance for teachers or content indicators for students with severe intellectual disabilities. For instance – working at Early Stage 1, I was unsure how to evidence that a non-verbal student was demonstrating developing skills and knowledge in grammar, punctuation and vocabulary, or what might precede this outcome (NSW Board of Studies, 2012, p. 47). As I was constantly reflecting upon how to bridge classroom learning to the curriculum, I wanted to investigate the policy and research regarding planning for students with severe intellectual disabilities.
Designing learning sequences for students with severe intellectual disabilities to address Australian Curriculum outcomes
Educational discourse on curriculum access and adjustments has come a long way in recent decades, with ‘Universal Design for Learning’ principles considered useful ‘blueprints’ for designing inclusive curricula (Meo, 2008, p. 21). Indeed, the Disability Standards for Education make it a requirement for teachers to consider reasonable adjustments to instruction to ensure all students can participate in learning (Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, 2005). The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) provide some high-level guidance for teachers designing learning opportunities for students with severe intellectual disabilities. This has been shaped over various consultation processes, resulting in the ‘general capabilities’ approach that is currently endorsed (ACARA, 2012a; ACARA, 2012b). This approach outlines the behaviours and dispositions seen as valued outcomes for students, and is underpinned by the belief that providing access to curriculum, through adjustments, promotes central human capabilities and therefore benefits students with disabilities (Price, 2015, p. 29). This reflects a shift away from ACARA’s initial stance that focused on developing four additional ‘progressing to Foundation’ achievement standards (ACARA, 2012a, p. 2).
Those who support the development of additional standards, a view reflected by many in the Review of the Australian Curriculum, argue that there is an absence of content and guidance regarding students who are not yet demonstrating skills at the Early Stage 1 level (Australian Government Department of Education, 2014, p. 149). Jackson Public School sits within this camp, developing their learning plans using outcomes from ‘The Every Student Initiative’ (Mary Brooksbank, Holroyd and Chalmers Road Schools, 2014). The Initiative provides four prior-to-Foundation stages – pre-intentional, intentional, concrete symbolic, and abstract and verbal symbolic – as ACARA initially intended (outcome C1 outlined as example in Figure 1).
However, the development of ‘extra’ or ‘different’ outcomes for students with disabilities is considered by critics to be a “problematic step backwards” (Bonati, Little, Evans & Spandagou, 2014, para. 5). This viewpoint looks to the evidence that students with intellectual disabilities can demonstrate learning outcomes across a range of curriculum areas (Browder et al., 2006; Browder et al., 2008). Bonati et al. state “the recommendation for a separate curriculum for students with intellectual disability hearkens back to a developmental approach, which as early as 1980 was universally rejected as ineffective for promoting positive school outcomes and only reinforces low expectations for achievement” (2014, para. 15). Part of the ‘separate curriculum’ refers to the concept of developing additional standards outside, or preceding, the mainstream curriculum.
While implementing the ‘general capabilities’ approach can be challenging, Price argues that using pedagogies of inclusion that work towards the capabilities, through new approaches and technologies, is beneficial (Price, 2015, p. 29). However, this view must be balanced against an expectation that teachers implicitly know how to make NSW syllabus outcomes appropriately accessible to students with severe intellectual disabilities. As research highlights, students who are included in mainstream educational settings demonstrate better academic and vocational outcomes (Cologon, 2013, p. 24), making it of critical importance that teachers can, in collaboration with specialist and special education staff, confidently develop accessible learning experiences for all students (Lingo, Barton-Arwood, & Jolivette, 2011).
- ACARA. (2010). The shape of the Australian Curriculum. Version 2.0. Sydney: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.
- ACARA. (2012a). Students with disability: Progressing to Foundation. Version 1.5. Sydney: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.
- ACARA. (2012b). Australian Curriculum materials for students with disability: Consultation Report. Draft Version 1.0. Sydney: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. Retrieved from http://www.acara.edu.au/curriculum/student_diversity/students_with_disability.html
- AITSL. (2012). Australian professional standards for teachers. Melbourne: Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.aitsl.edu.au/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/standards/list
- Australian Government Department of Education. (2014). Review of the Australian curriculum: Final report. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education.
- Bonati, M., Little, C., Evans, D. and Spandagou, I. (2014). Separate curriculum for students with disabilities no good for anyone. The Conversation, 12 Nov. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/separate-curriculum-for-students-with-disability-no-good-for-anyone-33891
- Browder, D. M., Wakeman, S. Y., Spooner, F., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L. & Algozzine, B. (2006). Research on reading instruction for individuals with significant cognitive disabilities. Exceptional Children, Vol. 72(4), 392-408.
- Browder, D. M., Spooner, F., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., Harris, A. A. & Wakeman, S. Y., (2008). A Meta-analysis on teaching mathematics to students with significant cognitive disabilities. Exceptional Children, Vol. 74(4), 407-432.
- Cologon, K. (2013). Inclusion in education: Towards equality for students with disability, CDA Issues Paper. Victoria: Children with Disabilities Australia.
- Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department. (2005). Disability standards for education (2005). Canberra: Author.
- Department of Education and Training NSW (2003). Quality teaching in NSW Public Schools. Sydney: Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.
- Lingo, A. S., Barton-Arwood, S. M., & Jolivette, K. (2011). Teachers working together: Improving learning outcomes in the inclusive classroom – practical strategies and examples. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43(3), 6-13.
- Mary Brooksbank, Holroyd and Chalmers Road Schools (2014). The Every Student Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.everystudent-sws.nsw.edu.au/welcome-to-the-every-student-initiative.html
- Meo, G. (2008). Curriculum planning for all learners: Applying universal design for learning (UDL) to a high school reading comprehension program. Preventing School Failure, 52, 21-30.
- NSW Board of Studies. (2012). English K-10 syllabus. Sydney: NSW Board of Studies.
- Price, D. (2015). Pedagogies for inclusion of students with disabilities in a national curriculum: a central human capabilities approach. Journal of Educational Enquiry, 14(2), 18-32.