‘Special education’ is a broad term and requires an equally broad set of skills, providers and strategies – not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – says academic expert, Dr. Kathleen Tait.
“Included within a typical education classroom one could find students with a range of intellectual, social and emotional difficulties; children who are gifted and talented; and/or children with learning difficulties.
“These are very different student profiles and each special education need requires a unique approach. In my opinion, it’s unreasonable to expect a single, mainstream teacher to be an expert in each realm.
“It’s like going to see your GP and hoping they’ll give you treatment in physiotherapy, gynaecology, psychiatry and optometry. Your GP will no doubt have some understanding of each, but after an initial assessment they’ll refer you to someone who knows the field better and who has specialised qualifications. I don’t think the education sector should be any different,” she said.
Dr. Tait is the Academic Program Director for Post-Graduate Studies in Special Education at Macquarie University. She says the curriculum for special education in a standard undergraduate or postgraduate teaching degree is limited.
“Instruction in inclusive education is typically provided in one module. When you drill this down, it often equates to just several hours of content and training spread across a few weeks. It’s not enough to understand this highly specialised and important area,” she said.
“If you take autism alone, there is a whole spectrum to consider and a diverse set of symptoms, ranging from noise sensitivity to language difficulties to social anxiety. Only a teacher who has been trained to understand the intricacies of the range of special needs can deliver a meaningful and effective learning program.”
Dr. Tait is aware the term ‘special education’ often has negative connotations; but says that, providing it is well executed, it remains an important vehicle for inclusive teaching.
“When people think of special education their mind typically goes to segregation.
“Special education shouldn’t be about isolating those with additional learning needs; it should be about providing them with the right environment and pedagogy to maximize their chances of success in the education system.
“Classrooms containing 60-70 students can be overwhelming for those living with social communication disorders (autism or ADHD, for example). They often lead to hyper-stimulation or distractibility, or simply cause undue distress.
“Special Education focuses on assessing the strengths as well as the needs of an individual child and using the results of a range of assessments to cater for the unique learning profile of the individual student.
“This can only be achieved when there’s a sufficient level of knowledge and understanding of when to use particular assessments (i.e., diagnostic and functional assessments as well as formative and summative). Teachers also need to know how to teach children with a variety of special education needs using data driven decision making. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t do it,” she said.
Dr. Tait reminds us that ‘special education’ can also be applied in a standard classroom setting and that the correct implementation of evidence- based teaching strategies will also benefit ‘neurotypical’ students.
“Using a data-based decision-making model and proven evidence-based classroom techniques can help all students and could be an effective tool for inclusive teaching that doesn’t stretch resources too far.
“For example, educating students how to work as a team, how to communicate with an audience, how to manage their time, or even how to relax. Many of us take these classroom survival skills for granted, but for some children, they don’t come intuitively.
“Sometimes simple strategies like giving students advanced notice for certain exercises can also really help. For example, letting anxious students know one day in advance that they’ll be required to read something out loud in class can allow them to prepare, and practice at home. This would reduce the impact of unexpectedly being called upon to ‘perform’ in class.”
Dr. Kathleen Tait will appear on a panel at the Sydney Morning Herald School Summit, alongside representatives from the NSW Teachers Federation and Clairgate Public School. A debate led by SMH Editor, Lisa Davies, will cover topics such as student anxiety, classroom techniques, and catering for diverse learners.
Premier of NSW, The Hon. Gladys Berejiklian will headline the event alongside NSW Minister for Education & Early Childhood Learning, The Hon. Sarah Marshall.
Learn more and register your place.