xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: The Perils of Pauline

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Perils of Pauline



Pauline Hanson found herself in more trouble than Brick Bradford recently when she said that autistic children should be removed from mainstream classes. Dear Reader, if you do not know that Brick Bradford was a space age comic book hero of the 1940s, then you probably are not old enough to know that The Perils of Pauline refers to a movie heroine of the 1930s, which was even before my time. Check it out on Google.

In the meantime, back to the perils of Ms Hanson. I do not often agree with the leader of the One Nation Party, however, on this occasion, her crudely put comments were not entirely off the mark. Unfortunately, Ms Hanson has such a poor grasp of English communication skills that, if she was an asylum-seeking refugee, Peter ‘Lock ‘em All Up’ Dutton” would immediately deport her. She did not express herself very well, but she raised a very interesting point.

Pauline Hanson is a populist and as such she does go out among the people to see what is annoying them. Her comments about excluding autistic children from the mainstream obviously stemmed from conversations she has had with parents whose children are in classes where some autistic children do cause distractions and do interrupt the learning programme of other children.

What needs to be said is that Autism is a broad spectrum disorder. I have observed autistic children who differed only slightly from the mainstream. I have also been in a pre-primary classroom where I observed a five year old autistic boy who was mute. His only form of communication was to pull the hair of his classmates and to throw his pencils, books and sometimes his desk, across the room. This was generally brought on by a low level of frustration to the sounds and activities of his classroom environment. These were the common sounds and activities of any mainstream class.

On these occasions, his teacher and his full-time aide quickly removed him from the class and placed him in an enclosed ‘cubby house’ at the back of the room. Here, in tranquil seclusion, his aide would read him stories and help him happily colour in and play with blocks and other objects. When he had calmed down, he resumed his place in the classroom where he worked on his own individual education programme. At recess and lunch times he sometimes played in the yard with his classmates, but usually he only played with his aide or class teacher.

As a practice supervisor for a Perth university, I visited this classroom on five occasions, observing and mentoring a student teacher who had been placed in the class for a term. I had deep admiration for the class teacher, her aide and the student teacher, for the caring way that they tried to help and assist this boy. I also marvelled at the way the children adapted to, and accepted, the sometimes emotionally charged and tense education environment they were in.

One thing Pauline Hanson, the class teacher and I all agree on is that this boy be quickly removed when he is frustrated and causing a huge distraction in the classroom. Any child who is disrupting the learning programme, for whatever reason, must be removed from that environment so that the other 25 children may continue their learning journey. They have some rights to an education, too!

I started teaching in the late 1950s. At that time children with significant learning difficulties, generally caused by intellectual, physical, psychological or emotional problems, were usually lumped together in a Special Class. This class was usually referred to by other children, and some teachers and headmasters, as “The Ducks' Class”. Children with major learning needs were usually placed in separate Special Education Centres.

In the 1980s, education departments, for whatever reason, decided to include children with special needs in mainstream classes. Initially, they  did not always provide the poor old classroom teacher with any adequate resources, human or material, to provide the appropriate learning opportunities that were required.

It could be argued that children with special needs were inserted in to main stream classes because it was quite noble and humane to have a policy of inclusion for all. On the other hand, it may have been seen as the cheaper option!

Over the years, education departments have been dragged, kicking and screaming by teachers, their unions and principals’ associations, into providing teacher aides and other resources to the poor old overworked, under resourced, classroom teachers.

When I was teaching at Mt Lawley Primary School in 1971 I became a specialist science teacher, teaching science to all grades. At the time, special needs children at Mt Lawley were put into a Ducks' Class. There were about ten children in it, varying in age from 8 to 12.  (How I became a specialist science teacher in a primary school is another long story which you can read about in, “Gough Whitlam And How He Led Me To The Principalship”, written in September, 2012. The link is: -

One day, the kindly teacher who taught this special class asked if I could take her children for science. This would have given her some respite, which we later called DOTT... Duties Other Than Teaching...which was basically the reason why people like me were taking on specialised primary teaching roles. It was the policy of the newly elected Tonkin Labor government to provide supernumerary teachers to provide DOTT to primary teachers.

At first, I was quite reluctant to take on this teacher's special needs children because my science lessons were child centred, activity based, problem solving sessions which involved a lot of manipulating, measuring and recording. I did not think her children would be up to it and, in fact, I feared that they could quite possibly injure themselves or others.

However, I knew that she had a point, so I agreed to take her children in with my very best Year 7 class. The year seven children were given a few pointers in peer tutoring and then buddied up with a special needs child. My lessons generally consisted of five different activities around the room, with a group of five or six children working at each activity. Each week the group would move on to a new activity. It was a five-week programme developing science concepts and skills of inquiry. I put a few of the special needs children into each of these activity groups.

Well, it was just terrific. Not only did these intellectually deprived, physically and emotionally challenged children participate with enthusiasm and delight in the activities, but the year seven students, for the first time in their school days, became aware that these much maligned, indeed shunned, members of The Ducks' Class, were actually human beings who had feelings, who could express delight, wonder and appreciation at the interesting experiences in which they were all   sharing.

In my subsequent movements around the playground on Yard Duty , I noticed that some of the year sevens were now including some of their ducks’ class science buddies in their play activities.

I felt gratified by the whole experience and realised that including these children with special needs had improved their social skills. Perhaps, more importantly, it had also had a socially beneficial impact on the years sevens. 

So, there are varying levels of educational need and Pauline Hanson does have a point. Some children, with severe learning disabilities do cause serious disruptions to the learning programme of whole classes of children. In reality, their needs are not being met, neither are the needs of the rest of the class. For at least part of each day they need to be placed in intensive specialist care with expert teachers, nurse, doctors and suitable other resources.

Of course, Ms Hanson’s all-encompassing comments for exclusion caused an avalanche of comment. Some from some parents of autistic children as well as many others in the community who favour the inclusion of Special Needs children in mainstream education. To balance that view, there were some teachers and administrators who agreed that, on some occasions, it was indeed important to isolate any child, not only those with severe autism, who were being disruptive.

However, what disturbed me was that some education academics went so far as to say that every classroom teacher should be able to teach any child with Special Needs.Dr Kate de Bruin, Education Faculty at Monash University and Dr Ilektra Spandagou, School of Education, Sydney University, quickly produced a paper stating that all classroom teachers can teach any child with special needs.

Really?

Their paper states “The Standards make clear that all classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disability and/or additional needs. To be accredited, university teacher education courses must also cover four key focus areas that directly relate to students with disability: (i) differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities, (ii) supporting learning of students with disability, (iii) supporting student participation and engagement, and (iv) managing challenging behaviour.
Every graduating teacher must provide evidence that they meet each Standard to achieve registration to teach. To maintain their annual registration, existing teachers must provide evidence that they have engaged in professional learning relating to the Standards.
Clearly, there is a framework to ensure that registered classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disabilities and/or additional needs, and for universities to prepare their graduates to do so. The benefits are seen in numerous schools and classrooms across the country, but there is scope for both teacher preparation programs and schools to embrace inclusive teaching practices.”

I often wonder how many years some of these researchers actually spent teaching in classrooms of 25 or 30, which included one or more children with very special needs, requiring constant attention from a full-time carer (if one is available) and the teacher.

I would hope that every classroom teacher would have the good training, and the common sense, to know when to seek specialist help for a child in need of specialised care and attention. Clearly, there are children with special needs and children with very, very special needs.

To say that all teachers are equipped to teach all children with special needs is a breathtaking generalisation worthy of a Pauline Hanson. It is unreasonable and as absurd as saying all doctors are equipped to treat all sick people, no matter whether they have a cut finger, bronchitis, broken ankle, breast cancer, lung cancer, kidney failure, pulmonary thrombosis or tumours on the brain.

The equal treatment of unequals is the greatest form of discrimination. Everyone should be treated according to their specific needs. I have taught children in mainstream classes who were intellectually disabled and physically disabled. I noted the positive effect that inclusion had on those children and on their classmates. I have also observed classroom teachers who struggled heroically with autistic and ADHD children who constantly disrupted lessons and needed to be excluded.

The excluded child must be accompanied by a trained adult. As a school principal, on several occasions, I was summoned to a classroom by a harried teacher because a child was obstinately aggressive and defiant or had physically assaulted her or another child. 

I used to remove the disruptive child and just sit quietly with them on the verandah. After five or ten minutes of silence, I would try to start up a conversation. "Would you like to get a drink of water?" or some other non-threatening, unrelated comment.

After some more general conversation, I would then ask the child if they knew why I had removed them from the room. They always answered truthfully. When I asked them how they felt about their behaviour, they would say it was not right. I would ask them if they would try to improve their behaviour. Then, I would ask them if they wanted to go back to their desk. When they said that they did, I would then ask, "What are you going to say to Mrs Brown when you go back inside.

"Sorry", was always the reply.

These children had very low levels of frustration and were a constant source of anxiety for their teachers, who all worked very hard to include them in the mainstream. However, many of the more disruptive students would have been better off working on their individual education programmes in smaller, quieter groups, with very specialised teachers for heavy duty subjects such as maths and language. They could be included in the mainstream for more passive subjects and for Phys. Ed., recess and lunch breaks. After all, play is an important and fundamental learning experience.

The dynamic nature of the larger mainstream classes clearly does not meet the special needs of these easily frustrated children. No doubt some educational researchers will produce a great amount of research findings to contradict my thoughts, which are based on many years of practical experiences.

Some children, with severe learning disabilities need to be placed in intensive specialist care with expert teachers, nurses, doctors and suitable other resources. There should always be opportunities for even these severely disabled children to participate and socialise with the mainstream at other times of the day.

On the other hand, given appropriate human and material resources, many children with special learning needs can be accommodated in mainstream classes, with benefits to all concerned.

The BIG question is the provision of appropriate resources to cater for the special needs child, his or her teacher and the needs of the other 25 children in the class. It is the class teachers’ needs that are so often overlooked.

That question is being addressed, but I am sure many stressed out teachers would argue that much more must be done. I think parents also need to be realistic in their expectations of having a special needs child placed in a mainstream class. I have known parents who placed their child in a mainstream class, firmly believing that they would produce mainstream outcomes. That rarely happens.

I wonder, also, how many of those education researchers who boldly state that all classroom teachers can successfully teach all special needs children will insist on being treated by a GP when diagnosed with a health condition requiring the expertise of a medical specialist?

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