27 March 2014

Inclusion Support and how best to use a teacher's aide in a mainstream classroom

Scenario: non-verbal autistic student included in a mainstream early childhood classroom.

In order to meet the needs of this student throughout the day, the school provides a full time one-on-one learning support assistant (LSA).

Student attends school and is generally happy. Relationship with LSA is developing nicely. Feedback to parents is initially positive, and then over time, it evolves into statements expressing concern that the student is "still not speaking", and still not independent in the classroom, as well as not progressing at the same rate as the other children. LSA is concerned that their time isn't being distributed fairly amongst all the students. Further investigation reveals that the strategy to teach the student to be independent has been to leave him to his own devices.

Observation says that he often wanders aimlessly around the room during unstructured activities. He enjoys the other children, and is making connections despite being non-verbal.

What's wrong with this scenario?



Why is the LSA there?
  1. The LSA was hired specifically to support one student. 
  2. Her time is not meant to be spent with the other children, and there should be no resentment about spending all of her time with the individual with identified special needs.
  3. The priority of the LSA should be to spend time with her inclusion support student. If she steps away from the student to allow independent play for example, her time should then be spent creating/working on additional supports for that student, such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication Systems) and schedules. 

"Unfair"
  1. It is not "unfair" that the LSA is not working with the other students as much as with her autistic student. She has been hired to provide support for one student who needs her in order to cope in the classroom.  Period.
  2. Saying it is unfair is like telling a wheelchair-bound student that it is not fair that the other students in the room don't have wheelchairs, and therefore the wheelchair needs to be shared amongst everyone throughout the day. Clearly a ridiculous idea!
  3. The LSA in this case, is the autistic student's wheelchair, and there should never be a requirement to share her. Without the LSA, (such as when he has to share her), the autistic student is without his "wheelchair" and cannot access learning opportunities.

"Not progressing quickly enough"
  1. Quickly enough according to whom? The pace of progress must be allowed to be determined by the child.  
  2. Adults involved need to learn to set aside their expectations and any inner discomfort and allow things to progress naturally at the pace of the child's abilities. 
  3. Forcing an agenda on the child will inevitably lead to conflict - either in the classroom, or between the teacher and parents, or even at home because while the child might try to comply at school to please everyone, the effort involved could mean exhaustion and meltdowns at the end of each day at home. 

 "Still not speaking"
  1. The child is autistic non-verbal. Why is there an expectation of them to speak at all, ever? It should never be the objective or expectation of a teacher/LSA to make an autistic child become verbal.
  2. Expecting this child to speak is outright discrimination. Part of their disability is lack of speech. You wouldn't be forcing a child with cerebral palsy to walk! This is the same. Let go of this expectation and figure out a way to adapt to the situation.
  3. Verbal speech is not the only way to communicate, and is certainly not always the best way to establish communication with someone who is autistic non-verbal. 
  4. Guaranteed, this student is at least as frustrated as the LSA when it comes to communication. For a start, their needs are not being clearly communicated and therefore also are not being met. If this student could talk, they would be doing it!
  5. Get creative and find a way to communicate with the child - one which doesn't require them to step into your paradigm of communication. Look at visual tools, sign language, ipad applications, to name a few. Think outside the box, research, embrace the challenge of connecting deeply with your student!

"Still not independent"

  1. Independence can only be achieved with scaffolding and a detailed educational strategy. 
  2. When does the teacher expect independence to occur? Who is setting the pace on this? See the above statements about "progressing quickly enough". 
  3. It is a common mistake to expect students to somehow innately know how to be independent. 
  4. LSAs are often removed from one-to-one time with students "in order to build independence". But if the student is not previously taught how to be independent, how are they supposed to succeed? 
  5. In these situations students achieve very little and often even nothing, and this is usually seen as a failing in the child. Very unreasonable!
  6. Removing support to create independence is never going to work. That's like someone being expected to learn to drive independently without an instructor present.
  7. The student may need several years of support before they can achieve full independence. Indeed full independence might never occur. This potential reality needs to be acceptable.