Celebrating and supporting neurodiversity

There is a lot of recent media attention on the failings of Australia’s education system, which is struggling to cope with the soaring number of children with disabilities.

There are now almost 1 million Australian school students classified as having a disability and needing some sort of adjustment to learn – this represents more than 24 per cent of total enrolments and a 40 per cent increase since 2017. Across Australia, a staggering one in four students are identified as having a disability of some kind.

This includes students with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD); attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD); dyslexia and other learning and developmental differences such as dysgraphia and dyscalculia, which affect reading, writing, and math skills, respectively; speech and language disorders, which can impact communication and learning, and other neurodevelopmental disorders such as developmental coordination disorder (DCD) and sensory processing disorders.

Teachers across Australia are burnt-out and report that the demand to manage children with disabilities has become overwhelming. Resources are stretched thin, and teachers feel “everyone is getting a raw deal”.

Many parents are at breaking point as they try to navigate a school system for their child that was designed for a different reality and they deal with the fallout from suspensions and exclusions that are being handed out by schools to children with disabilities at record levels.

Children as young as five with disabilities are among the many thousands of primary school students receiving suspensions each year, while many others are only permitted to attend school part-time.

Autism and ADHD rates among children in schools are at record highs. In classrooms today, an estimated 4 per cent of seven- to 14-year-olds have a primary diagnosis of autism, while between 6 and 10 per cent of children have ADHD. ADHD is indeed one of the most commonly diagnosed neurodiverse conditions in Australian schools, including at Shearwater. This is especially seen in the high number of students who struggle to self-regulate, focus, engage and concentrate for longer periods of time.

Our School is committed to creating an inclusive environment where all students, regardless of their needs, can learn and grow. This means we sometimes have students with different learning and behavioural needs. We have strategies and support systems in place to help all students manage their behaviours, learn self-regulation strategies and succeed in the classroom.

What is Shearwater currently doing to support our neurodiverse students?

Inclusive classroom culture: We promote a classroom environment that values diversity and inclusion, encouraging all students to respect and support one another.

Our teachers design inclusive and differentiated curriculum and instruction that is accessible to all students, providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression. It highlights strength-based approaches, focusing on the strengths and interests of neurodiverse students to enhance engagement and motivation.

Individualised Education Plans (IEPs): We create customised plans to meet the specific needs of neurodiverse students, ensuring they receive the appropriate accommodations and support.

Special education services: We employ dedicated special education teachers and learning support assistants to work collaboratively with our wellbeing team to provide tailored instruction and interventions. This includes literacy supports with MiniLit and MultiLit and numeracy interventions, including Pebble Maths.

Inclusive classroom environments: Our teachers have created inclusive classrooms where students, who may be sensitive to noise, light, or other sensory inputs can access quiet sensory-friendly spaces and accommodations to help self-regulate and learn alongside their peers, promoting social integration and understanding. This includes:

  • Differentiated instruction: tailored teaching methods and materials to accommodate different learning styles and abilities.
  • Visual aids: use of visual schedules, charts, and diagrams to support understanding and organisation.
  • Clear and consistent routines: established predictable classroom routines to provide structure and reduce anxiety.
  • Break tasks into smaller steps: simplified complex tasks by breaking them into manageable steps with clear instructions.
  • Flexible seating: offering various seating options, such as standing desks, wobble stools, or quiet corners, to meet different sensory needs and minimise distraction.
  • Positive reinforcement: provides immediate and specific praise or rewards for positive behaviour and accomplishments.
  • Chunking and pacing: presents information in small chunks and allow extra time for processing and completing tasks.
  • Peer support: implements peer buddy systems or group work to promote social interaction and collaborative learning.
  • Berry Street’s Sensory and Brain breaks: allows short breaks for sensory activities or movement to help students self-regulate and maintain focus.

Access to therapies and resources: Our School offers access to sand play therapy, social skills and movement groups, counselling and other resources to support the development and wellbeing of our neurodiverse students. We work alongside and support outside therapies and professional services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, psychologists and counsellors.

Parental involvement and communication: We foster strong partnerships with parents and caregivers to ensure consistency and support across home and school environments. We encourage regular communication with parents and involve them in decision-making processes to ensure the best outcomes for their children. This includes providing resources and support for them to reinforce learning at home.

Professional development for staff: We offer ongoing training for teachers and staff to better understand and support students with learning and behavioural needs. This includes cultural competency, differentiation, positive behaviour management, neurodiversity and sensory understanding.

Assistive technology: When students enter High School, we utilise tools and technology to aid learning and communication, such as text-to-speech software and specialised apps such as Speechify.

Some low-tech strategies used in Primary School include:

  • Different coloured paper backgrounds, large font, ear defenders, C-Pens, audio players and recorders including audiobooks. Timers including wristwatches, hourglass timers (If kids have a hard time transitioning from task to task, timers can help them mentally prepare to make the switch. Timers can be used as visual aids to show how much time is left to complete an activity).
  • Reading guides are helpful tools for kids who have trouble with visual tracking or who need help staying focused on the page. These plastic strips highlight one line of text while blocking out surrounding words that might be distracting. The strip is also easy to move down the page as kids read.
  • Seat cushions, help with sensory processing and gives enough movement and stimulation to help maximise their focus without having to get up and walk around. A standing desk, slanted cushion, or balance ball chair are other helpful options.
  • FM listening systems – Frequency modulation (FM) systems can reduce background noise in the classroom and amplify what the teacher says. This can help with auditory processing as well as with focus. The teacher wears a microphone that broadcasts either to speakers around the room or to a personal receiver worn by the student. FM systems are also used to help kids with hearing impairment, autism spectrum disorder, and language processing challenges.
  • Calculators. If a child is having trouble with maths, a calculator may help. There are even large-display calculators and talking calculators. A talking calculator has built-in speech output to read the numbers, symbols, and operation keys aloud. This can help kids confirm that they pressed the correct keys.
  • Writing supports try using plastic pencil grips or a slant board. Graphic organisers can be low-tech. There are many different designs you can print out that can help kids organise thoughts for a writing assignment. Enlarged paper/worksheets with more space between questions is a low-tech way to help kids show their thinking.

Behavioural Support Plans: As part of the wellbeing team, we implement strategies and interventions to address behavioural challenges and promote positive behaviour. We work closely with all stakeholders in support of the child’s learning and engagement.

Peer Support programs: We offer programs which create opportunities that teach social skills explicitly to help neurodiverse students to build friendships, navigate social interactions more effectively and receive support from their peers. These include Social Savvy, chess groups, Library games, D&D and the Farm (in High School).

Regular progress monitoring and professional collaboration: The wellbeing team with teachers, specialists, learning support and students continuously assess and adjust support plans and share strategies to ensure students are making progress and achieving their goals.

Build independence: We encourage self-advocacy and increase opportunities for students to work independently, helping them develop self-confidence, problem-solving skills and help students develop skills so they can communicate their needs and preferences effectively.

Promote empathy: We are introducing teaching and learning modules for middle school (Years 5 to 8) on diversity and inclusivity. It is important for us to role model and teach all students about empathy, understanding, and respect for differences. These values help create a positive and supportive community while promoting understanding and collaboration.

What can parents do to support Shearwater and their neurodiverse child at School?

By fostering a collaborative and supportive relationship with the school, parents can play a vital role in enhancing their child’s educational experience:

Provide comprehensive background information: Share detailed information about your child’s diagnoses, strengths, challenges, and any successful strategies used at home.

Maintain open communication: Establish regular communication channels with teachers to discuss your child’s progress, behaviour and any concerns that arise. This can be through emails, phone calls, or scheduled meetings.

Reinforce learning at home: Work on academic and social skills at home by using materials and strategies provided by the School. Consistent practice can help reinforce what your child is learning at School. Ensure your child is reading aloud to you for 10 minutes each day.

Follow routine and structure: Implement similar routines and structures at home that are used at School to provide consistency, which can be very beneficial for neurodiverse children.

Encourage self-advocacy: Teach your child to understand their own needs and how to communicate them effectively. This can help them become more independent and confident in seeking help when needed.

Participate in IEP plan meetings: Actively participate in developing and reviewing your child’s Individualised Education Plan to ensure that the accommodations and support strategies are appropriate and effective.

Provide positive reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviours and achievements, both academic and social. Celebrate successes to build your child’s confidence and motivation.

Collaborate on behaviour management strategies: Work with teachers to develop consistent behaviour management strategies that can be applied both at home and school, ensuring a cohesive approach to addressing behavioural challenges.

Attend training and workshops: Participate in workshops, training sessions, or support groups offered by the School or community to better understand your child’s needs and effective support strategies.

Monitor and support mental health: Pay attention to your child’s emotional wellbeing and seek additional support from school counsellors or external professionals if necessary. Emotional health is crucial for overall development and learning.

Bhavni Stewart
Learning Support Coordinator