Schools for all

The release of the report of the Expert Panel on Students with Complex Needs and Challenging Behaviour last year highlighted how much work is still needed to make sure our schools are great places for all students. One parent’s story shows the role we all have to play.

My daughter would be starting kindergarten soon. I was standing at a 'meet and greet' session for new kindy parents when another mother told me that her son was pre-verbal. I'm ashamed to admit it, but my heart sank. At that moment, all this news meant to me was that there would be less of that classroom's most precious resource - the teacher's attention - for my child. Isn’t a mother's first move to think of her own child? As, undoubtedly, this other mother was doing in choosing this classroom for Oliver#. I mused on what the advantages might be for him and made an effort to accept it.

I have since discovered that I was wrong. My reaction, however common, was based in ignorance.

It turns out that there is good evidence that Oliver’s presence is likely to have a positive, rather than negative, influence on my daughter. Research shows that including kids with complex needs in mainstream classes has no negative impact on the academic progress of their classmates. In addition, if the school and classroom is truly inclusive, all students are provided new academic learning opportunities and experiences, and communication and language development is enhanced.

The social and personal impacts are also consistently positive and widespread. All members of the class develop greater acceptance and understanding of human diversity, are more flexible and adaptable, have better interpersonal skills and higher self-esteem.

When I put aside my preoccupation with my own child I discovered that the results from over forty years of research are overwhelming: that, while every child is different and the choice is individual, most children with additional needs do better academically and socially in truly inclusive settings, in mainstream classes, full time.

As I read, I began to understand that I hadn’t just been wrong, I’d been looking at the whole thing upside down.

I grew up in Canberra in the 70s and 80s and, though some kids found school easier than others, everyone in my primary school and high school could read and write and talk and walk. So I missed out. I grew up with 'difference' being, well, different – something catered for in 'other' places.

This segregated experience implied that kids with ‘different’ needs fell into a different realm, unable to be part of mainstream society. No wonder my thinking on this was upside down. In my mind there was something 'wrong' with this other child and I would prefer him to be in what I then perceived to be a more ‘suitable placement’, not in my daughter's class. Put on the page it sounds terrible but, sadly, this 'deficit' model – where an impairment is seen as inherently negative and should be ameliorated or cured wherever possible – underlies the way difference tends to be viewed.

By contrast, a social model understanding of disability recognises that a person who experiences disability is whole and unbroken, but is disabled by the unaccommodating ‘deficit’ views, practices and structures of ‘society’. I had to read this several times. Then I realised that when I read ‘society’, I meant ‘me’. You see, the problem wasn’t Oliver. It was me.

I was asking the wrong question, wondering if Oliver would get in the way of my daughter’s learning, rather than whether my attitude was already getting in the way of his. Research shows that families frequently experience stigmatisation and a host of additional barriers when they seek to have their children included and the UN’s report on the State of the World’s Children identified attitudes (like mine!) as a major barrier to inclusion.

Our world is made up of all sorts of people with all sort of talents, challenges, weaknesses and skills. Why would I expect my daughter’s class to be any different?

She wasn’t just at school to learn to read and subtract, but to learn about the world around her – a technicolour world of diversity - its history, geography and peoples. I want her to learn to be a good citizen, to respect and care for others and not to just tolerate differences but to see value and friendships in each individual, regardless of their abilities.

And, it seems to be working. If I happen to ask her about some point of difference or ‘unusual’ behaviour, she simply shrugs and says “that’s just what Oliver likes” in much the same way she might discuss a classmate’s preference for ham rather than cheese sandwiches. In addition, she loves the new ten minute ‘mindfulness’ activities at the beginning of each day which help her and Oliver, and all of their classmates, settle and focus.

Not only does Oliver have an unshakable right to be there and to be included, because he is as whole and as important as my child, but his inclusion is a wonderful thing. And it may mean that ‘deficit’ thinking doesn’t underlie my daughter’s reaction when, years from now, she herself has a child in kindergarten.

* Editor’s note: “Schools For All Children and Young People” is the title of the report of the Expert Panel on Students with Complex Needs and Challenging Behaviour. Find the report via In the next issue of ParentACTion we will look at what the report says about creating truly inclusive settings, how our schools fall short of providing this for all students, and Council’s response to the findings.

# names have been changed

 This article appeared in ParentACTion, Term 1, 2016. See other past editions of our quarterly magazine.