Musings on Special Education

As you may know, the program for government deal between Fianna Fail and the Greens brought into being "permanent" status for a number of the so-called "Pilot" schools. These are long running ABA school projects that were receiving funding from the Dept of Ed as schools, with an allocation of separate funding for running costs and supervision. The 14 successful schools are now to be considered "special schools" and their staff and pupils will enjoy the security of permanent recognition.

The remaining "applicant" schools still have to negotiate for permanent status and negotiations are ongoing so I will say no more about that.

Personally, my hope is that there will be a full service ABA special school in every county in Ireland. This model of accountable education has been repeatedly shown to improve the outcomes for every child that attends. Yes, more than half progress to mainstream education and that is fantastic. But even for the ones that do not; there is a net benefit in life skills and educational development that vastly improves their future outlook and the quality of life for their family.

ABA schools which run to this model utilise a system of data collection, reporting and lesson planning that addresses every aspect of a child's development. From receptive language, to toileting and grooming, lesson plans are drawn up and every minute of every school day is spent on each child's individual needs. Simple things like hand washing and tooth brushing are taught until mastered independently, thus reducing the burden on the parents to constantly supervise and manage their child's everyday needs. As we know from our public health service, hand washing is the number one way to prevent cross infection and common illnesses, such as the novo-virus which causes most tummy bugs, and the common cold.

Teaching good oral hygiene from an early age means the child will be saved the trauma of fillings and at worst extractions, which for many children with special needs means a general anaesthetic.

ABA schools are also demonstrably expert when it comes to teaching communication; receptive and expressive, because of the way they break down the task to suit the learner's needs. If a child isn't speaking by the time they enter the school, a communication system is implemented to allow them to express their needs appropriately while developing the foundations for speech.

Compare this to the large number of non verbal adults in residential institutions around the country, who cannot even tell us if they prefer coffee or tea.

In our recognised ABA schools a supervisor will observe and assess a child individually, using up to 25 different criteria broken into many increments. The first category is compliance and the effectiveness of rewards; in other words, what makes the child want to learn?

Once this assessment is produced, a supervisor and tutor can begin to attract the child into the learning environment and with their compliance start to help them learn.
After Compliance comes Visual performance, Receptive communication and then Imitation. One of the reasons that many autistic children fail to develop speech is the absence of the innate ability to imitate. Something that we see in typically developing babies before they are out of the crib, does not come easily to the autistic infant, perhaps because of the range of sensory distractions.

But by observing their interests and breaking down the task of physical imitation to suit the learner, and rewarding each positive step, an ABA tutor can teach a pupil to imitate independently. Believe me, I have seen this first hand and I have the Data, and the Daughter to prove it!

From there the child can begin to learn to communicate appropriately, whether by sign, Picture Exchange or speech and thereby reduce all of the inappropriate behaviours they were using to get all their needs met. Because although they lacked the basics of language, these kids would have been very effective communicators up to this point.

There is nothing that gets Mum's attention like turning on the tap and spraying the entire kitchen (Pay attention to me and make that great noise you make when I do something fun!)

Or leaving a poo in the middle of the living room (I needed the toilet!)

or smearing that poo all over the carpet (we need to spend more time together)
(with you cleaning up my poo and me watching)

or hitting, biting, scratching or slapping yourself or someone else, hard
(I need to get my own way, Now!)

These behaviours really affect the quality of life of the family of that child. They are often less prevalent in the controlled environment of the classroom so there may not be the same imperative to address them. But they can destroy home life. By putting in place an effective communication system these behaviours can be replaced, reduced and eventually eliminated.

When a program is being developed in an ABA setting; the learner is the basis for success. That is, if a task is analysed and the steps to teach it do not work, then the tutor and supervisor sit down and break it down or tailor it further until the child "gets it" and moves on to the next step. Every aspect of the program is accounted for in data collection and analysis, and the skill must be demonstrated to be mastered before moving on.

In the 6-1, state school's "qualified teacher" setting the lesson is taught, but not necessarily learned by all 6 pupils in the class. Now here is a key difference between special ed' and mainstream teaching:

If a mainstream teacher is inspected, they will be held accountable for a majority of their pupils achieving a minimum standard or grade. If they continually fail to teach the majority of their class, they will be removed from the post.

A teacher in a special ed' class* has no such responsibility. If any pupil in their class is found not to be progressing, it is assumed to be the fault of the child. That is; their "learning disability" will not allow them to progress.

Now! that is not to say that all special ed' teachers are "cruising" regardless of their pupil's ability to progress. Many, probably most will work as hard as they can to ensure that every pupil in their class is learning.

But there is no statuary obligation to ensure the child's development, and therefore there is no legislative back up to help them achieve this aim.

The Task Force for Autism 2001 recommended that children with higher learning needs be placed in classes of 4-1, "with 2 special needs assistants, thus giving an adult/child ratio of almost one to one" " such an arrangement would allow more time for 1:1 instruction and would greatly enhance the opportunity for social training" Ref: Task Force for Autism 2001 (Section 8.6.2)

Every state special ed teacher I have spoken to agrees with this. However, in the absence of legislation to ensure that children in State run Special Ed schools are progressing, the Department of Education failed to implement this finding.

That's right, the D.o.E.S have conveniently ignored their own Task Force.

*(Hammie has always been lucky with the special ed teachers we have come across. It is just in the last year we had planned absences and a lot of substitutions. Some of those subs were not in the job for the right reasons. Hence the musing)

I would really like to hear some feedback on these "musings" and I welcome you to post a reply or email to the address above.

It is based as usual on my personal bias and opinion and that of my Home Tutor who has been researching international attitudes to special ed'.