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Special Education

Learning to listen: our new and inclusive approach to education

Why is Torrens growing its suite of education courses in autism, special needs and mental health? Because of increasing reports of exclusion and the need for specialist training and support for teachers, educators, parents and carers.

“The things that were hard at school for me were the teachers that I had. They wouldn’t listen to me. […] They would say ‘she’s just not trying, she’s lazy, she doesn’t care’.”

– Caitlin, now an integration mentor, describes her own childhood experience of being on the autism spectrum.

The last decade has seen a massive growth in the number of diagnoses of mental health issues, autism and other special conditions among children and young people. In Australia, it’s estimated that 1 in every 100 children now has autism, while almost a quarter of young people meet the criteria for mental ill health. Overall, the number of those in the Australian population with autism has almost doubled since 2009.

The Australian Medical Association describes an Australia where kids physical health is better than ever, but where developmental health is on the decline. The question that educators, carers, and parents particularly are faced with is how to respond to this situation, and do the right thing by our kids.
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The importance of inclusion in the face of growing demands

A worrying new trend has been emerging within schools. As the number of children with autism or special needs continue to climb, there are growing reports of their exclusion. Last year, a number of accounts of students barred from excursions and regularly suspended emerged amid growing research into this trend. Inadequate support and training coupled with complex demands on teachers and limited time means kids with special needs are sadly being sidelined.

Evidence suggests that failure to intervene in a child’s development early on can detrimentally affect an individual’s learning capacity, behavior, ability to regulate emotions and their risks for disease in later life. If we don’t respond to kid’s individual needs, we’re at risk of pushing them further into exclusion as they get older.

Society is getting better overall at diagnosing autism, mental health issues, and other special conditions. However, it seems it’s failing to provide an environment where those diagnosed can then go on to receive the education and support they need to thrive. Two separate Senate enquiries over the last two years concluded as much, calling for increased funding and training focused on the diverse, individual needs of children.

So, what would that training look like?

The latest research shows that the development of social and emotional competence is linked to academic learning. It’s essential that an inclusive, supportive environment is provided for kids experiencing special conditions or mental health issues, in order for them to excel. According to the Australian Medical Association, “[Education and intervention] programs must incorporate early identification of problems and have the capacity to adapt the setting to meet the needs of the individual child.”

So far, the practise of inclusion has been mostly limited to keeping kids with diagnosed conditions in regular classes, rather than attempting to individualise teaching and community approaches to fit them. If we’re going to help all children thrive emotionally, socially and academically, it’s critical to extend inclusion beyond that limited scope. Children need to feel valued for who they are, not excluded or even tolerated.


The ‘person first approach’ at Torren’s University, and how it’s turning inclusion upside-down.

Torrens University has developed a new approach to its courses addressing mental health, autism and special needs. In a national first, Torrens actually co-designed these courses with individuals who experience mental health, autism or learning differences. Instead of trying to ‘treat’ the individual or fit them into a broader system, this approach asks how the system can work around the individual.

The new approach, which they call the ‘person first’ approach, “shifts the focus from a passive acceptance from the person at the center of the issue to a more active role where their individual needs are actively considered.”

Whether you’re an educator, parent or health practitioner, the first person approach was created to help you respond individually to children and young people with special needs or mental ill health. Michael Grimley, Torrens’ Dean of Education, explains:

“It is essential for parents and teachers to have a deep empathetic understanding of the child’s condition if they are to support the young person with their condition, and it helps to have strategies for supporting the young person across different contexts. The ‘person first’ perspective is useful for this purpose. This perspective involves learning about a condition by engaging with the stories of those who have direct experience with it, and then considering how these experiences are similar and different from our own experiences.

Further, to improve the classroom experience of vulnerable young people it is essential that parents, carers, and teachers have common frames of reference to enable them to work together to improve school and learning experiences. The ‘person first’ approach provides a common set of language and experiences for people to explore, discuss, and understand.”


What ‘person first’ courses are on offer addressing mental health, autism and learning differences?

For those wanting to develop a more inclusive way of working with kids and young people, Torrens University has 2 Masters Degrees and 4 Graduate Certificates on offer, all of which utilise the person first approach.

The Master of Education (Special Education), and the MA of Education (Special Education Advanced) take a Design thinking approach to challenges faced by persons with a range of additional learning needs. Both courses lead the student through all three key streams of autism, special needs and mental health.

In addition to the Masters degrees, the following four graduate certificates also focus on problem-solving from a person first perspective. These courses are all designed to highlight the diversity of learning differences. The aim is to provide students the skills they need to develop inclusion practices and support individual learners.

For further information regarding the person first approach or enrollment in courses, please contact us!

Enrol today in a Special Education course at Torrens and be the change that you want to see in the world.

Find out about enrolment here!




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