We are all in this waka together

Janice Jones says the most important thing about being a truly inclusive school, in which every child thrives, is that the whole school is in the waka together.

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NZEI. Karori West Normal School deputy principal Janice Jones in her office.
Photo by Mark Coote

At fully inclusive schools, all students are welcome and are able to take part in all aspects of school life. Diversity is respected and upheld. Inclusive schools believe all students are confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners and work towards this within the New Zealand Curriculum. Students’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed and their learning needs are addressed.”

Janice Jones says the most important thing about being a truly inclusive school, in which every child thrives, is that the whole school is in the waka together.

Jones is SENCO and deputy principal at Karori West Normal School, Te Kura o Waipahihi in Wellington and says inclusiveness is enshrined in law and in our New Zealand curricula, but it should also be reflected in an inclusive and kind society.

“All children, including those with learning needs, have a place as adults in our society.  People need not to be frightened of difference. Don’t we want a society where everyone is visible, present and participating?

“Everybody wins when we have an inclusive and kind society. It’s about what we want our society to look like.”

The law and human rights

When Jones presented at the NZEI/Ministry of Education curricula hui in June this year (see link here) she said that inclusion was central to the New Zealand curricula. Its principle of inclusion states: The curriculum is non-sexist, non-racist, and non-discriminatory: it ensures that students’ indentities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed and that their learning needs are addressed.

The Education Act requires that all children be welcomed at their local school and Jones says a community that is truly inclusive benefits everyone.

The law reflects this, but there must be goodwill and resourcing to back it up.

At the hui, Jones also outlined the human rights issues underpinning education including domestically –  Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the New Zealand Disability Strategy (links to this on website, maybe a pointer at bottom of page saying see website for Janice Jones’ talk at the hui) ) and internationally, The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities to which NZ is a signatory. Article 24 states that:  Persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;

She asked if  the Ministry of Education in New Zealand was really fulfilling our binding obligation to the UN convention.

“Sometimes I think teachers can feel the pressure on them alone to make a child ‘learn and behave’. We don’t buy that notion for one minute. It is all about what support we can wrap around the teacher and the child so that we can see the child’s strengths and develop the child’s potential – and always, always with love and good will – I cannot stress that enough.”

Practice at Karori West

Jones says Karori West Normal School does everything it can to embrace and reflect these principles.

“Our first principles are – the child and their family have a sense of belonging to our school, and that we are in partnership with them.”

And for teachers, it is important that they never feel alone, with a child with learning needs, or any child for that matter. It’s all about developing relationships, being solution-focused.

She gives the example of transitioning a child on the autism spectrum to the school.

“His new teacher has taught his brother, so she already has a relationship with the family. She doesn’t feel that she has a lot of experience with children on the spectrum, but she knows that this is not a problem because it is not just her, it is all of us, with our collective wisdom, supporting his transition. We have had two teacher aides in the classroom getting to know him on his visits.

“Sometimes I think teachers can feel the pressure to make a child ‘learn and behave’. We don’t buy that notion for one minute. It is all about what support we can wrap around the teacher and the child so that we can see the child’s strengths and develop the child’s potential – and always, always with love and good will – I cannot stress that enough.”

To be truly inclusive means being culturally responsive, she says. The school have kaumatua who are actively involved in the life of the school, and te reo Māori me ona tikanga are woven through the school day, in all classrooms.

Jones says the school favours a strengths-based, holistic approach to children with learning needs.

“We often use samples of work and photos of the child in the playground and of their learning. We focus on what they are good at.’’

The school also uses a lot of social stories.

“This is about learning pro-social skills, by having them modelled and by practising them.”

She says that the fastest difference that the school can make in this wraparound approach is with teacher aides.

“At our school, we don’t ask, ‘What is this child funded for?’ we ask: ‘What does this child need?’  

“Teacher aides make the fastest difference in a classroom. She says they support children to be present in their classrooms, to participate in the programme, to learn and to feel that vital sense of belonging with their classmates.

Teacher aides can spot early signs of distress or anxiety and can prevent situations escalating.”

Getting alongside

Help from outside specialists is vital in getting the right support and expertise for children with learning needs and for the educators’ own learning.

“Every single RTLB, SLT, Ed Psych, OT, PT, moderate needs therapist, special needs advisor, early intervention teacher…who has walked through our doors has enhanced our practice.”

However, Jones, like many other SENCOs and senior school leaders in New Zealand says that they have to wait too long for help and that early intervention is vital.

Jones told the hui: “We need more professionals, in every area. We have a new speech language therapist beginning work with us – she will run Language Learning Intervention workshops at our school with teachers and parents. Three children were referred, on turning five, from Early Intervention to the school-based communication service,  assessed six months later by a very apologetic SLT, and only now are they receiving the support of this very good programme. The children are six years three months old. If you need an Educational Psychologist for a student in crisis (and often it’s urgent) – you just have to manage, doing your ‘10 best things’…for up to six months. Every school in this room will have similar stories.”

The Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins recently announced that the cap had been lifted on the public service, so the hope is that more itinerant MOE specialists will now be employed.

And Jones says that there’s another thing that would help.

Our message to the Ministry of Education is consistent, insistent and unequivocal: the formalisation and resourcing of the SENCO role in every school. This is a role that works for inclusion, no question.”

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