Jai Breitnauer

He waka eke noa – we are all in this together

When researching a good kura for our older son, we sought a school with genuine commitment to biculturalism and the environment, a diverse roll with ngā ākonga from a variety of backgrounds, and modern systems for encouraging positive behaviour.

When he was diagnosed with ASD, ADHD and anxiety aged six, we were surprised to find these commitments did not necessarily translate into an inclusive environment for a child with additional learning, behavioural or physical needs.

For us inclusivity is paramount to belonging. When a child has an additional need like ASD, they may feel disconnected to the world around them yet often want to be a part of it. ASD children are at greater risk of self-harm and suicide, driven by that feeling of not having a place. In a school environment, they need to have their similarities to their peers accentuated, not their differences.

Many children with additional needs thrive in the classroom environment when they have access to a passionate and well-resourced teacher aide, and I believe all classrooms should have a TA as standard practice. There will always be a small number of children who will need resource attached to them in name, but most children – with or without additional needs – would prosper with the generalised support of a TA without making one particular child stand out.

I believe that identifying the highest needs in the classroom and then employing the supportive practices for those needs across the whole student population would be empowering for all tamariki. We spend a lot of time focusing on enabling students with difference, when we could just apply a lens of difference to the rest of the class. My friend’s son, an ambulatory wheelchair user, was overjoyed when his school introduced wheelchair basketball.

Not only was he enabled to lead in a context where he previously needed an isolating level of support, but other children learned a new skill, a new perspective, and discovered muscles they were previously unaware of. My own son struggles with worksheets or timed activities to an extent that precludes him from taking part – but it poses the question: what value do these activities add? Is there an alternative approach that would raise up all students?

Finally, kindness and communication need to be the cornerstones of any inclusive approach. Encourage compliments circles among students, praise success within an individual’s framework so tamariki can see how it looks different for everybody, and don’t assume poor behaviour is wilful – focus on resolving the unmet need rather than the behaviour it led to.

He waka eke noa – we are all in this together: a child with difference is not a burden in this boat, just an opportunity to perfect the boat’s design for the comfort of all.

Jai Breitnauer is an Auckland writer and editor with two boys, one of whom has additional needs.

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