Calming influence


15 March 2021

Eight years ago, when Emma Bruce-Grima was an early career teacher, she had no idea what an ‘SSP’ (School for Specific Purposes) was, despite both her parents being educators.

“There was no mention of SSPs in my university training or how to deal with students with complex disability. I didn’t know what an SSP was until I turned up to work in one,” says the Western Sydney teacher. And she’s still at that same SSP – Holroyd School – now as a relieving assistant principal. She holds a bachelor

of performance and a master’s in secondary teaching in drama and a master's in special education.

Holroyd School has more than 100 staff (thanks to supplementary funding), and about 180 students split into 29 classes. It caters for K-12 learners with moderate-to-severe intellectual disabilities, and many attendees have multiple, including physical, disabilities.

Wins of the day

Bruce-Grima recalls her first class of five boys aged 11, who were displaying challenging behaviours. After a particularly difficult day, she considered leaving special education.

“The next day, I was heating lunch for one of my students who was nonverbal. He was trying to get my attention, but I had my back to him and didn’t realise.

And then, I heard: ‘Emmm-mmma’. My name was his first word. I’ve got a few stories like that – little wins.”

Holroyd uses a program in which teachers observe student behaviour to understand their sensory needs and help them manage their responses. For example, a student might have difficulty concentrating because of a fan whirring and clicking. And that might lead to them running around the classroom.

“If you don’t know about their sensitivity to particular noises, you won’t be able to help the student get into a zone to engage with learning. It looks like a challenging behaviour, but it’s actually a need that’s not being met or communicated. Unless you understand their behaviour, the student will go past the point of being able to listen and be reasoned with,” says Bruce-Grima.

In 2020, Holroyd and other SSPs secured supplementary funding. The school used part of it to place a second teacher assistant in each of its classrooms.

Extra staff help teachers manage classroom issues and allow them the time and the resources to put in place proactive strategies, says Bruce-Grima. Anecdotally, workplace injuries are down, too.

“If you’ve got a student who needs one-on-one time to learn an augmented communication strategy, but there’s another a student who has complex health needs and a third who presents with challenging behaviours, things can get difficult. Without the extra staff member, the first student likely won’t get the attention they need to learn the communication strategy.”

In some classes, the extra pairs of hands have supported a program to improve the mobility of students with physical disabilities. Two people support each student working on their mobility and this allows the third to work with others.

Bruce-Grima says that lifting the staff-student ratio further would open the door to more opportunities for collegial support, co-teaching and collaboration.

“It’s a very specialised field. We’ve had a high turnover of our most experienced teachers and while we’ve got some wonderful new beginning teachers, the increased staffing ratio would go a long way to providing important development opportunities for these teachers.”

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Autumn 2021