How a research programme for teachers made a big difference to pupils with autism
For those of us working in mainstream schools, the needs of pupils are not changing, they are growing. Autism is a good example of this challenge. We are better than ever before at diagnosing autism and understanding that pupils with autism need special provision. Numbers of pupils with autism requiring extra support and/or an EHCP are therefore increasing quickly. Put simply, the more we train teachers and SENDCos, the better they are at diagnosis, and the more pupils with a diagnosis of autism we have in our schools. And it’s not just teachers: parents are also increasingly savvy about recognising their children’s needs and asking for the help their children deserve.
So teachers increasingly want to know more about how best to support the diverse needs of a growing number of pupils with autism in mainstream classrooms. This has to be a good thing, right?… But we also know that meeting these pupils’ needs requires specialist knowledge, and when funds are tight, not everyone can be sent out on a course.
“There is a training gap and a knowledge gap across teachers who don’t seem to receive any or any ongoing CPD through things like ITT around autism practice and provision.”
Our Autism: Researching Practice programme set out to challenge this problem, by empowering pairs of teachers in 12 schools to develop a deep understanding of the needs of pupils with autism in their schools and to design interventions to change practice and improve pupil learning. Working with Dr Amelia Roberts from UCL Centre for Inclusive Education, and three SENDCos from mainstream schools with specialist autism units, participating teachers were supported to work their way through a research cycle which explored what worked for their pupils, families and teachers, in their own contexts.
Teachers began by exploring a literature review from the UCL Cognitive Neuroscience team, which summarised the most important recent
research on autism, a field which is in constant development. They were also supported to design their own tools to gather baseline data on a set of focus pupils and their teachers, including measures for wellbeing, engagement, and academic performance, and designing tools such as questionnaires, interviews, behaviour tracking, etc. Analysing this data against what they had found in the literature review helped them work collaboratively to design their own research questions, for example:
· What impact will making classrooms ‘autism friendly’ have on the relationships between staff and children with a diagnosis of autism?
· How do we get children with ASD to work independently in class?
Teachers then designed a change to practice that they would test in their own school, with the aim of making a difference not just for the focus pupils, but for all pupils with autism in the school. Common themes across the interventions included the use of visual and verbal prompts, relationship building (parents, staff and pupils), wellbeing, self-regulation, independence and sensory needs, and building staff understanding of autism. They would measure this impact using a similar set of data tools at the end of the project and act as critical friends to each other as the year progressed.
“The reason why the course was particularly interesting is because it’s not looking at ‘here is a pre-packaged intervention’ for autism and go and implement it, it was looking at getting teachers ….. to reflect on what change could they make to the provision for children with autism in their school and …. that had a lot more of a meaningful impact than ‘come and learn about a specific approach’.”
Teachers also had the opportunity to observe practice in the mainstream schools with specialist autism units, and to receive a coaching visit from one of the three SENDCos from these same schools. These visits aimed to build confidence and enable a deep understanding of the focus pupils’ needs.
By the end of the year, all participants reported that they had been able to observe some quite significant impact on focus pupils’ learning behaviours, in particular social skills and speech development, independent learning, and self-regulation. Pupils were seen to develop language, interact more positively, focus better during group activities, increase levels of imaginative play, identify their emotions, and use strategies to self-regulate.
“We hadn’t expected to find something that would have such a deep impact and thought that he would find it more difficult to access and learn the routines and structures. We never really recognised just how unhappy our target child might have been at school.”
“I feel as though I have a better understanding of [the pupil] and his needs. I now understand his capabilities, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. He is now able to spend time with me 1:1 where as this was a struggle at the start of the year and his LSA needed to be present at all times. [the pupil] is now comfortable to spend one on one time with me and engage in activities.”
Participants felt the project had helped raise awareness and understanding about the needs of pupils with autism, and supported staff in creating a shared vision for change.
“We felt this has helped staff to have more empathy with children and, therefore, consider how they can meet their needs better.”
Teachers said they now had the knowledge and skills to teach children with high-functioning and low functioning autism, helping them to develop their social skills, regulate their emotions and develop relationships with their classmates. They were particularly passionate about the value of the research approach taken on the programme:
“Collecting data both qualitative and quantitative has made us think very carefully about what answers we were trying to find to particular questions. By carrying out action research, we were actively finding solutions to evidence that was being collected from real situations.”
“… this project has shifted the perception of what research is and who can be responsible for gathering and synthesising the data to find solutions and answers…..research carried out in schools based on real life situations is just as important in trying to find solutions to overcoming barriers to learning.”
We believe this is a model for helping mainstream schools to manage an ever growing range of SEND needs, a model that empowers teachers and really makes a difference to pupil learning.
To find out more about the Autism: Researching Practice project, email firstname.lastname@example.org