Taking the mystery out of meeting the needs of diverse learners

January 9, 2018

In this combined article by the Ministry of Education and a resource teacher Learning and Behaviour (RTLB), the Ministry provides some background and context to the ASD and Learning guide on the Inclusive Education website. Christchurch-based Amanda Haywood, outlines the parts of the guide she has found most useful in her work with teachers.

Amanda Haywood

ADDRESSING ATTITUDES towards inclusion in schools is less likely to be about inclusion as a concept.

It’s more likely to be about addressing the fear of failing a student or fear of failing the other students in the class.

That’s what the Ministry of Education deduced from research we carried out in 2011 when we asked principals to identify the barriers to and motivators for being inclusive.

There’s no denying the challenges that face our teachers and schools in responding to the diversity of their communities. We need a continuum of supports and interventions where parents, students and teachers feel confident and well supported. The Inclusive Education website is just one of the supports on that continuum.

In this article we provide some context to the site, but we thought the greatest value for readers would be in asking a resource teacher, Learning and Behaviour (RTLB), to review the ASD and Learning guide on the site and point out some of the useful parts of the guide for teachers (and for parents and medical professionals to refer teachers to).


So here’s some quick context. Firstly it’s vital to stress that a website does not replace people, specialist advice, professional development, or resourcing. But we hope it can help take some of the mystery out of meeting the needs of diverse learners.

The website provides a window into what teachers and school leaders are doing that’s working. Around 26 how to ‘guides’ (these are guidance, not required guidelines) draw together practical, hand-picked ideas and strategies from New Zealand and around the world.

Teachers can access the online guides directly, or work through the strategies and suggestions in the guides with others. We’ve asked Amanda Haywood, an RTLB and specialist Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) teacher from Te Horanui, RTLB Cluster 36, to provide a brief summary of the parts of the ASD and Learning guide she has found most useful to support her in working with students with autism and their teachers.

Here is the link to the guide.

Useful strategies to explore in the guide

By Amanda Haywood

AS A PRACTIONER working with a diverse range of students with autism and their teachers, it’s important to have ready access to a variety of strategies and resources. The ASD and Learning guide on the Inclusive Education website identifies five key strategies or areas for assisting learners with autism in the school context, all with supporting resources and references to further readings and/or guides to strengthen understanding and build teacher capacity.

The first identified strategy is information about autism spectrum disorder. Within this section of the kit there are some excellent video clips viewing the world from the perspective of a person with autism, what it may feel like to experience sensory overload and an introduction to what it means to have autism. I have found this part of the resource particularly useful to share with classes where there is a student with autism, to give the students insight into how a student with autism may perceive the world around them. Building empathy and understanding in the peer group for students with autism is imperative. I have also used these clips when working with teachers to develop their understanding of autism. The clip about sensory overload is particularly useful when collaborating with teachers to problem solve mitigating the effects of working within a busy classroom.

The second strategy on identifying needs and strengths has been extremely valuable when working with students with autism that are transitioning from early childhood to primary school, or primary school to intermediate/secondary school. The emphasis on identifying student strengths and interests is key to building effective partnerships between the student and their teachers. The transition examples in the website guide are exemplary in supporting this strengths based approach. The one page template about a child transitioning to primary school has the student pictured in the centre, with brief comments in bubbles around a photograph of the student pertaining to indicators such as how the student communicates, what their interests are, things that keep the student calm, and how the student relates to others. I have found this one page summary about the student, based upon a strengths approach, a useful piece of documentation to allow me to get a holistic understanding of all the student’s capabilities.

Equally useful is the learner profile, examples of which are also found in the second strategy of the online guide. Creating learner profiles can be a very empowering experience for the student. Identifying student interests, how they learn and what helps them to learn, what makes it difficult for them to learn and their hopes and dreams gives the student a voice and also assists in allowing new teachers to ‘understand’ and thereby build a trusting and positive relationship with the student. Feedback from teachers is that the learner profiles have given them both the opportunities to engage in communication with the student about areas of interest that have assisted in building a positive teacher/student relationship, whilst also actively assisting the teacher to make the necessary adjustments to their classroom environment, or teaching that proactively addresses any behavioural triggers before they arise.

The third strategy in the guide is on supporting key areas of learning and wellbeing and is fundamental to the role of both an RTLB and an Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) specialist teacher. Developing social skills in students with autism is important. The hyperlinks to resources on developing social skills have served as a springboard for generating ideas to individualise and personalise strategies for students.

The final two strategies identified in the ASD and Learning guide relate to whole class strategies in the Year 1-6 and the Year 7-13 classrooms. Once again, there is a wealth of resources under each subsection, relating to presenting information, building confidence in the learner, developing organisation skills and supporting student collaboration. I have found the checklists a valuable resource for working with teachers to identify areas of need. Further resources within this section that I’ve used extensively with both students with autism and their teachers are the visual examples of presenting work (such as flow charts) and the use of assistive technology such as speech to text function to make literacy attainment accessible to all.

I would recommend that all professionals working with students with autism take the time to engage with this online tool to further build their own capacity to work successfully with a diverse range of students.

From dilemma of difference to designing from the edges

That brings the Ministry of Education to one of the points of tension we had to navigate when building the site – that of labelling disabilities by creating guides about eight different disabilities, including autism.  Disability labelling can reinforce difference and the belief that teachers need to be specially trained in “special education” to be inclusive.

A diagnosis or a label is certainly important to make sense of what we’re seeing and experiencing. We determined, if our website users were starting here, then we needed to meet that need. But not surprisingly, if you view all of the disability-specific related guides on the site, we’d estimate that a high proportion of the strategies across those guides are common across a range of disabilities.

As an illustration, we have eight educator booklets that feature in eight of the website guides, with quick summaries in the centrefold. We’ve taken the strategies from the centrefolds of the ASD, ADHD, Down syndrome and dyspraxia booklets. There are 13 strategies that are common irrespective of the disability, ranging from using visual tools, to specific routines and structures, and reference aides. Imagine the relief of teachers when they realise this. And the big question is, how many of them would benefit other students in the class?

Students don’t need their teachers to be experts in autism or ADHD or Down syndrome. They need them to be adaptive experts who are highly efficient and innovative at planning and flexibly delivering the curriculum in ways that work for everyone, and at making adaptations available for everyone to benefit from.

Let’s not over-simplify things though. That doesn’t mean teachers and school leaders don’t need specialist advice (sometimes they do), and it doesn’t mean to say that a website replaces this specialist advice.

What the website does do is encourage us to share our collective wisdom and help teachers to feel that they are not alone. There are some “awesome” teachers out there (as our kids would say) having significant impact on the learning of all children and young people. We’ve filmed some of them, talking about the strategies they use, demonstrating how their classes work (see our video).  We’ve filmed their students too talking about what works for them. Those teachers and their students require us to innovate for everyone.

We’d like to see leaders of learning using the website guides and videos to encourage insightful, inspiring and courageous learning conversations where teachers can learn from each other, their parents and students; where teachers are not afraid of failing their students, but have the courage and confidence to try, inquire and try again.

(If you know of teachers who are like this, let us know – through the website, we need to share their learnings with others.)

Amanda Haywood has a Masters in Specialist Teaching in Complex Education Needs. In her role as a resource teacher Learning and Behaviour, Amanda works alongside teachers and other professionals to develop their teacher capacity and understanding around working effectively and successfully with students with autism. Amanda taught for 20 years as either a primary classroom teacher, or as a Specialist ORS teacher, working with students with a diverse range of needs, including many with autism. She is also the joint coordinator of the SHINE team – a collective of ORS teachers working within many schools in the greater Christchurch area.

Educator booklet Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A Resource for Educators


ASD and Learning website guide



This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal Issue 1, 2018.



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