29 Apr 2021

Call to train teachers in neuro-science

From Nine To Noon, 9:09 am on 29 April 2021

A group of North Island principals say teachers need to be trained in the neuro-science behind learning and behavioural difficulties to stop disruption in the classroom and cut the numbers of children being suspended or excluded from school.

The Mana Primary Principals' Association - made up of 30 schools - says there's not enough support for children with additional needs and the way teacher aides are funded needs a massive overhaul.

They say it's time to ditch the current funding model with its contestable funds and limited hours and make it simple: centrally fund teacher aides - just as teachers are.

The Association also says having teachers and principals trained in trauma-informed practice and the neuro-science associated with learning and challenging behaviour would help reduce the incidents that often end with kids being removed from school.

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Photo: RNZ/ Dan Cook

Bryce Coleman, Paremata School principal and president of the Mana Primary Principals' Association, says he’s had plenty of experience making applications to the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) and that funding often falls down.

“The criteria for ORS in particular is very difficult for us to access. Children are not reaching the criteria.”

Coleman says the administrative process is difficult and the funding seems elusive.

“There’s nine criteria that were set back in the late 90s. They haven’t changed since then and I understand they’re up for review. However, we’ve got generations of children that are coming in that are different to those criteria and we’re not able to access the funding.

“They’ve got different needs, and that’s where I think the review needs to be done. The ministry has got to take responsibility for the changing needs that schools have.”

Coleman says they’re finding that a lot of children they’re seeing aren’t ready to start school.

“They’re coming in at five and some children are ready to settle into the routine of school and some children are not. There’s an inability for children to hold their attention for long, they come in unable to follow routines, they will quite often just walk out of the classroom as it suits them.

“There’s a whole lot of needs and that comes back to classroom management - teachers being well trained - but another bigger sort of problem is that the children are not able to engage in their education for as long a period as they used to.”

With teacher colleges closed down and teaching being a more academic qualification, Coleman believes there is a gulf between what students are learning at university and what is actually experienced in the classroom.

“That’s left, obviously, to the schools with our experienced staff and senior teachers to help support these teachers in dealing with these behaviours.”

However, he believes there could be more done academically to help teachers, new and experienced, learn how to deal with neuro-divergent children.

“That’s something I think all teachers will need; some sort of upskilling in brain development to understand how children are learning and coping the classroom.”

There’s a wider issue beyond schools for parents of neuro-divergent children, Coleman says. Often teachers can identify an issue with a child, but that child needs to then be referred by a doctor to an outside specialist to make an official diagnosis and the process can be expensive and difficult for parents.

“I feel the ministry needs to take more of a responsibility for these children and actually have a department set up to support schools for this… the way forward is for them to really grab the bull by the horns.

“Under the Education Act, they expect schools to be fully inclusive but, under the current funding model, I can’t see how schools can do that.”

Lynda Knight, principal of Glenview School in Cannon's Creek, agrees on a two-pronged attack that includes more funding for neuro-diverse students and more training in neuro-science for teachers so they can better understand the needs of their students.

“It comes back to the teachers understanding the brains of their students as well as their own brains and stress response symptoms. It comes back to regulation and dysregulation in the brain.

“Children who are impacted by stress and trauma are often going to have an over-sensitised stress response system and can be triggered by anything or almost nothing but, if a teacher has a mindset around understanding, that their behaviour is not ‘naughty’ but a communication of a need, just as the sensory overload issues of other neuro-diverse children might be, then a teacher can respond more appropriately.”

Glenview School has self-funded to get teachers and senior staff training in neuro-science and Knight says they’re already seeing a positive difference.

“If we can understand our own triggers and our own stress levels, as leaders in school, we can actually support teachers who are looking a bit overloaded or stressed and we’re a long way down the line to supporting the children because an escalated teacher will escalate a child.”