Work Experience 26: Special Education Teacher
Recently I had the privilege of doing work experience with the fabulous staff and students at The Sycamore School in Brisbane. The school caters specifically to Primary School children living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I’ve included information about the Sycamore School below which comes directly from their website, as it best explains how and why the school came about, as well as what it is they do. It’s an incredibly special place, doing amazing things for the students and families within their school community.
About the Sycamore School
The concept of a school for kids with autism was born from the schooling experiences of Brisbane parents and their children with Autism. A group of these parents formed a not-for-profit organisation and worked for two years to bring The Sycamore School to fruition. Having experienced first-hand the difficulties in finding appropriate educational settings for their autistic children, they set out to provide educational options for children with autism in Queensland that were tailored to the needs of the students.
“It’s not just about meeting curriculum outcomes; it’s about giving each student a voice, giving them the tools to advocate for themselves, and to be involved in the decision making processes of their lives. It’s about giving them confidence, self-determination, and a valued place in our community.”
With over 10,000 school aged students diagnosed with ASD in Queensland, there is a growing community not only of students but also the increased numbers of families and educators who require support. The Sycamore School hopes to not only support those touched by Autism in their lives, but we also hope to promote acceptance and diversity in mainstream schools and various workplaces through mentoring programs and partnerships, to ensure that as a community we can continue to support people with Autism through their whole life.
What we do at The Sycamore School
The Sycamore School is a Primary School (Prep to Year 6) for young people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The school provides a safe and inclusive educational environment with programs supported by allied health, aimed at achieving academic, social, emotional and behavioural goals.
Using a strengths-based approach, new and innovative ways of teaching alongside evidence-informed strategies and the national curriculum, the school provides a positive learning environment with the instruction of quality teaching, community engagement and support programs providing pathways to assist students on their educational journey.
The Sycamore School works to provide young people with opportunities to reach their potential. It’s not just about meeting curriculum outcomes; it’s about giving each student a voice, giving them the tools to advocate for themselves and to be involved in the decision-making processes of their lives. It’s about giving them confidence, self-determination, and a valued place in our community.
Programming is focused on each student and what makes them unique, as we believe that this will allow for learning opportunities to be recognised and implemented to their fullest extent. We believe in the promise and potential of each child and this is our motivation.
The Sycamore School currently has 62 students enrolled in its Prep to Year 6 classes, with a maximum of 10 students in each class. Each class has a teacher and an education support officer (ESO) whose role is to support the teacher and students. There are two extra ESO’s in the school, one to help in the P-2 classes and one to support the upper grades. A Speech Pathologist and Occupational Therapist work within the school, as well as a Social Worker and Wellbeing Education Support Officer who work with the staff, students and families within the school community.
What did I do?
When I first walked into the school I noticed how bright and welcoming it was. Displayed on the wall inside the main entrance is a beautiful big sycamore tree, with each of its leaves representing one of the students and their special interests. Next to the tree are the school’s mascots Sid and Vic, who are also found on the walls of each classroom and learning space within the school. Sid and Vic help to remind students of the values in the school community, which are respect, safety, participation and celebration.
The school classrooms and offices are spread throughout the one level building, and there are three purpose built play spaces outside to cater to the different age groups. I love how the school is surrounded by gum trees. Not only do the trees provide shade, but they also give a feeling of quiet and calm.
Over the course of two days I had the privilege of spending time in each of the classes, from Prep to Year 6. After attending a staff meeting an hour before students arrived, my first class of the day was a gorgeous group of year ones. It was great to look around the classroom at all of the different posters, prompts and positive behaviour charts displayed on the walls, as the students settled in to the day with some quiet activities such as play-doh and construction.
The teacher showed me a sensory room that she and her ESO created in a corner of the classroom, which was originally a storage cupboard. The door had been removed, the walls inside painted black, a pretty strand of dim lights hung and a bunch of comfy cushions were scattered on the floor for children to rest on. The teacher and ESO designed the space for the children to take themselves to if they’re ever feeling over stimulated by the sights and sounds of the classroom. Essentially, it’s a space for them to feel quiet and calm. Another aide the children could use if they were finding noises in the classroom overwhelming were sound reducing headphones. At one stage a little boy collected some for himself and a friend when the noise levels became raised, as he’d been taught to do. Each classroom had a set of these headphones, and I saw them used a few times during my time in the school.
When it was time to pack away the quiet activities the teacher sang a clean-up song, and everyone was encouraged to help. The children were directed to the carpet, where they had their own green carpet spots to sit on. As the teacher sang her good morning song, one of the students jumped up to spin, and another bounced on the mini trampoline. Another student was busy chewing his green mat so was given a raw carrot as an alternative. The teacher and ESO were patient and calm, redirecting the children when needed. They put ticks on the children’s positive behaviour chart and gave verbal praise often. A days of the week song, months of the year song and weather song were all sung to the children, who joined in with singing or dancing.
Next it was time for the children to sit at their desks, which were grouped together, to work on their ‘Rise and Shine’ books with the teachers. This required the students to practice writing their names, numbers and letters, as well as showing the weather. There was quite a difference in ability and level of support required for each child, which is often the case in year one.
When children had completed their work they were allowed to play with the sensory toys that had been put out for them until it was time to pack up. The students ate their morning tea and lunch at their desks in their classrooms under the supervision of a teacher or ESO, before collecting their hats and walking to the playground together.
I really enjoyed playtime, which I spent in the Year 2 – 4 playground. I chatted with some of the children, kicked a ball with one boy until he ran off to play somewhere else, and even had a bounce on a small trampoline which had safely been built into the ground. For the most part I just stood back and watched the children at play. It was interesting to see the children interact with each other, or spend time doing their own thing.
The rest of day one for me was spent with the Year 2 then Prep classes, before heading into the Year 3 – 6 classes on day two. It was great to meet so many incredible children, and to see the different ways teachers and education support officers effectively organised their classes, ran their lessons and interacted with the students. Within each class, the children showed such a wide range of abilities, personalities and behaviours. The staff really did do an amazing job of catering to the students as well as possible. The science lesson I observed in the year 6 class was the perfect example of this. There were four different learning tasks that were provided to the students, but a couple of students were only required to complete one of the tasks, the majority of students completed two or three, and only one or two students were expected to complete all four. It was great to see that tasks and learning expectations were differentiated to support the varied abilities and strengths of each student. The Year 6 teacher gently explained this to one of the newer students, to help him understand why everyone has different tasks and expectations.
I also had the opportunity to spend time with a small group of Year 4 students in the new Super Sensory Gym with the school’s Occupational Therapist and Speech Therapist. This space is designed for the children to do different activities to help develop their fine and gross motor skills as well as their functional communication skills.
One of the most memorable moments for me at The Sycamore School was joining in on an art lesson with the year 5 class, where each student was constructing a diorama. During the previous art lesson they’d added styrofoam shapes to their cardboard display box to form a mountainous landscape, and in this second lesson they began covering their styrofoam with PVA glue and tissue paper. As some students needed (or wanted) to add to their landscape, a huge piece of styrofoam that had been used for packaging was broken up into pieces of varying shapes and sizes for them. The breaking up of the styrofoam became an event in itself for some of the children, and it was as though a giant party popper had gone off in the classroom. There were tiny balls of styrofoam everywhere! Some students busily continued to build their creations, even creating mountains on the tops of their boxes, while a couple of others were more fascinated with the styrofoam balls that covered the floor. One student who had been with the school’s Social Worker during the first part of the lesson walked into the classroom and dived straight onto the floor, covering himself in styrofoam as though it was snow. What a giggle. Even more so when I started sweeping up the balls only to have them blow away by the fan. I really loved that the children were given the opportunity to be creative in a way that wasn’t exactly what the teacher had initially had in mind for the lesson. It meant that they were able to think outside of the box. Literally.
At the end of the day, I spent some time with the school’s Wellbeing Education Support Officer. She was working with a couple of students outside to prepare a vegetable garden for planting. The children helped to spread soil using a shovel and rake, then took turns to water the established garden beds around the school. Eventually students will be involved in the planting, care, and no doubt eating of the veges they grow. As a reward for their hard work at the end, the students were given a cold drink before heading back to class.
What did I learn?
I really loved spending time at the Sycamore School. It impressed me how well the staff worked as a cohesive team across the school to get the best outcomes for the students, and it was very clear how much they genuinely cared about the wellbeing and development of each child. When working with children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, my observation is that teachers need to be patient, calm, energetic, organised, flexible and have a good sense of humour. Hmm….that sounds a bit like me!
To read my interview with The Sycamore School’s amazing Deputy Principal Elissa Brinckman, please click here.