Last week, a national inquiry accused schools of failing children with a disability, prompting calls for education departments to give the issue a higher priority.
The inquiry followed research conducted by Flinders University which found that these same students were being bullied at an increasing rate across all three school sectors.
Is it that schools are not as equipped to provide the support these students need? Or is it that they are lacking the resources required to enable them to do this?
Brett McDermott is professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Queensland and sits on the board of Beyond Blue.
McDermott told The Educator that one of the key issues was that schools are “asked to do everything by everybody”.
“In terms of children with autism and pervasive developmental disorder, there is no doubt that there is specific expertise around understanding their social deficit and how best to communicate with them,” he explained.
“However, in our current school environment, which is based on funding, large classrooms and noisy settings places these children in difficult circumstances in terms of coping – so I’m absolutely sure we can do better.”
Advice for principals
McDermott’s advice for principals was to make use of the Kids Matter program that he said “thousands of other schools are already using”.
“This program that looks at how schools can be mental health-friendly and aware. I would encourage them to look very holistically at this because there is an incredible suite of resources including actual providers and coordinators who can help principals decide what to pick,” he explained.
He added that while Australia was “very rich” in terms of these resources, “every school in Australia” should use them to provide better help to students and also staff, who he said could benefit from their use.
“Principals need to understand that the usefulness of these programs is beyond the child’s mental health and have a benefit for teacher satisfaction,” McDermott said.
“If you’re a teacher and you feel more competent dealing with these issues, and if you have a more compliant classroom, you’re going to be a happier employee.”
Advice for parents
He said in terms of the anxiety some students might feel returning to school, parents should recognise that the new school year is a new environment for students, who are not only changing familiar class settings but also teachers.
“Parents should expect a bit of anxiety from children and positively promote that to help their child master their worries and overcome them. Fear is absolutely normal,” he said.
“Protecting your child from fear is not a good thing, nor is being overprotective and not exposing them to challenges.”
McDermott said that anxious and overprotective parents should consider how they might be passing on unnecessary stress to their child.
“Fear and anxiety is somewhat infective. For example, a parent who is anxious can confer that anxiety to their child – so you need to work out who has the most anxiety and reflect on how you’re behaving around your child,” he said.