Not every child fits naturally into the mainstream classroom. But what alternatives are available outside the everyday school environment?
The school year is well under way and most kids are happily finding their groove in the classroom and childcare.
But quite often some kids just don’t find that groove. Those kids that are the square pegs in round holes; the ones that see things differently but who might just go on to change the world.
Every child deserves a supportive and nurturing education. If your child isn’t settling well into the typical classroom, there are now many alternatives to the mainstream system that can ensure every square peg has the right environment to thrive.
With a plethora of childcare centres and services on offer, it’s no surprise parents often feel overwhelmed when choosing the right care for their littlest ones. Pam Maclean from Big Day Out Care & Education believes that catering for the interests of individual children at this early learning stage is essential.
“Early education is about knowing and understanding where children’s minds are at, and providing services that support that,” says Pam.
To offer a long day-care space that supports the engagement of all children, Big Day Out turned to creative thinking. “Because the neural pathways of the brain are being developed at such a rapid pace from 0–5 years old, we wanted to build a centre that offers an alternative way of thinking, so we created a dedicated studio for creative thinking.”
The studio was designed as a place where all children can hypothesise, try, fail and create, exercising those neural pathways and being able to create and explore on their own terms.
“By providing avenues for children to think, try, investigate and play, you capture this neural development that can support formal learning later and lead to better outcomes down the track,” Pam explains.
This type of creative environment that mixes the joyfulness of early childhood with purposeful thinking is something that can engage all children, far beyond the cookie-cutter service.
Another early learning choice that is rapidly growing in popularity is Family Day Care. Providing a perfect ‘half-way’ point between the home and school environment, Family Day Care is a nurturing care option, ideal for those children that may be cautious about stepping away from the comfort of home. Providing high quality early learning in an educator’s own home, Family Day Care focuses on each individual child’s development. In small groups, children experience a more natural approach to play and discovery, and with only one educator, they will form a genuine bond with that carer.
With a 42 per cent rise in autism diagnoses between 2012 and 2015 and an estimated 1 in 100 children in Australia now impacted by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of the most common groups of children that struggle to find their feet in the mainstream classroom are those on the spectrum.
How much a child with ASD will thrive in a mainstream classroom is often down to the individual child and circumstance. But for those that aren’t settling into the regular system there are now schools across the region specifically set up to cater for them.
Tailored wholly to the needs of the students, the Sycamore School in Alexandra Hills, Brisbane, is one such school. Offering a curriculum fully aligned with the Australian curriculum, Acting Principal Elissa Brinckman explains that to meet the needs of the children, they put the child at the centre of everything.
“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,” says Elissa.
With a total school size of approximately 65 and class sizes of no more than 10 students, every classroom has a Teacher and an Education Support Officer. The school also has a Wellbeing Education Support Officer and wellbeing classes for every class as well as a Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist and Social Worker on site.
“Autism is our superpower, and we have a superhero theme throughout the school,” Elissa explains. “We have superhero awards at assemblies and celebrate all the strengths that your young people possess. Even the very smallest achievement is celebrated to create an environment where the young people feel safe, supported and accepted.”
Day-to-day teaching involves a lot of methodical process, focusing on not only elements of the Australian Curriculum, but also explicitly teaching skills that ASD children might not intuitively pick up such as social communication skills, adaptive behaviours, sensory processing, and social skills.
“At the Sycamore School we use a lot of structured teaching and positive behaviour support to assist the students,” says Elissa. “We need to give young people the tools they need to be able to make safe choices, build resilience and build independence.”
And all this is delivered in a nurturing, safe environment – where the children are understood. “We share the message of four important character values in the school; we respect, we are safe, we participate and we celebrate. We find that when we respect, they respect, and in a place where they get a sense of belonging, their self-esteem builds,” Elissa continues. “We make sure we give our students as many skills as they can to be independent young people.”
When looking for the right education environment for a child with ASD, Elissa recommends primarily looking for a place where their autism is respected and they are respected.
“Look for a place where the young people feel safe and understood. Find a place where they are challenged to reach their capacity and their potential, where they can make progress academically, socially and emotionally, and they also have an opportunity to make important connections with those around them.”
For those looking for a more holistic, child-focused approach to education than that of the mainstream classroom, an increasingly popular choice is a Montessori education. And, because it provides for a diverse range of learning styles and temperaments, Montessori suits most children.
With a non-competitive style of learning that emphasises cooperation, each child is able to progress at his or her own pace.
“Children are first encouraged to develop their interests and then to take increasing responsibility for their choices and learning.” Peter Erskine from Montessori International College, Forest Glen explains. “For most children this is deeply reassuring and liberating.”
One key difference in a Montessori classroom is that most usually consist of a three-year age range.
“There are classrooms for 3–6-year-old children, 6–9-year-old children, 9–12-year-old children and so on,” Peter says. “A mixed age range provides rich social interactions as well as supporting a learning community where children learn from each other as well as from the teacher.”
The mixed age range also encourages children to work together cooperatively, to help each other and to learn from each other, whilst the small group lessons allow the teacher to more easily identify any children who may need extra assistance.
“The unique Montessori materials and teaching methods help the teacher to tailor particular lessons for particular children and to meet a variety of needs and interests,” Peter explains. “And because children stay in the one classroom for three years, teachers are able to really get to know the children and the children’s families. There is potential for a sustained collaboration between school and home, and between teacher and parent in a Montessori school. This fosters greater understanding as well as a set of relationships that can support a diversity of needs and abilities.”
When looking at alternatives in schooling, Peter advises to look for a school that is not focused solely on academics. “If there is a lot of testing at the school this may indicate that an emphasis on academic results has overtaken care and respect for the whole child. Will the school allow parents to visit the classroom and, if possible, to observe the classroom in action? Try to observe how the children relate to each other and to their teachers. If children are generally helpful and considerate of others and seem happy then these are probably good initial indicators of a school’s respect for children.”
Another group of kids who often need an adjusted environment to truly thrive in the classroom are gifted and talented students. Typically curious and passionate about learning, Mr Gavin Bryce (Principal, Queensland Academies Creative Industries Campus) explains that highly capable students thrive in environments that are flexible and support the uniqueness of their abilities.
“Our campus fosters a like-minded learning environment where students actively support each other’s individuality and goals to remain intellectually extended and motivated,” Gavin explains. “Within the framework of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, students discover their potential across a broad range of subjects in collaboration with experienced educators.”
This partnership enables students to achieve a self-directed and well-rounded approach to their senior high school studies where they explore deep learning opportunities that transfer to life beyond school. “QACI classrooms are inclusive learning spaces that focus on wellbeing; nurturing the development of high achieving students is our school’s core value,” Mr Bryce says.
Attracting highly capable students from a range of diverse backgrounds from Queensland, interstate, and international origins, Queensland Academies caters to a student’s personal learning style, supporting the individual to flourish as an independent learner whose focus is to be the best they can be.
For parents who are looking for a suitable school for their gifted child, Gavin recommends finding a learning environment that invests in the academic and socio-emotional capacities of the student. “Look for one that focuses on the development of the whole person who has potential to make contributions to local, national and global communities,” he explains. “Through the nature of the IB Diploma Program our students develop their learner identity in a global context. They think and act with international mindedness and respect for cultures and difference.”
And from a curriculum perspective, he recommends looking for a curriculum that is both challenging and rewarding. “Look for one that offers the opportunities for students to question their ways of knowing, and values innovation as the norm, not the exception.”
Students have the ability to kick-start their career early and incorporate a practical approach to their learning while completing their high school studies through TAFE at School. Run through TAFE Queensland, this option allows students to obtain their QCE while studying subject matter they’re truly passionate about. Siobhan Ablett, TAFE Queensland’s East Coast Region School Engagement Consultant, explains that for high school students who prefer to ‘learn by doing’, this hands-on education delivery is a particularly popular choice.
“TAFE Queensland educates its students in a myriad of ways, not just in the classroom,” Siobhan explains. “We have online and blended delivery options, practical placements and flexible hours. This combined with the level of expertise and industry-relevant knowledge offered by our teachers helps set our students up for success.”
TAFE courses still study the theory behind a subject, but they are balanced with practical lessons that provide students with valuable job-relevant skills while putting that theory into practice.
“By studying at TAFE, these students get to focus on learning about a subject they’re genuinely interested in, in an environment of like-minded people, and get the skills and a qualification out of it that allow them to graduate job-ready,” says Siobhan.
Courses are available across a diverse range of industries, from trades such as automotive, electrotechnology, construction, hair and cookery, to hospitality, beauty, fashion, communities, nursing, tourism, rural operations and more. “If your child has a passion for it, we’ll do our best to find a path that suits them,” Siobhan continues. “By completing their QCE eligible qualification with a TAFE course, students open themselves up to more options. Not only do they already have a qualification they can add to their resume to make themselves more attractive to employers, they can use it to further their education.”
TAFE Queensland has a great relationship with multiple universities including the University of the Sunshine Coast, and TAFE at School courses can act as a pathway to get students into some university courses, sometimes even allowing them to bypass waiting lists.
Students usually need to plan their senior years out in advance, so they need to be thinking about their career and study options by the age of 14–15. Some schools encourage students to form their plans earlier. “It’s also worth visiting a TAFE Queensland campus and talking to our educators about what your child can expect, Siobhan recommends. “Even if your child isn’t sure of what career their future holds just yet, there are opportunities like open days that make it easy for them to gather information on a range of options.”