Every single time Pauline Hanson opens her mouth, I don't think I'm the only one who face palms. Her comments this week were no exception. What she said about excluding kids with autism from mainstream classrooms left much of Australia reeling. The level of over-simplification and naivety she displayed about the experience of children in classrooms in the 21st century was astounding.
I appreciate that there is a huge pressure on teachers. I don't believe anyone can honestly dispute this. I've worked within the education system, my life partner is a teacher and some of my dearest friends are dedicating their careers to positively influencing the lives of our future generations. In the event you don't know, or you are choosing ignorance so as to continue your shtick about how much time off they get, they do far more than teach. It's the preparation, the planning, the extended hours, the limited resources, and huge expectations. It is a job that many of us couldn't handle.
The real issue here, in my opinion, is that despite so many teachers having insane competency in translating their knowledge to others, they do not get any qualification in behaviour management. In learning and practicing strategies for facilitating a classroom environment that is tailored to the needs of 20, 25, sometimes 30, students at a time, whilst getting through a full curriculum. As a professional in the mental health industry who has studied extensively, and worked comprehensively, in this area, I know what kind of acumen is required to feel confident and competent in responding to the challenge.
What it reinforced in my mind is that our teachers are equipped (and our education system is built) to support a homogeneous group of individuals. But we are not a homogeneous group. Nor are our current or future generations of students. What our kids bring to school, figuratively speaking, varies immensely. For example, in addition to the 66,000 children in our school system who have a formal diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder*, 560,000 children aged 4-17 have a mental health difficulty, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD or conduct problems**. Then there are the hundreds of thousands of young individuals with invisible disabilities such as low vision, dyslexia, and hearing loss***.
If we are talking about removing kids on the autism spectrum from the mainstream classroom, is Hanson also suggesting that any other child with a vulnerability or atypical neurological development should be excluded too? That if teachers "aren't coping" then the solution is to "get rid of [these kids]"? How does someone in a position of influence even purport these ideas and then get the platform to share them with the world? [insert yet another face palm]
To all the children who feel different - you are cared for and you do have potential. You belong. Build a tribe of people around you who believe in you. I hope you know that these people are doing their best to create a world that makes more sense to you.
To the parents who are desperately loving their little one and spending endless efforts in advocacy and support - you are not alone. Hanson's views do not, and will not, represent the majority.
To the teachers tasked with the immense responsibility of looking after all children and young people day in and day out - I wish I had a magic wand. I don't envision any significant changes to our education system anytime soon so, morbidly, you will have to persist. One thing you can do? Read and learn as much as you can about how to support children with individual differences. Building your understanding of how to decipher behaviour will help you to be more patient and compassionate in your practice. I will talk to any of you about where to start.
These kids need people to believe in them. To have systems that are not willing to write them off purely on a label. The answer to these modern challenges is not exclusion but to critically reflect on our current practices and commit to a future that embraces our individuality and minimises the bigotry we have seen this week.
* 2015 data reflecting the number of children receiving government Carers Allowance due to a formal ASD diganosis
** 2015 Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, https://goo.gl/Wv9iad
*** 'Listen Hear! The economic impact and cost of hearing loss in Australia' 2006, Access Economics; ABS population data and ABS Survey of Disability Ageing and Carers; Australian Dyslexia Association Inc Queensland 2014, Dyslexia In Australia.