Learning facilitators play a key role in helping children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) cope in mainstream schools.
This is one of the key findings of a recent study at Stellenbosch University (SU).
“Learning facilitators are an essential part of inclusive education for children with ASD. They provide specific services to these children who often suffer from anxiety which hinders their learning and social interactions," says Mignon Elliott who recently obtained her Master's degree in Psychology at SU. Her supervisors were Dr Bronwyne Coetzee from SU's Department of Psychology and Mr Ben Truter from the Neurodiversity Centre.
As part of her study, Elliott interviewed learning facilitators in the Western Cape to get a better understanding of their experiences working with children with ASD in mainstream schools.
Elliott points out that since the passing of the White Paper on Special Needs Education – Building an Inclusive and Training System in 2001, children with barriers to learning have been included in South Africa's mainstream school system. She adds that these children often need (and/or are required to have) specialised and individualised support in the mainstream classroom and this is where learning facilitators make a valuable contribution.
“Unfortunately, we know very little about the experiences of learning facilitators, including whether they have received sufficient training for their important role."
Elliott says her findings show that they facilitate the emotional, social and academic functioning of children with ASD in the classroom and also offer support during recess. Generally, learning facilitators would work with these children throughout the school day.
“Learning facilitators focus on monitoring anxiety in these children and recognise the triggers so that they can know when the child might need a break. They also reinforce good behaviours and achievements, re-teach material taught in class by the teacher, and redirect the child's attention to the teacher or the task at hand.
“Learning facilitators emphasised the importance of communication and working together with all professionals involved (i.e. the facilitator, parents, teachers, psychologists, speech therapists and occupational therapists).
“The overall experiences varied. The facilitators who reported having a more positive experience were often trained, received support and built good relationships with other professionals, particularly the teacher. Those who reported more negative experiences were often lacking in one or more of these."
Elliott adds that there is no specific training for learning facilitators and that several of the learning facilitators who participated in her study did not receive any training.
“Learning facilitators definitely require more training, particularly in the knowledge of ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders, and in how to navigate in a practical way those difficult situations that may present themselves in the classroom or in social situations.
“They flagged their relationship with the teacher as the most important one for successful inclusion of children with ASD and indicated that professionals like psychologists should be more involved in the school. They also expressed the need for a support group where they can confide in each other and exchange ideas."
Some schools do not have policies regarding facilitators, their roles and expectations. It may be helpful for schools to revise this and implement a policy regarding learning facilitators, adds Elliott.
She says it's important to keep in mind that there's no “one-size-fits-all" solution when it comes to facilitating the inclusion process of a child with ASD in a mainstream school, as each child has unique demands and requirements. This means facilitators have to be adaptable and flexible in their roles.
According to Elliott, her research contributed to better understanding the role of learning facilitators, the training received (if any), their coping skills and how they managed demands, and the access they have to additional resources and support, which is essential to the inclusion of ASD children in mainstream schools.
“Understanding their experiences would provide insight into the areas of facilitating work that need development. It could also assist in highlighting factors that would bring long-term improvement through identifying how to improve the quality of learning facilitator services. This would eventually result in providing a better inclusive environment for children with ASD in mainstream schools."
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