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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

21 March 2022

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Supporting students with different learning needs

For JCU Primary Education graduate Emily Caferra, working with neurodiverse students is about supporting their many abilities and different ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Emily tells us about her work as a learning support teacher in Herberton, Far North Queensland.

“I think I will always be a primary school teacher at heart,” JCU Education graduate Emily says. “I teach English classes to develop literacy abilities for our students at Mount St Bernard College in Herberton. I am also a learning support teacher, which is about working within a care team where we try to best support students with diverse needs to have the same learning outcomes as their peers.”

Even though Mount St Bernard College is a secondary school, a primary school teacher like Emily is a good fit as she provides intensive specialist literacy support to her students. “I'm able to work with the children to build their literacy capacity,” Emily says, “especially as many of our students are from remote areas of Queensland and the Northern Territory, and English is typically not their first language.”

Emily also helps students with personalised learning plans. She develops differentiation strategies that might be best for them, and looks at how students with different learning needs could be better supported in the classroom.

Neurodiversity means 'differently abled'

Many of Emily’s students have a neurodiverse background. “Everybody's brain is different, and neurodiversity means the difference within the human brain from person to person,” she says. However, Emily adds that in the wider society many people see neurodiversity as a disability. “We need to move away from that perception,” she says. “The children are neurodiverse, and they have different abilities. They are simply ‘differently abled.’”

Emily says that every person in this world has multiple intelligences. “Some children may not be able to write as well as the student sitting next to them,” she says, “or they may not be able to process emotions in the same way, but we need to enable them. It's just the way that we teachers, in collaboration with the school’s diversity department, look at it and how we approach it.”

Emily Caferra and Bernie, the Labradoodle (Photo: Supplied)

Neurodiverse successes: Branson and Einstein

Billionaire and business magnate Richard Branson is famous for admitting that he has dyslexia, and some say that Albert Einstein was on the autism spectrum. Both Branson and Einstein are known for their different approaches to seeing the world – and for being exceptionally successful.

“Sometimes, being differently-abled does not  inhibit your ability to participate in the world,” Emily says. “I see innovative problem-solving skills in students all the time. The ideas that they come up with are amazing. They are problem solvers.”

Working as a team with the parents

When it comes to getting additional support, there is federal legislation and other policies and guidelines that define what can be officially verified as a disability. There is also state and federal funding available for students who meet the eligibility criteria. “You need to have the parents on board to get that process rolling, through the school,” Emily says, “so the student can have access to additional support through funding.”

But also, in other respects, parents play an important role in giving neurodiverse children the best support they can get. “It's important for us teachers to remember that parents are their first support. It is essential that we work with the parents in partnership,” Emily says. “Parents know their children best. Working together as a team is the best thing that you can do to better understand the child.”

Support with four legs: Bernie, the Labradoodle

Mount St Bernard College also has a four-legged learning support worker. “His name is Bernie. Bernie is a Labradoodle, as in a Labrador-cross-poodle, and he is a very fluffy boy,” Emily says. “He is about eight or nine months old now, and he is being trained to be a therapy dog here at Mount St Bernard College.”

Emily thinks that Bernie makes a big difference in the school. “We have so many students with diverse needs. Diversity can also stem from children having trauma backgrounds, and when they are trying to manage their emotions and the stresses of school. Bernie can help with that,” Emily says. “Bernie is a very gentle soul and a great help. When we are going for a walk together, for example, he will always look after children that are not feeling so well.”

Just like the students at Mount St Bernard, Bernie is still in training. “But he will hopefully soon be a full-time employee and in classes all the time,” Emily says.

Leaders of tomorrow

Emily knows the work she, her colleagues, and Bernie the Labradoodle put in will eventually pay off. “The students we work with really are the leaders of tomorrow. We just need to continue to support them, through catering to their different abilities.”

How to become a learning support teacher

Emily says that everybody who is able to qualify as a registered teacher, such as Bachelor of Education graduates, can become a learning support teacher. “You would need to show your interest in inclusive education, of course,” Emily says.

Inclusive education for students with special needs and abilities is one of the core subjects for Education students at JCU. “When I was at JCU and working with my lecturer, Satine Winter, she really showed me that diversity can be a career in itself in a school setting,” Emily says.

When it comes to what a good learning support teacher should be like, Emily says, “it’s essential for teachers to always be kind, caring and empathetic with all students. Patience is really important as well.”

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