Improving quality of life for children with special learning needs

Special and inclusive education scholar, Dr Jill Duncan, is researching ways for children and young people with special learning needs to enjoy a more inclusive school experience.

Image of Dr Jill Duncan

Over the past decade, much has changed in terms of technology that assists children and young people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Cochlear implants and hearing screening for newborns have both significantly improved outcomes for children who are deaf. Special and inclusive education researcher, Dr Jill Duncan, says despite these advances in technology there are still gaps in the development of children who are deaf or hard of hearing when compared to their typically developing peers.

“That gap is usually in the form of communication. My latest research is looking at ways to close that gap, and one of those is through building social capital,” Dr Duncan said.

Social capital is the networks and relationships we form that help us navigate society. Dr Duncan says having good social capital is beneficial for many reasons.

“Social capital is correlated with improved academic outcomes and wellbeing, and improved economic participation when adolescents leave school. My project looks at adolescents who are deaf to see if their social capital is commensurate with their peers. I’m investigating the barriers to and facilitators of building social capital,” she said.

Dr Duncan is studying the social capital of children who are deaf or hard of hearing and their online participation.

“I’ve found that children who are deaf or hard of hearing benefit from online participation more than their typically developing peers, probably because there is a lack of a communication barrier. When people know you have a disability, it often prevents people from communicating with you. In an online environment where communication is via a keyboard the children’s disability is invisible.”

Dr Duncan has also investigated adolescents who are deaf or hard of hearing and their parents’ social capital and compared them.

“I found there is a relationship between the adolescents’ and the parents’ social capital. If the parents have more robust social capital that has a cascading effect and a positive influence on the adolescents,” Dr Duncan observed.

“Social capital is important because if we can understand where the deficits and strengths are then we can put in place mechanisms that help teachers of the deaf to grow the social capital of the adolescents.”

Dr Duncan says the research shows social capital can be purposely developed.

“I believe social capital can be purposely developed by facilitating parental understanding so they can grow their social capital and that of their child, while the child is still young. If parents have good strong social capital it puts the child in an environment where there are more networks and more support, which is all very positive,” she said.

Having grown up with a hearing loss, Dr Duncan remembers very clearly what it felt like to be excluded because she couldn’t hear well.

“I was in and out of audiologists and speech-language pathologists into my early teens.  My hearing loss was due to a benign tumour, and my son had the same issue. Fortunately, it could be fixed, unlike most children with hearing loss that remains with them for life. That’s how I became interested in working with children and young people who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

It’s this first-hand experience that drives Dr Duncan’s passion for helping children with special learning needs. She is currently engaged with the Alexander Graham Bell Association in Washington DC; an agency that takes 40 teenagers with hearing loss every year and instructs them in advocacy, public speaking and other confidence-building skills.

“Another stem of my research is to investigate teenagers and measure the influence of instruction to see if it improves their social capital. I’m looking to see if it strengthens their networks, school community, empowerment and level of wellbeing,” she said.

“The aim is to understand social capital better, so we can teach teachers of the deaf to implement interventions that will build the social capital of the parents and of course their teenagers.”

Results of this research will be fed back to those working at the coalface in the teaching industry. Dr Duncan coordinates a teacher of the deaf program at the University of Newcastle and outcomes of this research will be embedded into the program.

Preparing the workforce for inclusive education

Before joining the University of Newcastle, Dr Duncan worked as an education executive for the Victorian Government. It was there that she saw the impact of increasing numbers of children with severe and profound disabilities joining mainstream schools.

“If you’re a child with a disability in an environment where your teacher doesn’t fully understand how to make your classroom inclusive you can’t do your best learning,” Dr Duncan observed.

“The thing that drives me is the children. I’ve been in so many classrooms where kids with special learning needs aren’t doing their best learning, and it frustrates me because often teachers and principals know it but may not have the resources to fix it.”

Dr Duncan has been working on a research project that seeks to solve this problem and asks, ‘what support do principals need to help their workforce make classrooms inclusive’.

“More and more children with special needs are taught in mainstream schools. This is a good thing as we know students will do better academically and socially if they are educated in their local school. However, this brings added pressure on teachers.”

Dr Duncan surveyed 155 principals and interviewed 12 principals and asked them about the type of special needs support and professional learning they provide their teachers.

“The majority (86%) of the principals said they offered their workforce professional learning in the autism spectrum disorder. And 77% offered professional learning around social and emotional disabilities and challenging behaviours. The principals came from across Australia but were all very similar in what they offered.”

Dr Duncan also asked about what barriers stopped the principals from making sure their teachers are prepared for inclusive education.

“The number one barrier was money. Most principals said they had inadequate funding to support professional learning. The second barrier to inclusive education workforce capability was time.  The pressures of time for the teachers and principals is overwhelming,” she said.

The complexity of the classroom, particularly for novice teachers, and the education system itself were also barriers to building an inclusive school.

The findings of this project will be published with the aim of influencing government policy.

“The system must support the principals, so the principals can support the teachers, so that the children can have the best learning opportunity possible,” Dr Duncan concluded.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.