Impossible things, opposed ideas and retaining the ability to function

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll

Recent days have seen the launch of a campaign for the rights of school-children with disabilities. This campaign anticipates the forthcoming Disability Royal Commission. This commission is likely to uncover serious evidence of abuse and harm perpetrated against people with disabilities.

As part of this campaign, Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) conducted a survey of 500 young people with a disability and their families. This was then taken up in The Conversation by Dr Kathy Cologon, a lecturer in inclusive early childhood education. The findings appear shocking, with respondents reporting a range of negative outcomes from increased bullying to various forms of exclusion. In some cases, respondents reported that disabled children were prevented from participating in school activities.

Cologon warns us that:

“These reports suggest illegal practices. Unless the situation is extreme, Australian education providers are legally obliged to accept all students, and provide “reasonable accommodations” and appropriate adjustments and support to facilitate access, participation and inclusion.”

This is echoed in the comments. When Allan Briggs gives a lengthy and nuanced account of his own experiences working with children with various disabilities, Cologon refers him to a legal definition of ‘inclusion’ produced by the United Nations.

I have taken a look at the CYDA survey and there is some information that I would like that it does not provide. For instance, I assume the sample is of its own members, but it does not state this. Such information is important because we might hypothesise that members of an advocacy groups such as CYDA may not be entirely representative of all young disabled people. Secondly, there is no information about the disabilities covered by the sample and there is therefore also no disaggregation of the data by disability type. Why does that matter?

When I write about classroom behaviour, a number of odd things start to happen. Firstly, people reply to me about disabilities. I haven’t set out to discuss disabilities but people choose to respond to me in those terms. Secondly, many comments, such as those on my recent posts, come from members of advocacy groups for children with disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is certainly the case that many people consider ADHD to be a disability (e.g. here) but it does not make it onto every list (e.g. here). That means I cannot be sure whether children with ADHD are included in CYDA’s sample and the same goes for other disorders that affect behaviour. The challenges faced by taking a student with a severe behavioural disorder on a school trip are quite different to those of taking a child with a severe hearing impairment. It would be useful to know what specific issues need to be addressed.

This is important because, as Cologon points out, the law requires us to provide ‘reasonable accommodations’ for students with a disability and these will necessarily depend on the nature of the disability. What else will they depend upon?

I have previously discussed the difference between accommodating and addressing a specific need. This is the difference between reading out a text to a student with reading difficulties versus giving that student intensive reading instruction. Both may be appropriate at different times but if we only ever accommodate needs we cannot expect to see any improvement.

I now realise that this discussion is echoed with a little more nuance in the literature on special educational needs. A 2014 paper by Evans, Langberg, Egan and Molitor seeks to survey various interventions to address issues such as ADHD, but first makes a point about accommodations:

“These include adjustments to educational practices such as allowing students with ADHD extended time to complete tests and assignments, providing them with teacher or peer prepared notes from class, and reducing the length of assignments… The purpose of these services is notably different from psychosocial interventions as there is no expectation that the adolescent will develop new or improved skills from these services. For example, a student may be provided with additional time to complete tests for many years, but there is no expectation that being afforded extended time will eventually lead to the student being able to complete tests independently within the expected time frame. When an adolescent is only provided accommodations, the parents and educators are not focusing on improving the student’s ability to independently meet age-appropriate expectations, but instead are reducing expectations to help the student get by with a deficient skill set.”

The authors then refer to a 2013 literature review on accommodations by Harrison, Bunford, Evans and Owens. This sought to review the evidence of the effectiveness of various accommodations for students with emotional and behavioural disorders and ADHD. They first use various definitions proposed in the literature to draw a distinction between modifications, accommodations and interventions. Modifications lower grade-level expectations for students with the disorder and so, for example, may include giving a Grade 5 student a book to read that is at Grade 2 level. Accommodations are intended to alter the instruction in a way that does not dilute the content. For instance, a science assessment could be read out to a student. The student still needs to respond with the same level of science knowledge and understanding as the rest of the class (although I would point out that this would be a modification if it was a reading assessment and I am not certain you can legitimately separate all these skills).

I would previously have called both modifications and accommodations defined in this way ‘accommodations’, but the distinction based on whether the level of demand is reduced is useful. And crucially, the researchers suggest that an accommodation cannot be something that simply benefits everyone because then it should be given to everyone as part of effective teaching.

Harrison et al. find pretty much no empirical evidence that, defined in this way, accommodations for emotional behavioural disorders and ADHD exist. They find some practices that improve behaviour, for instance, but they cannot be sure that the content is not diluted. They find practices such as extended assessment time that improve elements of performance, but these also improve the performance of all students.

I suppose that activism is different to scholarship. When you are campaigning for a particular goal, it doesn’t hurt to believe in impossible things because you don’t have to put those things into action. It helps to use the language of rights and to assert, as CYDA do in their report, that, ‘Research evidence overwhelmingly supports inclusive education,’ without having to hack through some of the undergrowth of that research in the way I have just done.

However, teachers do have to put these ideas into action. Contrary to untrue claims made about me, I would always advise teachers to follow the law. You must therefore put in place accommodations. Where ADHD is captured by disability legislation, this includes accommodations for ADHD, yet such accommodations may not exist. Never mind, teachers can handle it. After all:

“…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

F Scott Fitgerald


10 thoughts on “Impossible things, opposed ideas and retaining the ability to function

  1. Jay Jam says:

    This is a very important post. Do teaching contracts and Awards contain an indemnity clause in event that a teacher is sued? And if so, to what ceiling dollar value is the teacher indemnified? These are the crucial questions teachers should ask themselves. Greater responsibilities should be reflected in the salary and contractual agreements. Imagine being a young teacher with family and paying off a mortgage and getting slapped with a law suit. It could even be a gold digging lawsuit. It happens.

  2. Greg,
    I think there is a logic error here. You base the claim that there are no accommodations for ADHD on the argument that an accommodation such as longer exam times would help everyone and so is not an accommodation for ADHD.

    But it is easy to argue it is not that simple. What is happening with longer exam times is they disproportionally help those with ADHD. That is they may help everyone but they help those with ADHD much more. So applying it only for those who significantly benefit is an accommodation for that group.

  3. Jay Jam says:

    I’m confused if it’s a level playing field in regard to what’s expected from schools and teachers compared to the final leaving examinations such as the VCE and HSC which are run by the states.
    For instance, do students with ADHD sit an easier exam (this would be a modification) or are thy given longer time to complete the exam (accommodation).
    Up until the final laving exam teachers are required to make accommodations for every assessment task and in their day to day teaching but what adjustments do the examiners provide for their one assessment task and what are the implications for the validity of that assessment if different students have received different tasks?

    • This is a good question. It depends on the state and on its requirements. I think any adjustments made are intended to be accommodations but, as we have seen, accommodations may not really exist and may be, for instance, modifications wearing a hat and sunglasses. In addition, the criteria for being given these adjustments can be quite tight, which may potentially mean some states are in breach of the law.

  4. JK says:

    Greg – I find your position amusing. I really do. You complain that if you write an opinion piece about classroom behaviour then people make comments that refer to disabilities that affect behaviour (of which there are a few big ones). What is so unusual about that? Is it because you refuse to acknowledge that these kids make up a huge proportion of the kids who require behaviour support? Is it because you want to just sweep aside the fact that in NSW, 42.6% of all kids suspended from school have a disability? It has nothing to do with disability, right? Nothing at all! Come on…

    I would ask you in return. How could you possibly write an opinion piece about behaviour management in schools and NOT mention disabilities? I mean you’d need to try really hard to do that wouldn’t you? Maybe it’s your myopic view of this topic that is the issue and not the ‘advocates’ or ‘campaigners’ who you like to cite.

  5. JK says:

    On the second part of the discussion. I’ve commented quite a lot on your posts about what you can do for kids with behaviour support needs – even posting links to some of the expert views. I have tried to encourage you to look at Ross Greene’s work but you don’t seem keen. He will give you a comprehensive answer to this question. Out of interest if you did spend the time to look at Greene you will see that he does not like to see behaviour through a diagnosis based lens. Why? Because he can’t do anything about genetics or cause – you need to focus on what is in front of you and having a diagnosis does nothing to assist that specific context. He argues (and I would strongly agree) that regardless of root cause, all challenging behaviour needs to be seen though a skills deficit/developmental delay lens. Once you grasp this concept, then what it needed becomes very clear. Read some Ross Greene.

    On the question of definitions. There is no confusion around whether ADHD is a disability or not. It most certainly is. Your second link refers to a list of ‘approved disabilities’ that *generate funding*. The second list serves a bureaucratic purpose. I hope that clears up your confusion. If you want to write opinion pieces casting doubt about this you need to understand what it is that you are expressing doubts about. The stupidity of the second list as it been applied to state schools has resulted in a chronic lack of funding into schools to support children with disabilities not on the ‘approved list’. Add dyslexia into that category while you are at it. The approved list simply makes it all cheaper. A win for governments. A loss for schools, teachers and students. Wouldn’t you agree?

    By far the biggest stupidity in the school system of all is the NSW DoE handing out low level disability funding on the basis of low NAPLAN scores and not on the basis of disabilities. I mean, that should be nominated for a Darwin award if you ask me.

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