Modified learning environment builds connections

Issue: Volume 99, Number 17

Posted: 22 October 2020
Reference #: 1HAD6_

Modifications at Rangiora High School have improved inclusivity and accessibility for students in the school’s Lighthouse Programme.

Rangiora High School’s mainstream support programme, which currently caters for 23 students with diverse needs, aims to develop connections and break down divisions between neuro-diverse and neuro-typical students.

“Part of that vision comes from the fact that Rangiora is a reasonably small community and so we recognise that our students with intellectual disability are likely to remain in this community,” says Simone Mullan, head of the programme for the past four years.

“The idea is that when they are adults, those people they went through school with will have businesses and families and will already have engaged with these young people through their teenage years.

“So there’s not that division because they have got to know them and recognise and understand their disabilities and what they can do, rather than what they can’t do.”

Modifications have many benefits

Originally modifications to the block of classrooms located in the middle of the school were planned to stop a student who was frequently absconding onto the road outside the school.

“When we first looked at planning in 2019, they said, ‘Let’s put a fence here and that will maintain safety for that young person’.
I thought we had an opportunity to do much better. It was a combination of the education idea and the building idea to make everything more inclusive,” says Simone.

The entrance of the mainstream support suite has been moved to the opposite end of the building to open onto a quadrangle that can be secured with fencing along the school boundary. A covered verandah has been added and the classrooms were reconfigured.

“They opened up the side of the school, put in double doors and a big verandah with a very large open area which can feed into the rest of the school but not onto the road. That had a massive impact because it invited the entire school to use that place as a thoroughfare.

“The verandah also gives a vantage point to our students because they can see everything which gives them a perspective, but they are safe and comfortable in their space on that verandah,” explains Simone.

The school’s business and property manager, David Lowe, says the Ministry of Education’s project managers, architects, engineers and contractors worked alongside school staff and Learning Support to design and build the modifications, which have exceeded expectations.

The five-metre-wide verandah extends the length of the classrooms and features strengthened beams to hang sensory swings and equipment to help students with autism to centre and calm themselves.

“We have also included water and sand therapy, which our students use a lot. We’ve brought it out onto the verandah so that they can use it as they need to,” says Simone.

“They can spend 15 minutes in an hour-long lesson getting themselves regulated using sensory therapy before they can come in and do some of their lesson. Or if they have been out in mainstream, they can come back to that environment where they can regulate themselves again.”

Structure and flexibility

The programme occupies a block that includes three classroom areas, a universal school bathroom and a separate quiet space.

“All of those three classrooms can be opened up to be universal or they can be closed off to create independent spaces, so there are opportunities to mix it up depending on the needs of the students. The design works so that our young people, who like structure and routine, have the same teachers working in each of the three spaces but the students are able to go where they need to.”

Sensory overload

“There is a sensory room for our sensory programme, a key competency room and a transition room. It’s all multi-age level depending on where the students fit and sometimes this can change by the day,” says Simone.

At one time, there was artwork on the walls, but the Lighthouse Programme’s team of Simone, three teachers and nine learning assistants found that the artwork contributed to sensory overload for many of the students. The refurbished suite now has nothing hanging on the walls, which are covered with Autex, an acoustic wall covering.

“The Autex improves the sound because a lot of our students are sound sensitive and the Autex has provided that buffer for sound. It’s in a muted blue tone, which also helps lower that sensory overload.”

Making connections

As well as some mainstream students regularly having lunch on the verandah, Simone says students who now have friends in the mainstream can more easily access them without the need to be supervised.

“A couple of different groups of students come in and regularly have lunch on the verandah and our students who know them will mix with them.

“They are mainly our more senior students who have been in mainstream classes since Year 9. That gives an understanding of how long inclusion can take because both parties need to manage that inclusion. So, we need our students in that space and we need our mainstream students learning how to understand, manage and see that young person for who they are, not their disability.”

Encouraging inclusion

Simone says that young people with intellectual disabilities may begin their early schooling years learning to manage school routines and systems and can miss out on important socialisation skills.

“What happens at high school is that we start to introduce that inclusivity so they have opportunities to observe and learn from their peers and look at mainstream behaviour. It takes years to build the capacity of typical behaviour within communities; if we keep our young people away from that, then there are no opportunities for them to be immersed in typical behaviour.

“Rather than keeping people away and ‘safe’, we are actually including them, observing and providing social coaching. It’s taken four years to develop that integration where it’s normal to see our young people given that opportunity to redirect their learning and behaviour in a positive way so they can make changes over time,” she says.

School commitment to integration

Rangiora High School has added a leadership position – school captain of the mainstream support programme: a neuro-typical student who visits on a regular basis.

“The young woman doing it this year has come in as a learner and works alongside those young people who have taken a shine to her.

“We also have a number of young men who respond very positively to other teenage young men and some of our First XV boys come and mentor them. We can call one of those big young men in an emergency or to just chat with one of our young men and help them stay calm because they respond so positively.”

Living breathing space

“The property modifications and refurbishment are a direct result of observation of the Lighthouse Programme’s students and their needs,” says Simone.

“The systems we have in place mean that students who want to explore further in the school have that opportunity and students that need close monitoring can also be monitored carefully.

“You walk in and it feels like a living, breathing space. It flows. The verandah has created almost another classroom-type space; it’s connected to the other verandah, which contains the school hall and leads directly into our big Year 9 learning space. It’s just beautiful – it feels great.”

Teacher kōrero

Q: What did you think when you first saw the changes made to the classroom block?

A: The new design is brilliant for helping our students become more independent as they move to a space that best suits their learning at any one time. 

Q: What do you like/dislike about the modifications?

A: Everything from moveable walls to doorhandles has been adapted to make life a little easier for all. The students with physical disabilities can move more freely and independently from one space to another. The walls are clear of overwhelming visuals in the learning spaces. This helps our students with ADHD and ASD stay calm. Sensory stimulation and tactile activity spaces help engage more students. Sound proofing and audio amplification help those with hearing impediments. 

Q: How does the new layout help the Lighthouse Programme?

A: We have happier students who are far more independent and more motivated to engage in purposeful learning. This makes teaching so enjoyable and rewarding at Rangiora High School.

Lara Henwood

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:25 am, 22 October 2020

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