The Incredible Years Autism programme in action

Issue: Volume 98, Number 20

Posted: 22 November 2019
Reference #: 1HA2zU

A programme that provides strategies and training for parents and early childhood teachers who support tamariki on the autism spectrum has seen improved confidence and outcomes.

Amanda Evans uses a puppet ‘Tiny Turtle’ to teach, model and practice social skills such as self-regulation and empathy. When puppets become the focus, children on the autism spectrum feel less pressure as they learn new skills.

The Incredible Years Autism programme (IYA) is a Ministry of Education social wellbeing initiative that focuses on key adults (caregivers and whānau, teachers/kaiako) who support children on the autism spectrum. 

The IYA programme was developed by Dr Carolyn Webster-Stratton, an American clinical psychologist and founder of the Incredible Years programmes, which have been in New Zealand since 2010. 

“I originally developed the Incredible Years programme because I saw a very real need for cost-effective support for parents and teachers, helping them to find more positive ways to interact and respond to children in challenging situations,” says Carolyn.

Building on the success of the Incredible Years programme, the Ministry of Education gained funding in 2017 to deliver new programmes to support the learning needs and strengths of children on the autism spectrum and carry out an evaluation of the programme in New Zealand. 

The IYA programme was subsequently rolled out in 2018. It is currently available in eight regions in New Zealand, with local group leaders trained by Carolyn.

Improving teacher and parent confidence

The focus on parent/teacher wellbeing has impacted significantly on children, with many stories of change, says Akari Miyamoto, IYA project lead for the Ministry of Education.

The Ministry of Education surveyed parents and teachers who took part in the programme between February and June 2019. The cohort of 78 parents and 85 teachers attended 14–16 sessions for parents and a separate six-session programme for teachers. The programmes are interactive, collaborative, self-directed and driven by each child’s developmental abilities and goals. Together they promote children’s emotional regulation, positive social interactions and language development.

Teachers reported a 28 per cent improvement in confidence between the start and end of their programme. There was a significant and positive shift in teachers’ confidence in promoting social, emotional and language skills. They also reported a large improvement in the frequency of using specific teaching techniques and a 16 per cent improvement in the frequency of promoting parental involvement.

“We have got amazing feedback from teachers. They are reporting they have increased their confidence and capability. The programme puts the child in the spotlight, and it’s increasing the teachers’ strength-based practices,” says Akari.

Parents surveyed before and after they participated in the programme reported significant and moderately large improvements in their stress and coping skills. After the programme, there was a nine per cent improvement from ‘so stressful, sometimes we feel we can’t cope’, towards ‘not stressful’. 

When asked about child involvement and engagement at home post-programme, parents noted that children were participating more frequently in activities such as chores, playing and socialising.

The IYA programmes aim to deliver support to teachers and parents to create the best learning environment for children with autism, says Akari.

Multi-agency approach

In the past two years, the Ministry has been working closely with autism advocacy groups and the Ministry of Health to ensure better support for children and to implement and adapt the IYA programme to the New Zealand context.

A Neurodiversity Day held at Mātauranga House in Wellington in August was attended by over 120 representatives from NGOs, sector groups, Oranga Tamariki and the Ministries of Health and Education. The event supported the Government’s Learning Support Action Plan 2019-2025 priority to strengthen support for neuro-diverse children and young people.

“I have never been to a day where the family perspective was so at the centre. It was quite emotional at times for me,” says a clinical psychologist attending from Werry Workforce Whāraurau.

For more information, visit Incredible Years Autism on the PB4L(external link) site.  

Enhancing engagement

Amanda Evans was significantly moved by a young boy’s progress following the implementation of a range of IYA strategies. The boy, who is non-verbal and deaf, began counting from one to 10.

“It was such an amazing moment to see him doing that. After he started counting and using his communication board more and more, he started using words,” she says. 

Amanda is centre manager at Annabel’s Educare in New Brighton, Christchurch and says that IYA training has helped enhance her engagement with all children. 

She is eager to explore all children’s capabilities, whether it is counting to 10, joining the kai table, using words or making eye contact.

“The [IYA programme] gave me the skills to bring a spotlight on our relationship,” she says.

Amanda has become adept at looking for opportunities to get involved in children’s play and activities. Kai time is a great occasion to engage with children, she says.

She has noticed significant differences in children’s ability to communicate and seek help.

“Through the IYA course you use a lot of visuals and one of the biggest progresses was when children started pointing at things from their communication board when they wanted something. We actually had children starting to use words, become verbal over that time and joining in experiences like mat time.” 

Amanda says the IYA programme has helped build better connections with children’s parents and whānau.

“I think the key is consistency at home as well and the parents of the children I worked with were really open to the strategies that we were using and were using them at home,” she says.

Teacher training

Since the beginning of 2018, Lee Taylor Burt and Sheila Russell have taken 72 Canterbury teachers through the six-week IYA programme. 

The two colleagues are experienced early childhood teachers who have been Incredible Years facilitators for the Project Early Charitable Trust for 10 years. The IYA programme is for teachers of children aged between two and five years old who are working with a child who is on the autism spectrum.

Sheila explains that the IYA programme upskills teachers to be able to get the child’s attention and engage with them. As children on the autism spectrum often find it difficult to understand non-verbal cues and social norms, techniques taught may include exaggerating non-verbal language, or simple things like reading to a child face-to-face to encourage eye contact.

“Each week of the course, teachers spend half a day learning and practising skills and then, while the learning is fresh, they go back to their centres in the afternoon and implement strategies they have learnt that day. It builds up their confidence, because if they don’t have any training in dealing with children on the autism spectrum, they often don’t know what to do,” says Sheila. 

It worked!

“They come back the following week with amazing stories and say ‘I can’t believe that really worked!’” says Sheila.

“Teachers need to overcome that feeling of being intrusive as they get into a child’s spotlight, even as the child tries to avoid you. It’s counter-intuitive but the training helps teachers feel confident about what is needed to engage the child and not feel they are forcing themselves on the child – it can feel quite awkward as you begin using this strategy,” says Lee.

The six-week IYA training programme incorporates watching videos of scenarios where teachers engage with children, followed by discussions, buzzes, practices and role plays. IYA techniques involve a lot of prompting, modelling and scaffolding, says Lee.

Lee says children might initially reject opportunities to interact with others, and a teacher can help scaffold social interaction between the children.

“We know children learn by having that social connection and the sooner they start practising and being engaged, the easier it becomes,” she says.

The programme uses visual aids, such as images of activities and things, to which all children can relate. For example, a teacher may hold up a picture of some toys and ask children to point out their favourite toy which builds peer-to-peer connections when the children find they have something in common.

Teachers become more confident knowing they are armed with simple strategies that work, says Sheila.

“The programme can help children to develop social skills to a high standard and gives teachers a good opportunity to practise many strategies and work very closely with a child and their whānau. We have seen teachers making amazing progress.”

Further information updates about early learning can be found in the Early Learning Bulletin. You can subscribe here(external link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:18 am, 22 November 2019

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