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Students get the jump on their emotions

At Sutherland Shire's Cook School the innovative use of occupational therapists in classrooms is helping students manage their behaviour while lifting literacy outcomes.

A student bounces on the trampoline

At Cook School a trampoline is one of the tools the staff are using to bring student emotions under control

When students at Cook School start bouncing off the walls, their teachers often suggest they do just that and send them out to one of the school’s trampolines.

Time out jumping on a trampoline is just one of a suite of innovative ideas the special purposes school is embracing as part of a study aimed at improving student self-regulation, behaviour and lifting literacy outcomes.

Under the research project Cook School is redefining ways occupational therapy is delivered in schools by taking a classroom, rather than individual student approach.

Instead of personal management plans, the school’s occupational therapist works within the classroom to show students how to self-regulate their behaviour and emotions.

“Our approach has already reaped dividends in terms of improved student behaviour, leading to increased academic engagement,” school principal Dave Hobson said.

“As an example we have found just a few minutes on a trampoline can really turn a distressed or overstimulated student around and help them re-engage with learning – it’s based on evidence that movement and heavy muscle work supports the regulation of the students’ nervous systems.

“But essentially what that means is it’s harder to remain upset or aggressive when you are bouncing on a trampoline. We can deal with issues quickly and return a student to the classroom, ready to engage in a significantly shorter time period.”

Mr Hobson said the project, coordinated by Cook School Assistant Principal Tracey Gocher, aimed to improve academic outcomes for the students as well.

“Through the use of the OT we are increasing students’ capacity to regulate themselves by explicitly teaching them the strategies they need,” he said.

“We want to bring them back to a regulated state so they can achieve an optimal state for learning and keep them there as long as possible.”

Cook School is a special purposes school that currently supports 32 different public schools across Sydney’s south. Its enrolment of 42 includes students from kindergarten to Year 10 with behavioural issues that affect learning in their mainstream school.

Students spend up to 18 months at the school on a part-time basis transitioning from one day a week at their referring school to five days.

Mr Hobson said the school had previously found many students “fell apart” when they returned to their regular school because they no longer had the intensive support structures present at Cook School.

“We want to see the students go back with a much greater chance of staying in school than they had before,” he said.

“This is not about just managing student behaviour, but rather ensuring that students are equipped with the self-regulatory skills they need in order to achieve in a mainstream school, to go on to high school, to go on to university and to function in the workplace.”

Occupational therapist Nick Janicaud said he was impressed by the willingness of the school staff to embrace evidence-driven changes in practice.

While many of the strategies they were using were not new, he had helped refine them to be more effective and educate the students about what they were doing.

“For example there was a calm space in the classroom, but now they have breathing implements to calm their breath and the students know why they are going there - it’s not a punishment because I’m annoyed, they understand I’m recommending that place because I am trying to help; so it really shifts how they think,” he said.

He said some students needed calm spaces, while others needed tactile or movement-based experiences.

“It’s a journey the teachers and students go on – it’s not a one-size-fits-all, everyone regulates differently.”

As part of the four-year program, funded by SchoolsPlus Australia through a grant from Toyota Australia, the school is also working with Dr Kirsty Young at UTS’s School of Education, who is studying how behaviour management impacts on literacy outcomes.

Dr Young said the program was already “yielding exceptional results in terms of the professional development of teachers, school learning support officers and the occupational therapist” and would lead to a protocol on the use of OTs in educational settings.

She said initial findings suggested “significant potential for the transfer of Cook School initiatives to the students’ home schools, for the benefit of both the students and the teachers at their home schools”.

Baseline data was being collected on each student in the program across a range of domains including socio-emotional assessments and academic assessments, with a focus on literacy.

“The premise being, when students can more effectively self-regulate there is opportunity for increased academic engagement,” she said.

Mr Hobson said the school’s involvement in the program had also played a role in increasing engagement for staff as well as students.

Staff were highly committed to the program, as evidenced by the 2017 People Matters Survey, which indicated that 94 per cent of school staff said they were highly engaged in their work, were happy to contribute more than what would normally be required, and had a strong sense of personal accomplishment.

These were among the highest survey results in the state, Mr Hobson said.

He said there had also been a 23 per cent drop in student suspensions in the past three years and an almost 74 per cent drop in spending on short-term staff relief.

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