Decision making for students with disability in the mainstream classroom

Jennifer Stephenson, Mark Carter, Amanda Webster, Neale Waddy, Robert Stevens, Melissa Clements and Talia Morris present their research on different ways schools manage to integrate students with disability into mainstream classrooms.

With the increasing acceptance of inclusion, which acknowledges that students with disability should have the same opportunities and choices in their education as students without disability, most schools work to incorporate students with disability as part of their population. The Disability Standards for Education, under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), requires schools to make reasonable adjustments in consultation with families and the student (if possible) so that students with disability can access learning and teaching experiences within mainstream schools. However, little is known about how schools make such decisions, the kinds of adjustments they make, or how the adjustments are employed and evaluated.

Our study on the way schools accommodate students with disability involved collaboration of researchers from the NSW Department of Education, Macquarie University and University of Wollongong. In the course of the study, we interviewed multiple stakeholders involved in school-based decision-making processes for accommodating students with disability. The study included principals, executives, teachers, parents, student learning and support officers (SLSOs), school counsellors and students in order to investigate a broad range of perspectives on selecting and implementing adjustments to support students with disability. Interviewees came from 22 NSW schools including 18 primary and four high schools. School locations varied with representation from metropolitan, inner regional and outer regional areas. Participants at each school were asked to focus on the same student in their school community, and to consider the extensive or substantial adjustments required to accommodate and assist this student in the mainstream classroom.

The process of planning and implementation of adjustments

The interviews covered a range of topics including how decisions were made, what adjustments were implemented to accommodate the student, and how student outcomes were monitored and evaluated. Our results derive from the analysis of all the interviews, which were recorded and then transcribed.

Overall, we found that almost all schools were proactive in their planning, and that members of the school community could describe specific adjustments for the student and generally agreed on what these adjustments were. Almost all schools had processes that involved joint decision making and reported that families were substantively involved in the decision-making. Typically, the decision-making process involved families, the principal or executive, the child’s teacher and the learning and support teacher (LaST). Despite these broad commonalities, there was wide variation across schools in the finer details of the decision-making. For instance, in some schools there was disagreement, or concern about the lack of clarity in the processes, amongst the stakeholders. In general, about half the schools thought they were meeting the student’s needs. However, in other schools, teachers identified areas where they thought the student’s needs were not met. An example of such concern is raised in the following comment.

I am really concerned about him socially especially going to Years 11 and 12, where there is a great deal of work and students rely upon each other to do group work, and to support each other. … and I'm just at a loss as to how to progress with that with him. I can’t make him be more social and I don’t know what kind of a program would help him. (Teacher – high school)

Adapting instruction and classroom procedures

Over half the schools reported they had a broad educational focus for the student with disability, but there was a number that focussed to a much greater extent on care, safety, and participation, than they did on student learning outcomes. Related to this, in most schools, the focus of adjustments was narrow and limited to a few specific areas. While for some students, such as those with vision impairment, a narrower focus might be appropriate, the majority of students with higher support needs would require a broader range of adjustments.

In many schools the adjustments to curriculum content were given less emphasis. For some students, fairly generalised adjustments to teaching or curriculum provided the support necessary for the student with disability. The essence of these less complicated adjustments is captured in the following comments.

The classroom teacher adjusts her – the delivery of her instructions, and makes them very simple, low on the verbal, and more high on the visual. (School counsellor – primary school).

Obviously, a lot of the things that we do as a class N can’t do the same, so we adjust it so he can be included, such as if we’re playing a dice game kids might be adding numbers whereas he’ll just be identifying the number that’s rolled on the dice. (Teacher – primary school)

There have been lots of adjustments around seating plans, teacher instruction, making teacher instruction explicit, the way they dealt with conflict in terms of not confronting him and letting him have time to cool off. I think he’s used the timeout card at various points as well. (School counsellor – high school)

But we always encourage teachers to constantly touch base, ‘Do you understand what is required of you N?’ Certainly, he’s not made the centre of attention in the classroom necessarily, but we really stress that he needs clear expectations of what is required of him during the lesson. (LaST – high school)

A range of more specific adjustments were also described as necessary in some situations. In one small school, which did not employ an SLSO, the teacher outlined the simple and effective adjustments to teaching he used consistently. He explained,

I make sure that when I’m working with him, that I get him to sit opposite me so that we’ve got, you know, I’m right in front of him so I can stop him from being distracted by stuff happening behind us. We’ve got eye contact, make sure he’s listening to me, and we just do lots of reminding, we do lots of retelling, showing, helping, so you support him a lot in getting stuff started. And when he does something, we’re really making a big deal, ‘Wow, look at that! You’ve really done that well. And that’s fantastic writing.’ (Teacher – primary school)

Some schools found individual peer support worked well, suggesting that the use of a peer may be a strategy to reduce the need for an SLSO. One school approached peer support more broadly by teaching all students some basic sign language.

… a peer tutor, that was another suggestion, that would help her meet her goals, to have a peer. She would get a peer to read to her and she would read to a peer and things like that. Same as writing and recognising her numbers, so having flash cards and a peer going over them with her. (Executive – primary school)

She’s always paired up with a buddy who’s like a stronger worker, she’s always sitting next to a more capable worker to give her that support. (Teacher – primary school)

… teach the other children some signs and put those signs around the school. We’ve put them in the classrooms and in the playground so the children can learn specific signs to help N. (Principal – primary school)

For a number of students, participants reported using various visual resources to support oral instructions in order to establish and maintain routines.

We have the use of the visual timetable and social stories, short, clear instructions, repetition of instructions, record of behaviour booklet, task completion booklet, which was about recording the positive behaviour. … had a mat for when sitting on the floor for group stories and class sharing time … feedback via a happy face and a sad face to help him, assist with class task completion … we maintained a clear routine and practice, particularly between transitions between activities and locations. The use of visuals to identify when feeling stressed or anxious. Use clear, concise visual timetables and visuals throughout the room and school environment. (Teacher – primary school)

As a part of a behaviour management strategy, visual representations were often used as a way to support students to maintain appropriate behaviour.

What I’ve done is I’ve put together a behaviour contingency contract for him … and we talk about the expectations and we identify our three things that we’re going to focus on, and that’s laminated [visual representation], and we stick it on his desk. That way we can use his language when we speak to him about what’s expected, and they’re the things that he’s come up with as well, that he’s decided that he needs to work on. So, there’s that element of ownership as well. I’ve got a sticker book, and a little tick chart as well. If we’re doing the right thing, we’re following all of our rules, we get ticks. When we get five ticks, we get a sticker in our book, each row has four little boxes, and then when he fills up a row of stickers, then he gets something out of the prize box, and he gets some free time. I’ve sort of been trying to make sure he gets there quite quickly to try and shape his behaviour a little bit, and then I’m going to sort of ease back on it come the last week of school and see how we go. (LaST – primary school)

For some students, text to speech and/or voice to text software was used to provide access to and production of more complex text, and this use of technology fitted into general class routines.

They did a Year 7 novel just to see - a text that they read through in class and the teacher actually got me to download the audible, which is online, and it actually plugged into the text. And that way B could actually listen to the book get read to her, so that was a big benefit because someone was actually reading the book to her and then she could go through and she could answer the questions that the teacher was actually asking. (Parent – primary school).

We all use, the whole class uses Google Classroom, and that she finds really effective. I use an app on my phone or sometimes on her iPad that’s a text to speech app, because she still struggles with writing. So, if we’re doing creative writing or writing of any sort of text, she will 9 times out of 10 use the voice to text and then she’ll type that up. (Teacher – primary school)

Allowing him to at times type his work, rather than write with a pen, because he's so inclined towards doing that [typing]. So, if he wants to demonstrate his learning through that, digitally publishing his work, then actually that's the end point anyway. (Teacher – primary school).

Flexible use of SLSOs

We found that the most common adjustment utilised across all schools was the employment of an SLSO. These individuals were used extensively and were reported to mostly work under the direction of a teacher. SLSOs were frequently used to help the student stay on task and to complete activities. Most schools used the SLSO to work one-to-one with an individual student and did not indicate plans to fade this support over time. Nevertheless, some schools described a range of more flexible uses of SLSOs including use for specific small group instruction.

The spelling lists were adjusted, and the little small group would work with the teacher's aide and they practice spelling and look at the spelling patterns. (Teacher – primary school)

Support from an SLSO was also used to allow the teacher to focus on small group teaching.

If I’m with a group and she’s [the SLSO] on, she’s helping with some of the other groups, then she’ll notice a behaviour, or she can implement something. (Teacher – primary school)

Few schools had specific goals for the student associated with the use of an SLSO. Clarity about student goals and how the SLSO can contribute to specific student outcomes would facilitate evaluation of SLSO use. This approach might include training SLSOs to implement specific academic programs or activities, to implement strategies that increase student independence and ability to complete tasks. More broadly, it may be helpful for schools to consider their reasons for employing an SLSO and even consider other strategies (that is, peer support, technology, and increased teacher use of adjustments to pedagogy, curriculum and classroom management) that could be used to achieve specific outcomes for a student with disability.

Formal programs to address task related behaviour and clear goal setting

Many schools reported that the main use of the SLSO was to help the student to stay engaged and to complete set tasks. Despite this, only a few reported they used systematic adjustments to encourage students to become more independent, monitor their own engagement or decrease the SLSO support over time. One teacher described how he had promoted student task completion.

I could sit there with him the whole time, but I don’t. We’ve been giving him more and more extended periods of, ‘Well, here’s the work.’ Support him to get started. Once he knows what he’s doing, walking away and letting him actually take a bit of responsibility. And then giving him a reward, and when he finishes that, ‘What would you like do once this is complete?’ … We’ve gone from writing a word to writing 20 words. (Teacher – primary school)

We identified some areas where some schools might need additional support when making decisions about adjustments for students with disability. For many schools the goals for the students were unclear, or only very generally stated. Clear goals allow for monitoring of student progress in relation to the goals. In some schools, teachers were able to describe very specific goals.

Basic goals, when she first started kindergarten, was to write her name, count to 10, read a level 2 text, I think I had a goal of write five simple sight words. We started off with a goal of I think it was going two days without having a toileting accident … (Executive – primary school)

So, what we’re looking for is, in regards to academic goals, is looking for him to be able to write his name, being able to identify letters, being able to identify specific words and he’s on a certain reading programme for that. Number knowledge, so can he count to 10. Can he identify numbers up to 10? Does he know what a group is? (LaST – primary school)

A goal for N. going through was actually to be able to identify using an emotional thermometer which is one the adjustments that we put in place and there was a lot of education put in behind that with him as well but to be able to identify where he was on the emotional thermometer and then the action that he would take. (LaST – primary school)

One school had worked through a series of goals related to independence.

So it could be something like independence with walking into the playground at the beginning of the year, he needed to be escorted into which part of the playground it needed to be, or into the classroom because that was all new, whereas now he does all of that himself, he independently puts his bag up, his hat, his shoes. So, independence would’ve been goals for that but now independence shifts to say independently logging onto a computer. So that independence goal changes as we go through the year. (Executive –primary school)

Another school, working on increasing social interaction, taught ways for a student to approach other children and ask to join in.

How to promote interaction; how to say somehow, ‘can I play?’ Because there was a while where she would stand and wait for everybody to come to her, which a lot of kids with a lot of input do. So, we had to teach her to go out and reach out. And how to make the girls understand ‘can I play too?’ (LaST – primary school)


Lack of clear, specific goals meant monitoring was often informal and not individualised. Monitoring was most commonly described as involving a discussion of student progress or formal monitoring of generic outcomes through half-yearly class assessments or NAPLAN. About one-third of schools had some system for formally monitoring adjustment-specific outcomes. In some schools, individual monitoring for every child, enabled teachers to track progress.

We have instructional leader process in our school, and they have a very complex system of data collecting which is done every five weeks … So, N’s progress in literacy and numeracy is assessed - like it’s ongoing, every five weeks, collection of data and tracking of the data. So that then, in turn, generates where the teaching points have got to be for the next five weeks. And that’s done for every child. It’s the most perfect way to support students, including N. (LaST – primary school)

Well, because we’re Early Action for Success school data’s collected and submitted to Sydney every five weeks but collected every week, our plan data, so it’s closely monitored and we have a data [wall] that tracks every student in our school to show where they’re up to and where they need to go. And their learning goals for writing for instance are in their writing book and they know where they need to go to next to achieve that goal so that’s ongoing all the time for maths and literacy. (Principal – primary school)

In some school communities, the value of clear goals and more consistent monitoring were recognised.

Yeah, I think there needs to be more sort of goals set so that, not just for N. but so the teacher knows okay, well this is where I have to help him get up to, because it's sort of just a bit casual. (Parent – primary school)

Overall, many schools had established broad outcomes for students, but had not considered setting clear and specific goals that could be regularly monitored to inform changes to programs and adjustments. Teachers described a range of adjustments they found helpful, and although some schools described basic adjustments to teaching strategies, few curriculum adaptations were described. Many schools considered the use of an SLSO as an adjustment but had not planned specifically how the use of an SLSO would help the student reach the planned outcomes. Some school used SLSOs flexibly and others used peers or technology to provide support in place of an SLSO. Overall schools appeared to be committed to doing the best they could for students with disability and including them in all aspects of school life.


Australian Government (1992 – amended 2018). Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

NSW Department of Education. (2005). Disability standards for education.

How to cite this article – Stephenson, J., Carter, M., Webster, A., Waddy, N., Stevens, R., Clements & Morris, T. (2020). Decision making for students with disability in the mainstream classroom, Scan, 39(9).

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