Therapy and academics: teaching autistic students at Giant Steps

National Director and Principal of Giant Steps and the 2020 Principal of the Year, Kerrie Nelson on combining therapy and teaching at her schools.
Apr 27, 2021
The goal is maximising what each individual can do.

Autism is a complex condition and including children who are on the spectrum in a regular school environment can be challenging.

One school that has developed an effective way of educating autistic children is Giant Steps, with two campuses, one in Sydney and the other in Melbourne, it has received accolades for its work in developing students to their full capabilities.

Giant Steps combines teaching with therapy; the classes are small with a high staffing ratio dependent on the program and the students' needs. Classes range from three students up to classes of eight students, however, the class sizes vary as students' needs change over time.

Each class has a teacher and then there are an equal number of therapists working across the school – Occupational, Music, Speech therapists. Therapists and teachers work together in the classroom and the service delivery is transdisciplinary, meaning that teachers learn from therapists and incorporate therapy goals across all programs and students and across the day.

National Director and Principal of Giant Steps and the 2020 Principal of the Year, Kerrie Nelson says, “Therapists are also learning how to teach students and when we combine expertise from different professionals and create programs that are delivered in a social classroom context, then we set students up for success.”

Giant Steps teaches the curriculum as set down by both NSW and Victoria and adjusts to support each student.

“It is important that students have access to rich content and that we do not limit their opportunity. For example, this year students will engage in music programs with a focus on medieval music and history and they will engage in PE activities such as paddle boarding, kayaking, camps and bushwalking. Science programs may include bush regeneration and plant recognition... all supports are "autism friendly" and students are hands on, the programs are functional and seek to motivate the students to work alongside peers and staff.”

Students can enrol at any time of the year and at any age but it’ll also depend on vacancies at schools. Students transition and this is individualised dependent on the child and the class they are moving into.

“For some students, this may take some time as they become comfortable, for other students, they jump into the program quickly. Importantly we recognise the stress and anxiety that change causes students with ASD and we seek to lay down positive memories for the child of the school.

“This may mean coming and visiting the playground area on the weekend with parents before introducing staff and then slowly introducing peers and programs. As this process unfolds, and the child and family become more comfortable then the pace of the transition usually increases,” Nelson says.

Success is measured differently for each student, however, overall Nelson wants to see students in a well-regulated state and available for learning so programs adjust to support students to maintain their emotional regulation.

“Success can be measured if the child is keen to come to school and engages in the program, for other students it may be that they move to other educational settings that will be beneficial for the child. For some children, it may be the unfolding of peer relationships, for other students it may be measured by their academic success. Importantly, we work with families to set goals for each child and these change over time as students grow and mature. Essentially, we celebrate every success, no matter how small as they may well be a giant step for that child.”

Psychiatrists and paediatricians are intimately incorporated into the school, Giant Steps has a Mental Health Clinic that runs across the year in both Sydney and Melbourne approximately two to three times per term. The Clinic has a psychiatrist and paediatrician as well as GPs (students) and a visiting neurologist. The mental health team is part of the overall transdisciplinary team and operates at the school and works alongside staff and families to understand what is happening for the child.

Based on data that staff collect at 30 minute intervals across the day, week, term and year the team can analyse and hypothesise based on real data what is happening for a child and then work on solutions that may include program changes, negotiating family supports outside of school, pharmacological supports, medical support and any individualised support that is required for the child.

“It is often perplexing to look at the intersection of autism, mental health and developmental delay so the extensive data collection using an engagement scale as well as episodic severity scale support this work,” Nelson says.

“The approach evolves and changes over time and the organisation has a strong network of professional friends in autism that drives innovation. As an example, the school is working in collaboration with Griffith and Massey University looking at literacy skills for students who are non-verbal. The organisation is very curious and always seeking solutions often driven by student need and the desire to do better than we are currently doing.”

Giant Steps has established the Autism Training Unit and there is the Autism Hub where it freely shares information, writings and programs.

“The school is very open, visitors are continual, we work alongside universities and other disability organisations to share information as widely as we can.”

Demand is high in Sydney and it’s growing at the Melbourne school which was established five years ago.

The schools are funded under the State Commonwealth agreements for independent schools that provides on average 50 per cent of staffing costs. The other 50 per cent is raised by parents and fundraising events.

“The parents are exceptional, and it is the intersection between parent commitment and staff striving to do their best for the students that makes the organisation so unique.

“Our staff retention rates have been over 95 per cent for the past 15 years and there is a strong professional learning program. Staff retention is important in order to grow the knowledge base of the staff and attract quality staff to the organisation as we grow.”

Lamb legend
Kerrie Nelson was recognised by cook Amina Elshafei and named her 2021 Lamb Legend and Amina cooked Kerrie a lamb meal to show her appreciation “She is a legend herself so being name her Lamb Legend was very special. Lamb has always brought back great memories of Sunday nights around the dinner table with my family. As one of seven children, it always meant a lot when the whole family came together so, to me, Lamb has always been a dish that brings people together,” says Nelson.