The early years of primary school should be filled with fun, wonder and new friends. But they are also fundamentally important for learning and setting children up for success not only in primary school, but also for the rest of their lives.
According to Tina Day, Head of Learning Support at St Peter’s Woodlands Grammar School, too many primary schools don’t intervene quickly enough, losing the window of opportunity to take action.
“If we wait until Year 3 or 4 to establish that a child is struggling and hasn’t properly mastered the basics of reading, writing and numeracy, then it is much more difficult to get things back on track,” she says.
“Our approach is all about early intervention. We are trying to determine issues very early in the primary years, and taking proactive steps to work with teachers and children, to help develop the foundation skills they need.”
The changing nature of modern class rooms
The modern primary school is a diverse place, including students with learning disabilities, students who are multilingual or for whom English is a second language, students who are academically gifted, and students who have social or emotional difficulties.
In the past, students with learning difficulties would have been withdrawn from standard classrooms. These days the gold standard of education is about inclusivity, while catering to the varied needs within the classroom through high quality differentiated teaching.
“Withdrawal has become less and less effective. It really doesn’t work for today’s dynamic classroom, and it can have significant psychological impacts on those children who are withdrawn, negatively affecting their confidence and self-esteem,” Tina said.
“Today the expectation is that the needs of all students are best met in a regular classroom, so the work we do is all about supporting and resourcing both teachers and students in the classroom environment.”
Testing is just a game
While there are a number of defined tests for primary aged children, including the annual NAPLAN tests, the good news for parents of young children is that observational testing is the best approach.
“In early learning, research shows that the ability to learn how to read is predicated on how well we develop our vocabulary, phonemic awareness skills and our mastery of phonics,” Tina said.
“So the first way we assess the children is through games and singing and conversation, in fact they wouldn’t know they were being tested. We’re seeing how well the children can make sounds, how they understand patterns and syllables, and how quickly they are learning these skills.”
In the UK, the use of phonics as part of the toolkit for early literacy development, has transformed their reading results for primary students in the last five years.
At SPW, a successful trial of phonemic awareness skill development, will be expanded in 2018 to all students in Foundation (Reception), Year 1 and Year 2.
It is proving extremely successful in helping children to establish the right skills for reading independently, but it is also helping Tina and her team to determine the children who may need extra support.
What intervention looks like at SPW
Needing extra support isn’t uncommon, with up to 20% of Australian school children, requiring additional help for a wide range of reasons.
At SPW, the aim of early intervention is to provide the right support as soon as possible to get things back on track.
The school provides two full-time special education teachers who provide training and support to all teachers, and a team of Education Support Officers. They also work with parents and students to create personal learning and education plans.
There are also speech therapists and educational psychologists available to work with students, and a targeted before-school literacy programme.
“Our Education Support Officers work in the classrooms with children who need extra support, to ensure they grasp the concepts, skills and information being taught.”
“Most students will catch up and won’t always need the extra help, but others with more persistent learning difficulties or disabilities may need this help throughout their primary education.”
Tina and her team continue to analyse NAPLAN, PATS (progressive achievement tests) and a variety of early screening assessments and work with teachers, to continue to monitor the progress of all students. Again, the aim is to pick up on any emerging issues quickly, to allow action to be taken.
The right support, at home and school
The right support at school and home can make a huge difference for all children, including those who need some extra learning support.
“One of the best things parents of young children can do is take the time to sing to them, to read nursery rhymes, to just chat with them. Singing ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ for the 100th time or a continuous game of ‘I Spy’ might drive you a little crazy, but it will help your child lay the foundation for early reading,” Tina said.
“The other advice I always give to parents is to trust your child’s teacher. They really know your child well and want them to learn and succeed. If your child does need some extra help, early intervention is always the best approach.”