The Australian Medical Association describes an Australia where kids’ physical health is better than ever, but where developmental health is on the decline. The question that educators, carers, and parents particularly are faced with is how to respond to this situation, and do the right thing by our kids. 

The importance of inclusion in the face of growing demands

A worrying new trend has been emerging within schools. As the numbers of children with autism or special needs continues to climb, there are growing reports of their exclusion. Last year, a number of accounts of students barred from excursions and regularly suspended emerged amid growing research into this trend. Inadequate support and training coupled with complex demands on teachers and limited time means kids with special needs are sadly being sidelined.

Evidence suggests that failure to intervene in a child’s development early on can detrimentally affect an individual’s learning capacity, behaviour, ability to regulate emotions and their risks for disease in later life. If we don’t respond to kid’s individual needs, we’re at risk of pushing them further into exclusion as they get older.

Society is getting better overall at diagnosing autism, mental health issues and other special conditions. However, it seems it’s failing to provide an environment where those diagnosed can then go on to receive the education and support they need to thrive. Two separate Senate enquiries over the last two years concluded as much, calling for increased funding and training focused around the diverse, individual needs of children.

So, what would that training look like?

The latest research shows that the development of social and emotional competence is linked to academic learning. It’s essential that an inclusive, supportive environment is provided for kids experiencing special conditions or mental health issues, in order for them to excel. According to the Australian Medical Association, “(Education and intervention) programs must incorporate early identification of problems and have the capacity to adapt the setting to meet the needs of the individual child.”

So far, the practise of inclusion has been mostly limited to keeping kids with diagnosed conditions in regular classes, rather than attempting to individualise teaching and community approaches to fit them. If we’re going to help all children thrive emotionally, socially and academically, it’s critical to extend inclusion beyond that limited scope. Children need to feel valued for who they are, not excluded or even tolerated.

The ‘person first approach’ at Torren’s University, and how it’s turning inclusion upside-down.

Torrens University has developed a new approach to their courses addressing mental health, autism and special needs. In a national first, Torrens actually co-designed these courses with individuals who experience mental health, autism or learning differences. Instead of trying to ‘treat’ the individual or fit them into a broader system, this approach asks how the system can work around the individual.

The new approach, which they call the ‘person first’ approach, “shifts the focus from a passive acceptance from the person at the centre of the issue to a more active role where their individual needs are actively considered.”

Whether you’re an educator, parent or health practitioner, the first person approach was created to help you respond individually to children and young people with special needs or mental ill health. Michael Grimley, Torrens’ Dean of Education, explains:

“It is essential for parents and teachers to have a deep empathetic understanding of the child’s condition if they are to support the young person with their condition, and it helps to have strategies for supporting the young person across different contexts. The ‘person first’ perspective is useful for this purpose. This perspective involves learning about a condition by engaging with the stories of those who have direct experience with it, and then considering how these experiences are similar and different from our own experiences.

"Further, to improve the classroom experience of vulnerable young people it is essential that parents, carers and teachers have common frames of reference to enable them to work together to improve school and learning experiences. The ‘person first’ approach provides a common set of language and experiences for people to explore, discuss, and understand.”

What ‘person first’ courses are on offer addressing mental health, special needs and autism?

For those wanting to develop a more inclusive way of working with kids and young people, Torrens University has 2 Masters Degrees and 4 Graduate Certificates on offer, all of which utilise the person first approach.

The Master of Education (Special Education), and the MA of Education (Special Education Advanced) take a Design thinking approach to challenges faced by persons with a range of additional learning needs. Both courses lead the student through all three key streams of autism, special needs and mental health.

In addition to the Masters degrees, the following four graduate certificates also focus on problem solving from a person first perspective. These courses are all designed to highlight the diversity of learning differences. The aim is to provide students the skills they need to develop inclusion practices and support individual learners. 


For further information regarding the person first approach or enrollment in courses, please contact Torrens University here.