And yet now, thanks to the injection of four ‘social robots’ in their classrooms, students at Waratah Special Developmental School are learning to overcome challenging behaviours and get on with the main game: learning.

In what is a first for Victoria, teachers from the special school have linked forces with La Trobe University researchers to trial how robots might work as a teaching companion in classes, and to monitor how educators can shift their practice to better cater to the diverse, and sometimes testing, needs of children with an intellectual disability.

Principal Jenny Wallace says she was eager to “see what opportunity there might be for [the technology]” when the school was first approached by researchers in 2016.

“…a lot of our students do respond quite well to the predictability of technology,” she begins.

“So computers, when they work, respond the same way – if you do something it gives you the same response – a lot of students find that quite reassuring.”

“I thought ‘let’s give this a go and see how the students respond’”.

Waratah now has four robots busily supporting teachers in their daily dives into the curriculum. Capable of recognising human voices and faces, detecting emotions and reading and reciting text, the tech-powered supporters can also dance and belt out music.

It’s quite the professional resume.

“Some of the students treat them like a person – others understand that they are not,” Wallace reports.

“…one of the things that we are really interested in exploring further is that the robots have social capabilities of doing facial and voice recognition, so we are looking at how some of those things can be used, particularly to monitor some of the students’ sensory regulation, just clue us and the students in when [they] start to get a little bit anxious. So the robot will be able to sense that before we [do].”

For teacher Gurinder Kaur, her classroom companion “Betty” has had an obvious effect on the engagement and excitement in her students.

“…because it had not been trialed yet in Victorian special schools, it was a new concept for me,” Kaur recalls.

“So I had to make the activities (with Betty) interactive, I also designed two activities which were based on students’ needs, interests, their learning goals and also the curriculum.”

This was a case study in action.

“I wanted to explore how they reacted to Betty, because we had students in the classroom who would grab anything and throw it on the floor; but they showed respect, they were very curious, they were very excited…

“I would sit Betty right on the floor next to them, and they never touched her.

“So it was really amazing, there were lots of [insights] that I learnt as well as we went through the whole project.”

As well as facilitating various literacy and numeracy tasks, Kaur says the children have gained a suite of “empowering” social skills along the way.

She notes that one student, who has struggled with concentration and attention-seeking behaviors, found solace, and a friend, in Betty.
“[He] was always looking for an adult, seeking an adult’s attention, so Betty could say to him ‘come and play with me’...”

The rewards have not come without effort. Kaur says that in order to nut out the technology’s coding applications, Waratah teachers spent many hours working alongside the university’s tech support team.

“It was a challenge for us, but I think I can say on behalf of all the staff that we have had a positive outcome, it really stimulated our creativity…”