Late last year Minister Tracey Martin released a bold blueprint for the re-organisation of provision for children with additional learning needs. The draft Disability and Learning Support Plan has been praised by many, particularly for the way it gives greater recognition to the SENCO role (re-titled Learning Support Facilitator). Meanwhile, many working in schools are left wondering what will happen to another critical role; that of the Resource Teacher for Learning and Behaviour (RTLB).
The RTLB service is little known outside education circles, but does vital work in helping children and teachers create successful classrooms.
Nic Hennephof works as an RTLB and reckons it’s the best job in education.
“I loved being a classroom teacher, but this job is special,” he says. “You get to work alongside a bunch of teachers and children and often make a real difference in their lives. It’s a real privilege.”
Nic is employed by one of the country’s 40 clusters of Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB). He is based at Pakuranga Intermediate in a busy office with around 30 staff who work across the district.
“The service is a really important support for schools, teachers and students,” says Nic. “There’s a wide range of experience and expertise in the team and we collaborate with teachers to make inclusion a reality for students with diverse needs.”
Typically SENCOs apply for assistance through the Service’s on-line portal and Nic, or one of his colleagues, will visit the school to observe and assess.
“It’s about collecting all the data we can,” says Nic. “We already have the data the school has provided, which may include information from home, so really we are bringing a different lens, trying to find what are the barriers to the student’s learning.”
From the data, the teaching team, Nic and sometimes other specialists agree on a plan.
“It’s getting together, making sure our goals align and bringing our expertise together to help the child. We decide what we want to achieve within an initial timeframe and we commit resource to that.”
The resourcing may include the RTLB working intensively in the classroom alongside the student and teacher and may involve expertise from the Ministry’s Learning Support, such as Speech-Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists or Educational Psychologists. Sometimes assistance may be sought through the local Child Mental Health service at the D.H.B.
As his title suggests, Nic is equally as likely to work with behaviour issues as learning difficulties.
“Working collaboratively with the student and teaching staff can often have a profound effect. We regularly see students who have been off-task 80 percent of the time turn that around in a matter of weeks so they’re engaged with learning 80 percent of the day. That’s life-changing for the child and the teacher in that classroom.”
“We achieve that through detective work; digging down deep, to find the function of the undesirable behaviour and then finding strategies to make the change.”
Nic can introduce a range of techniques that students and teachers use, including specific reward schemes, visual supports and the modelling of social skills.
“We don’t take a student out of the classroom and magically fix them,” he says. “We work alongside the teacher, the syndicate and often the whole school to make a change that works for everyone. “
“Sometimes I’m privileged to take teachers away for the day, giving them time to focus on one or two students in their class, developing skills that will make a difference, not just for the current students but for every child who goes through that classroom from here on in.”
As well as bringing new strategies into a classroom or school, an RTLB can often introduce tools that make a significant difference. Nic tells about working with students who cannot or will not write and consequently disrupt their own and others’ learning.
“Again, it’s about identifying the barrier to learning and participation and then thinking of ways around that. It might be that there’s an assistive technology that makes the barrier disappear. For example, replacing pencil and paper with speech detection devices, headphones and microphones can be a solution. I’ve had quite a number of cases where a child would routinely only write a sentence in half an hour, but after a few weeks working with text devices they are producing whole paragraphs in 10 minutes. They’re suddenly writing pages in a session and taking their writing to the Principal for an award. A new tool can be transformative.”
There are times Nic is able to suggest a pedagogical change, or teaching resource that will make a similar difference, not only for an individual student, but for a whole class.
“Sometimes, particularly with boys, the block with writing is coming up with ideas. I’ve introduced several teachers to TKI’s “Game of Awesome,” which I think is one of the best resources out there. It’s fun and can be used in multiple ways. It’s great for literacy, but also as a tool to build students’ relationship skills.”
Nic Hennephof is firmly of the belief that the challenges posed by children with learning and behavioural needs can bring out the best in teachers. In championing the student and coming to understand and respond effectively their particular needs, teachers develop skills and strategies that work for many more children in their classrooms.
“Building teacher capacity is the best thing we can do. Teachers work so hard and a big part of our job is to give them skills to reduce that load.”
The RTLB service in Pakuranga is also involved in the transition of children from one educational setting to another. Working with the Ministry of Education Learning Support and Early Intervention teams, they’re able to ensure the supports are in place when children with additional needs begin school.
“It’s about setting them up for success from the start,” says Nic. “Using RTLB funding we can put resources in place so that children feel comfortable in their new setting.”