At two schools in regional Victoria, students have been spending one lesson a week on some unusual activities. These include wrapping each other in sleeping bags, swinging on monkey bars and playing Snap, all while describing how fast their engines are running.
They are part of a unique ‘whole-of-classroom’ intervention being trialled by alumna Professor Alison Lane, and Dr Kelsey Philpott-Robinson from the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, as well as La Trobe Inclusive Education Lecturer and alumna Dr Anne Southall. After the disruption caused by COVID-19, teachers were noticing many students, some of whom are autistic, facing challenges with concentrating on learning.
Decades of research in allied health, psychology and education has identified self-regulation as a foundational skill for students to be receptive to learning. Based on this, the ALERT Program ® was developed for delivery to an entire class at once to teach self-regulation techniques to these students, thanks to a generous gift-in-Will from the late Kalon Salter.
'You can give money to all sorts of support charities, but giving specifically to research that is improving outcomes for education makes a bigger difference in the long term to all children with autism.’ - Ellie House, Kalon’s Will executor and friend.
The Alert Program
Traditionally, students who require extra help in being learning-ready are targeted with one-to-one assistance which happens outside of the classroom. As well as being an inefficient use of scarce staff time, this approach does not promote inclusion. By contrast, the implementation of the ALERT program is delivered to the whole class and is also co-taught by the teachers and an occupational therapist. This multi-disciplinary approach is bridging a knowledge gap for teachers, while increasing the program’s success by building on each discipline’s strengths.
‘Teachers have in-depth knowledge of how children learn, while OTs are experts in techniques for building children’s self-understanding,’ said Dr Southall.
The ALERT program is delivered to a class of 9- to 10-year-olds in a 45-minute lesson once a week for 10 weeks.
‘This universal approach benefits all students because it gives the entire community a common language and strategies to talk about differences in learning behaviour,’ said Professor Lane.
The aim of the program is to teach students to notice and to modify their levels of alertness using the analogy of a car engine. Students first learn the concept, and then work with an OT who facilitated activities. These activities are designed to train students to recognise how different things they do affect the running of their car engine.
Rather than being told how activities affect their alert states, the students at St Peters and Kalianna get to experience first-hand what they can do to make their ‘car engines’ run at the right speed for the learning task. They’re also taught how to do regular ‘check-ins’ with themselves and have props that can help with self-regulation, from chewy lollies to stress balls and fidget toys.
The program outcomes are also measured in a child-centric way, via a video game called Rumble’s Quest (developed by Griffith University). This game is structured so that while students play a goal-oriented game, they are providing information about their levels of mental wellbeing and their self-regulation skills.
Kalon’s journey to supporting children with autism began when he took on a role as a Teaching Assistant at a special school, prompted by his girlfriend who was already working there. A request to demonstrate life skills, like shaving, to older boys with autism offered him a small insight into the challenges these children faced daily.
‘Kalon felt that we had to do better by these kids because they had such a unique and difficult set of challenges to face in their lives,’ said Ellie House, Kalon’s executor and friend.
Kalon's intentions truly reflected his desire to drive lasting transformation in the lives of both children and adults with autism within our society, explained Ellie. He recognised the significance of his gift extending beyond immediate assistance and aspired to create a lasting impact that would reshape the way individuals with autism navigated their lives.
Ellie also expressed that the impact of Kalon’s legacy would have undoubtedly moved him, and that he would have been happy to know that his donation was making a tangible difference in the lives of children and adults with autism.
‘Although Kalon was realistic enough to know that this gift won’t last forever, he’d be proud knowing it could open the door for other projects to be funded going forward.’
Ellie also highlighted the positivity of collaborating with La Trobe to turn Kalon's vision into reality.
‘Sometimes during the grieving process, you can feel very lost and down dwelling on the sadness. Knowing how Kalon’s gift is impacting others and receiving regular updates is a beautiful way to remember your loved ones’ legacy.’