Education prof lends expertise to new school program

child holding pencil

Imagine not being able to grip a pencil so that you can write with it. Or put your fingers through the tops of a pair of scissors so that you can cut a piece of paper. Or even open up a lunch bag.

Then image if your teachers, parents, friends and others call you awkward or clumsy, even though you’re trying your best to perform these relatively simple tasks. Inevitably, you end up lagging behind in the rest of the class, increasing your frustration.

Some five per cent of primary school children – or one child in every classroom – struggle with this condition, called development co-ordination disorder (DCD), which can’t be cured or fixed.

At the moment, children living with DCD are referred to school health support services for occupational therapy, a frustrating experience for students and their parents as waitlists can be very long.

Sheila Bennett

Sheila Bennett

Enter Department of Teacher Education Prof. Sheila Bennett. She is part of a McMaster-led team that’s bringing the occupational therapist right into the classroom so children living with DCD and their educators can get the therapy they need in real time.

“This model puts occupational therapists in schools as part of the school’s community,” explains Bennett. “When professionals work together, children are more successful. With shared expertise, education can provide greater opportunities for children in schools.”

This new program – to be rolled out in September – is called Partnership for Change. It covers more than 40 schools in Halton, Hamilton and Peel regions.

An occupational therapist will be posted in each school at least one day a week to work with children who have developmental co-ordination disorder. They’ll also advise educators on measures to take in the classroom to better educate the children.

Therapists’ on-site work with educators includes addressing situations right in the classroom, modeling techniques for students, providing DCD resource materials, and sharing information with families.

“Having OTs (occupational therapists) as part of the school community is a preventive measure, because you’re finding kids before the problems start,” explains Bennett.

“When you have that extra level of expertise, it allows you to then avoid some of the learning or behavioural problems that might have occurred if we hadn’t had that community-based collaborative approach to looking at the child as a whole,” she says.

During the formation of the Partnership for Change program, Bennett provided expertise on the education system, particularly what would and wouldn’t work in the classroom, both with students and their educators.

Bennett was a special education teacher for many years before joining Brock University in 1997, becoming chair of the Department of Teacher Education.

Highlights of her research include co-authoring the Special Education Transformation document with Premier Kathleen Wynne when Wynne was education minister. The document helped set a number of directions in special education across Ontario.

During her 16 years with the Ontario Brain Injury Association, Bennett, along with Dawn Good of the Department of Psychology, developed a resource manual that was translated into French and Japanese.

She has also been involved in a number of international projects about inclusion, one of which resulted in a partnership with the University of Ghent in Belgium.

“The heart of everything I do is around helping teachers become better practitioners, making them feel more confident, helping them to understand there’s nothing magical about special education,” says Bennett. “It really is just about technique and resources, and this project will bring universities and practitioners together.”

Bennett says another guiding principle of her work is the undisputable fact that every child has a right to belong in every classroom and that the system must ensure that education is accessible for all.

“My research is about moving kids from a charity-based inclusive model to a rights-based inclusive model,” she says.

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