Schools need a better understanding of special education
“The well-being and behavioural problems of children and adolescents are definitely a concern for me. I am especially worried about schools’ possibilities to respond to these issues. There are considerable differences in the supports available in different schools,” says Professor of Special Education Hannu Savolainen.
“Special education is designed to tackle these problems. We should develop universal support in schools’ to prevent the piling up of problems regionally or by social class.”
Savolainen has been a Professor at the University of Eastern Finland since the beginning of December. He knows the university well and has lived in Joensuu throughout his most recent tenure at the University of Jyväskylä.
“I spent eight years working in Jyväskylä. I was part of a tight-knit group of researchers there. Now that we have learned to work together without being physically in the same place, I no longer feel the need to be based in Jyväskylä. I also have research partners at the University of Eastern Finland, which made returning here easy.”
Misconceptions about inclusion
‘Inclusion’ is a word that has been bandied about a lot in the context of special education in recent years. In the school system, inclusion is often understood to mean that all children learn together, without special education groups or special schools. The limited resources of schools are often blamed as the reason why true inclusion is difficult to achieve in practice. The media has contributed to giving inclusion a bad name by spouting stories about teachers having to spend all their time dealing with the behavioural problems of specific children.
“Both researchers and politicians have misunderstood the concept of inclusion. For me, inclusion is the long-term goal that we have chosen and from which there is no turning back. Inclusion does not have to mean teaching all pupils in the same physical classroom but is more about embracing all kinds of learners and making sure that every individual gets the support that they need to learn and thrive.”
According to Savolainen, inclusion needs to be embedded into the very ethos of school.
“Putting inclusion at the heart of every aspect of school allows us to support every learner more effectively and to make school an enjoyable experience for everyone. School is not just about academic subjects; learning social skills is just as important.”
Consistency across the whole school system
Hannu Savolainen has been leading a group of researchers working on a new pedagogical approach called ProKoulu for several years. ProKoulu is a science-based school-wide operating model designed to prevent behavioural problems in schools. The project is a collaboration of the Universities of Eastern Finland and Jyväskylä and the Niilo Mäki Institute, and it was initially financed by the Ministry of Education and Culture and now receives funding from local government budgets and, in respect of Swedish-speaking schools, various foundations.
The support available to pupils in Finnish schools at the moment is divided into three tiers: universal, intensive and special support. According to Savolainen, studies conducted by the ProKoulu team show that, surprisingly, schools find universal support the most challenging to provide.
“Our operating model seeks to fix this weakness in the current system. We studied and experimented with the new model in more than 60 schools, and it has now been deployed in more than 100 schools. This solution has been specifically developed for Finnish comprehensive schools, and it is all about setting common goals, constantly learning more and shaping pupils’ behaviour through positive reinforcement.”
In other words, the model provides a set of tangible tools for promoting inclusion in schools.
“Inclusion has always been our ultimate goal, but providing schools with tools that they can use to create a safe environment and curb behavioural problems is a more effective approach in practice.”