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Calibrating Professional Learning Approaches for Teachers in Inclusive Classrooms in the Context of Implementation Science

Summary and Keywords

In educational systems, schools, and classrooms, the interface among professional learning approaches and the translation and sustained uptake of research-led inclusive practices needs systematic and sustained attention. A range of variables exist with respect to the complexity of adopting leading, evidence-led practices in actual classroom and school settings. These may include teacher effects, diverse student needs, and limited opportunity for the meaningful analysis of relevant research to practice literature. Similarly, in the larger context of educational systems and processes of change, inhibitors and facilitators are encountered when introducing and sustaining innovative professional learning and changed practices in typical diverse schools. An aspirational model of professional learning for inclusive practices that is informed by the tenets of modern implementation science and cross-cultural perspectives will assist in defining future directions in this area from both an empirical and a heuristic perspective.

Keywords: professional learning, implementation, inclusion, teaching, differentiation, universal design for learning


Modern schools are a study in complexity: they are heterogeneous, ever changing, and illustrative of that tenet of chaos theory, change one variable and everything else alters. Within this maelstrom, teacher effects and learning play a central and powerful role in shaping potential student outcomes, no matter the grade, stage, or needs of the individual learner. As Foreman and Arthur-Kelly (2017) and Arthur-Kelly and Neilands (2017) have argued, teacher skills, knowledge, and attitudes to their students make a tangible difference to the various learning outcomes achieved. However, empowering teachers to critically reflect on and change their practices within a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach that embraces evidence-led strategies is no small task. UDL is a proactive strategic planning approach to ensure that the needs of all learners are met (see Although UDL frameworks have yet to be extensively researched in terms of direct impacts for student learning outcomes, the use of a preventative and proactive approach to ensuring that learning opportunities will maximize engagement in all students is consistent with modern perspectives on inclusion for all (Shaddock, Packer, & Roy, 2015).

The critical feature of UDL is the planning element. Instead of making reasonable adjustments once a need is identified, UDL implies strategic outward- and forward-looking planning for optimal learning for all. Instead of crisis management, a support plan for all learners is designed and enacted as a regular and proactive approach to cohesive educational intervention. This plan will be populated with strategies considered to be green light, or evidence-based practices; these strategies can be quickly reviewed and adjusted with reference to a vast amount of literature in the extant database (Cook & Odom, 2013; Vaughn & Swanson, 2015).

In the context of differentiated classrooms informed by UDL, teachers face increasing challenges to stay informed as to the most effective evidence-led approaches that will meet the needs of all learners and to critically reflect on tactics for engaging students and maximizing learning outcomes (Arthur-Kelly & Neilands, 2017). Coupled with mandatory and important accreditation requirements in many countries requiring teachers to undertake ongoing professional learning for continuous improvement, the question arises: how do inclusive practices and teacher learning models best converge to ensure high-quality teaching and learning programs for all students?

Cole (2012) argued strongly that professional learning, at its heart, is about generating more effective practices in teachers that improve student learning outcomes. He states that “[w]hen professional learning is understood to be an end in itself rather than a means to an end the correspondence between participating in professional development and improved practice is likely to be poor” (Cole, 2012, p. 3).

To what degree, then, do professional learning models, and their content, function productively to stimulate changed practices that are both practical and sustainable? The professional learning action template (PLAT) presented in Figure 1 both enervates discussion about the potential inhibitors and facilitators of leading practices achieved through teacher regeneration and provides a practical framework that can be used by individuals and groups of professionals in learning communities. The central aim of this template is to emphasize the ways in which professional learning is a necessary but incomplete aspect of the larger translative paradigm called implementation science. Change does not take place easily, as people like Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves have demonstrated, nor is maintaining change a simple process. To recognize that change is a complex ongoing process is to begin to shift practices—hence the importance of recognizing the nexus between human behavior (what we do as teachers) and improved educational programs (what we scaffold for our students).

First, it is instructive to take a brief step-by-step look at the PLAT approach at a local level. Implementation science, the study of how to deliver optimal outcomes in human services more effectively using evidence to guide practice is then illustrated using a series of vignettes.

Calibrating Professional Learning Approaches for Teachers in Inclusive Classrooms in the Context of Implementation ScienceClick to view larger

Figure 1: Professional learning action template (PLAT).

The professional learning action template provides a simple process of strategic actions for teachers to follow that will help them locate and embark on professional learning that extends and sustains their abilities to meet the needs of all learners in the inclusive classroom. As indicated by the cyclical flow of the arrows in Figure 1, the template reflects a dynamic and continuous improvement focus. Indeed, each of the five action steps should provide a basis for decisions that inform the next step and so on in a loop that is ongoing. The first one considered here involves teachers in honestly appraising their strengths and professional learning needs.

Reflecting on and Identifying Needs: Critical Reflection

The past decade has produced a clear focus on the importance of critical reflection for professional learners. A quick tour of teacher registration websites (for example, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, and indeed the scientific journal database (see, for example the journal Reflective Practice) confirms that an ability to stand back from one’s classroom and identify needs and strengths is a core skill for modern educators, all of whom work in fast-changing and often challenging schools and classrooms. Viewed from multiple perspectives, including but not limited to responsibilities for maximizing learning for academic excellence, social interaction, as well as pastoral care, effective teachers have to deal with simultaneous pressures and priorities in increasingly complex classrooms and schools.

As Boody (2008) notes, however, reflection without subsequent action informed by one’s moral code is devoid of meaning. In other words, simply pondering what needs to change without enacting and evaluating change is a futile exercise. Boody characterizes teacher reflection in terms of a journey of retrospective analysis, problem solving, and reflection in action (p. 500). In this context, authors such as Spratt and Florian (2015) and Deppeler, Loreman, Smith, and Florian (2015) have enhanced understanding of inclusive pedagogy as a dynamic methodology for involving all learners in the modern differentiated classroom. For many professionals, this journey commences with the delineation of clear goals.

SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based), have been proposed as one useful way teachers can act on their reflections and target their energies toward meaningful self-improvement in their professional work (Brown, Leonard, & Arthur-Kelly, 2016). Brown et al. observe that scaffolded support within a school culture is required to value and activate teacher professional learning from theory to action. Without this contextual networking and collegial energy, goals may remain simply as statements of intended change rather than living statements of actual and achieved changes in evidence-led strategies for optimal teaching and learning programs in diverse classrooms.

Committing and Locating Supports: Networking, Coaching, and Mentoring Strategies

Following identification of personal learning priorities and needs, the next step is to put into place supports to enhance and sustain the impact of the planned professional learning. Interestingly, and in contrast to the traditional professional development approach, which gives teachers little or no choice about participation or the subject matter, the PLAT approach suggests that a key step in starting professional learning is the proactive selection of meaningful topics and, relatedly, the use of supports that will facilitate this learning experience into action in the classroom. A vast body of literature now exists on the principles and practices of effective professional learning and development for educators (see Cole, 2012; Martin, Kragler, Quatroche, & Bauserman, 2014). Not surprisingly, one predictor of effective engagement in learning is teacher self-recruitment. Motivationally, if a person chooses to participate or pays his or her own money it makes good sense to expect that he or she will engage more actively in order to gain the most benefits. This simple concept has important implications at a systemic level and will be developed later when attention turns to the interplay between personal, school, and systemic supports for professional learning.

In a complementary way, teachers also need to establish networks of support, or ways of obtaining feedback, that will function effectively for them. This support may take the form of a formally agreed mentoring plan, where an experienced colleague provides regular input following interviews, observations, and other techniques for assessing teacher behavior. It may also be reflected in less formal communities of practice, perhaps at a stage or grade level, whereby each teacher contributes to a form of collegial roundtable or forum that will be mutually beneficial for all participants. Yet another model involves specific coaching.

Selecting Professional Learning: Choosing Models of Evidence-Led Pedagogy for Learning and Uptake

The next step in activating professional learning is to select a program that demonstrates evidence-led pedagogical principles and strategies. Although it is generally agreed that traditional transmission-based lecture modes are both outdated and ineffective, more debate has arisen about the optimal combination for professional learning, in terms of modes of delivery and engagement styles of learners. For example, some providers of higher education continue to report a productive balance of face-to-face intensive classes coupled with online forums or other technologically supported approaches, including webinars and video conferences.

Questions that may enable positive outcomes include but are not limited to the following:

  • Are the goals of the program clearly stated?

  • Is there a translational approach that bridges the research on the topic with the practical and heuristic delivery in diverse classrooms and schools?

  • Does the program have embedded coaching or mentoring that supports the professional learner in both using and adapting the recommended strategies?

  • Does the learning program embed the opportunity for critical reflection by participants to inform and adjust practices

  • Are there clear plans for the systematic evaluation of outcomes and plans for sustaining the implementation of new practices?

Two selected examples of contemporary approaches to active professional learning are now considered, although the interested reader is encouraged to critically review others described in the sources cited. For example, the reader is especially encouraged to review a Special Issue of the journal School Effectiveness and School Improvement (2016), including, specifically, the paper by Deppeler and Ainscow (2016). In 2013, Waitoller and Artiles contributed an excellent review centered on professional development for inclusive programs, providing a critical examination of a decade of progress in the area.

Coaching and Mentoring

In contrast to approaches led by transmission experts contemporary perspectives on effective professional learning call for some form of support for implementation. Usually called coaching or mentoring, the learner engages with a colleague, often a senior, more experienced person, who provides considered feedback and encouragement. This interaction may take many forms and may be formal or informal.

In one recent study, Foreman, Arthur-Kelly, Bennett, Neilands, and Colyvas (2013) used a mentor-modeling approach as a form of coaching in classrooms supporting students with severe and multiple disability in both regular and special schools. This on-the-job approach to professional learning, introduced through a more conventional workshop at the outset, involved the presence of an expert practitioner in the classroom who coached and debriefed with the teacher and teacher’s aide (a paraprofessional). Interestingly, these staff members had volunteered to participate in the program, allowing the mentor-model to remain in the classroom actively working with the student and support team, until it was appropriate, based on the progress data, to reduce the active mentoring support. Using trial and error and appropriate resources as necessary (for example, augmentative and alternative communication devices such as large switches), the goal of this approach was to identify, model, and embed new evidence-based strategies for interaction and engagement involving students with high support needs. Foreman et al. (2013) reported that the approach was generally effective notwithstanding individual variability in student outcomes and teacher/aide behaviors. Clearly, this mentor/model approach to professional learning will benefit from replication in a range of new settings to identify both the strengths and challenges inherent in this intensive approach (Bennett, Arthur-Kelly, Foreman, & Neilands, 2014).

Lesson Study. Originally developed and tested in Japan within regular education (Doig & Groves, 2011; Saito et al., 2015), the lesson study (Jugyokenku) is a form of systematic action research that reflects many of the recommended features of modern professional learning models. Typically, it goes beyond a single classroom to include a network of committed participants, all of whom contribute to the ongoing outcomes that are of benefit to all. At the heart of the approach is teacher identification of a problem or situation that is relevant to them and that needs to be addressed in a mutually enriching professional learning arrangement. Participants share their challenges and collaborate in planning and implementing lessons, constructively observing each other and commenting on lessons in a continuous cycle of improvement. Lesson study as an approach to professional learning is characterized by reciprocity of insight and democratic commitment to communities of improved practice.

(Jordan, 2014; Saito et al., 2015)

In a recent large-scale professional learning program for early childhood personnel supporting children displaying or at risk of challenging behaviors, Arthur-Kelly et al. (2017) reported on a hybrid approach that contained elements of both mentor-modeling and lesson study. Participants were sent by their services to a series of three full-day input/workshop sessions presented by expert practitioners and separated by several weeks each time. Importantly, between each session, participants were required to focus their application of the strategies of functional behavior assessment and support on the needs of an individual child with whom they worked. Limited remote e-coaching was complemented by a problem-solving approach and direct mentoring in the face-to-face workshops, with opportunities for shared resolution of dilemmas and challenges. Positive outcomes for targeted students and the professional learners were reported, although it was recognized that in future work, actual observed changes were needed to verify the impact of this professional learning model.

Engaging and Implementing-Activate Evidence Led Strategies for Implementation and Growth

So much of what human beings do is habitual, and when stressed, humans quickly return to what they know best—that which is comfortable. In contrast, the PLAT model proposed here, when read in light of the larger body of literature on professional learning and educational change, underlines the necessity for novel and sometimes uncomfortable action. In other words, an adventurous cycle of testing a new strategy in situ is brought to life, evaluating the outcomes and the implementation issues, refining the strategy, testing and so on.

At this point, it is critical to note that the nature of the school culture and leadership style demonstrated by the school executive plays a large part in the degree to which individual teachers or professional cohorts can effectively activate new approaches to teaching and learning in their classroom(s). One recently reported approach to energizing school leadership and culture is cognitive coaching, whereby members of the school community agree to a shared partnership aimed at personal empowerment, refreshed school vision, and active use of reflective insights to change practices in teaching and learning programs. Typically, members of the school executive will pair up and use a range of coaching skills, including questioning, probing, and paraphrasing to extend each other with respect to a targeted pedagogical skill or behavior. In essence, this self-analytic dynamic is then replicated with other staff members, the goal being to promote an honest, yet supportive, school ecology that values continuous improvement and nurtures considered change through collegiality and feedback (Imig, 2016).

Evaluating and Recalibrating: Refreshing the Professional Learning Action Template

This step emphasizes the central importance of a unified, general systems perspective on professional learning. Enhanced outcomes for students and classrooms, schools, professional learners, and communities of engagement are dependent on the interplay of variables that are so clearly articulated in implementation science.

One inherent pitfall in any attempt to review and potentially change human services is the splintering of perspectives. Traditional boundaries have meant that each group has its own culture, a particular way of delivering support, and indeed, even favored practices that may preclude the use of other strategies that are perceived as challenging or adventurous, despite evidence of effectiveness. This may mean that the various stakeholders, perhaps the family or the disciplinary experts working with them, feel disenfranchised, the recommendations from various groups are siloed, and little or no positive change is achieved. The expertise of families, supported by professionals in disciplines such as education, counseling, speech pathology, and occupational and physiotherapy, forms a basis for intervention and learning. All of these human services, however, have their own way of doing things, including their approaches to ensuring that evidence-based practices are introduced and sustained in the support of individual learners.

An inclusive approach encourages uptake and sustained implementation of recommendations for practice, along the lines so well expressed by Mitchell (2012). For example, the fact that broad-based support strategies are needed sits within societal and familial contexts, not outside them. Likewise, if intensive interventions are required, they are entirely framed within a dynamic system that has multiple tiers and an embedded universal design for learning.

In contrast, a fragmented or siloed approach partitions effort into sectors, disciplines, or indeed lobby groups. One group may argue strongly, for example, for resource support for a particular intervention model that is entirely foreign to other potential efforts to maximize learner engagement. Such diffusion of focus may emanate from deep philosophical differences in participant groups, orientations to how human supports are most effectively delivered and so forth. Energies are diluted from the main focus: how to enhance participation and engagement in learners whose trajectory is complicated, as well as engage families, caregivers, and other key players, including teachers, therapists, counselors, and other key professionals.

A Tiered Approach to Support for Learning and Engagement

An inclusive learning and engagement framework for all students includes foundational elements, such as the development of healthy relationships, progressing to more defined and individualized forms of support. Universal to specific support protocols, informed by the recognition of connection among school, home, and society, allow the fluid identification and delivery of levels of intervention as appropriate to the needs of a particular individual. These are sometimes characterized as preventative, remedial, and interventionist layers in a unified model of support. Moving from a reactive to a proactive perspective requires the adoption of a new lens on educational and other supports for participation and engagement, characterized as universal design for learning (UDL), introduced earlier.

By using individual needs and assessment data as a planning base, evidence-based practice strategies can be implemented and their impact evaluated, as part of an integrated and proactive design for learning and engagement. Some general focus areas of evidence for strategies and approaches are efficacious when tailored to the individual needs of students with complex needs. This balance is achieved through some necessarily oversimplified vignettes that describe a mix of research-led strategies to address trajectories that are often challenging. Courtade, Test, and Cook (2015) provided a listing of evidence-based practices for the education of students with severe intellectual disability and a similar listing for students with autism spectrum disorder. Following the intervention science framework, the systematic implementation of such strategies in classrooms necessitates school-level cultural change, including responsive school leadership and communities of practice. In other words, it is almost impossible for individual practitioners to instigate and sustain changed practices without a general systems approach that includes families, colleagues across disciplines, and related administrative and support personnel. Similarly, without policy processes and guidelines that provide clear directions and support for practices, innovative approaches to instruction for students in modern diverse and heterogeneous classrooms will often be short-lived and ineffective.

Notwithstanding the strong evidence that exists for a body of strategies to maximize learning and engagement in individuals with diverse needs, what is less well understood is the challenge of implementation: how to make what best practices happen and to keep them happening. The underlying goal in such an approach is “whole of life improvements” that targets high-quality service and support for the long run. For these improvements to occur, though, three tests of efficacy must be addressed: (1) the quality of the strategy implementation, (2) the functional impact of the strategies implemented, and (3) the social acceptability of the approaches used.

Translational Fidelity, Functional Impact, and Social Validity

Fidelity refers to the extent to which specific protocols are delivered in practice. For example, various teaching strategies such as cooperative learning require the observable use of teacher behaviors or elements, including group composition, role definition, and so on. The degree to which evidence-based strategies are accurately delivered will powerfully influence outcomes of implementation. Sometimes measures of fidelity are considered as an index of “believability” in the delivery of specific intervention approaches.

Functional impact refers to the actual outcomes that are achieved following the introduction of an intervention. These may sometimes be a surprise. Maag (2001) famously illustrated how reinforcement may have one intention in planned use with students and quite another impact on actual behavior. What one student considers to be positively reinforcing may in fact be perceived as a punishment by others. In this case, the reinforcer will not serve to achieve the planned goals and may inadvertently build a repertoire of undesirable behavior. This lack of congruence between the goal and the outcome of intervention has also been discussed in the use of timeout over the years (see Lyons, Ford, & Arthur-Kelly, 2011). For the practitioner, timeout strategies, including periods of isolation, may have the intention of allowing the student a calmdown zone. The student, though, may feel trapped or constrained. Likewise, following an applied behavior analysis model, timeout is the removal of opportunities to receive preferred consequences. If such an experience allows alternate consequences that still function to maintain the inappropriate behavior, the functional impact of the intervention has been compromised.

Finally, social validity is the acceptability of intervention. For strategies such as timeout and restraint, social and ethical expectations with respect to what is acceptable practice will be vital in the design and delivery of educational support programs. Centrally, the interface of policy and practice protocols within a unified and systematic decision-making process should ensure that the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders, including students, teachers, families, and support personnel, are preserved.

Next considered are strategies for engaging professional learning as a vehicle for putting what is known about evidence-based practice into sustained and measurable improvement to what happens in inclusive educational settings, indeed all educational settings! In other words, delivering evidence-led interventions that are both practical and sustainable. Fixsen, Blasé, Naoom, and Wallace (2009) outlined an important series of implementation stages and argued that it can take up to four years for implementation of evidence-based practices to be embedded within a system. Critically, the phases are fluid, and there is potentially movement within and across each stage (see

Not surprisingly, and consistent with the needs analysis identified in the PLAT (Figure 1), the first stage is Exploration. Teachers in inclusive classrooms may ask themselves: “What is needed in this learning milieu, and how might critical reflection be instrumental in identifying constructive strategies to address the situation?” Contemporary professional learning reflects communities of practice within which authentic opportunities to consider what is working well and what needs to change are pivotal to planning and implementation of support.

Second, Fixsen and colleagues discuss Installation in which the various structures needed to support and sustain implementation are introduced. As noted a little later, this stage may require elements from a range of sources, including technical and administrative expertise and systemwide policy changes.

In the third phase, the actual Initial Implementation is undertaken, with a focus on trial processes and strategies that are specifically tailored to that context. This phase is followed by a subsequent Full Implementation stage in which all protocols for new practices in the setting are adopted.

The final two stages, Innovation and Sustainability center on, respectively, the active evaluation and adjustment of strategies in the light of progress data, and the introduction of tactics and processes that will enhance the sustained use of the selected strategies and ensure ongoing implementation.

These stages of implementation contextualize the ebb and flow involved in intersecting variables that comprise the process of change achieved through professional learning designed to impact inclusive classrooms. The cyclical and synergistic cycle of change in enacting core implementation components, as argued by Fixsen et al. (2009), is described. What is most important to note here is that these variables are both interactive and compensatory. In other words, a strength in one area may make up for a deficit in another, although the overall intent of the model is to promote excellence in a unified system of educational support. Each element is followed by a brief reflection on evidence-based practice in educational settings.

Recruitment and Selection

Fixsen et al. (2009) suggest that the specific means by which staff are selected for employment in human services is a natural starting point in any analysis of implementation components. Importantly, an interview within a selection process allows for the exploration of subjective attributes that do not shine through on a curriculum vitae. For example, a person’s persistence in the face of minimal or slow progress by her students, empathy with the challenges faced by students and families, and a commitment to the rights of all to participate as much as possible in the wider society are characteristics that would be in high demand for staff hired to work in educational support programs in inclusive schools.

Exploring Evidence-Based Practices

Jenny was recruited to work as a teacher’s aide in a support class in a regular school supporting students with a wide range of needs that included severe intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, and medically fragile conditions. In a class with five very active children for whom social and communication goals were the priority, Jenny was asked to ensure that appropriate time was devoted to the one child, Gail, who was nonmobile and considered to be very passive. Gail was regarded as very difficult to read and made no voluntary movement to assist herself in any functional activity throughout the day. Her passivity was challenging for many staff members who had worked with her over the years. Jenny’s natural ability to “read” even minute changes in facial and bodily affect, and her innate belief in the ability of all students to learn, meant that within a month or two following detailed observations and team meetings with the speech pathologist and the family, a series of choice opportunities were programmed by the teacher and implemented by Jenny across the day, resulting in Gail enjoying enhanced control of the events and experiences of the day. For example, Gail would stare at a preferred food from a choice of two and after a minute slightly smile and make eye contact with the item she wanted; then she would glimpse Jenny. Following this breakthrough, Jenny led staff in generalizing these expectations across settings, and she worked with the family with respect to activities at home that elicited communicative interactions.

Preservice Training

The initial training of support professionals across disciplines involved in the education of students with complex needs provides an ideal opportunity to ensure a basic grounding in background information about evidence-based practices and a broad commitment to them. As indicated a little later, on-the-job coaching and systematic professional development may focus on specific strategies and transdisciplinary delivery. In their preservice training, for example, it would be expected that all teachers including those who move into special education should receive, as a minimum, a core course in the values, skills, and knowledge required to effectively include all students in the diverse classroom (Arthur-Kelly, Sutherland, Lyons, & Foreman, 2013; Foreman & Arthur-Kelly, 2017). This is currently the case in all Australian states and territories, although there is no national benchmarking on content coverage.

A vital and yet under-recognized element of preservice professional preparation and ongoing learning is recognition of the need for unified transdisciplinary approaches to cooperating across disciplines. This issue can be easily addressed by ensuring that there is at least one course in each personnel preparation program dedicated specifically to understanding the roles and contributions of other relevant professionals in the human sciences. For example, in teacher preparation, it is unlikely that most emerging teachers have a strong grasp of the expertise a speech pathologist brings to a range of educational settings. This may in part be covered through team teaching in specialized fields such as special educator training and speech pathologists embarking on a focus on pediatrics and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), but in general there seems to be very little crossover among disciplines in the human sciences.

Exploring Evidence-Based Practices

Although the topic had been covered in one course in her teacher preparation program, Natalie found it almost impossible to utilize curriculum-based assessment to inform groupings in her Year 2 class when appointed to a primary school in western New South Wales, Australia. For some students in her classroom, specific therapy support for various language issues was important, and Natalie was keen to work in partnership with the speech pathologist who attended the school twice a week. By using literacy progress data on targeted students as a basis for discussion, this shared commitment to improving outcomes for this group of vulnerable learners flourished.

Consultation and Coaching within In-service Learning

The expert-led transmission model of professional learning whereby one person speaks and respondents act has been replaced in the best pedagogy literature by an active learning model that usually includes some form of coaching, feedback loops, and data-led implementation of instructional or support strategies as appropriate to the context. As part of a long process of educational change (see the seminal work of Michael Fullan), researchers have identified the need to better understand and plan for professional uptake and maintenance of new practices. As long ago as 1997, Gersten, Vaughn, Deshler, and Schiller identified six principles that were necessary if teachers were to actually use new instructional practices, including a reality check on the practical utility of the approach in their classroom, the presence of feedback, and the ability to network with colleagues about the innovation. In their scholarly review of the literature on the effectiveness of various approaches to professional learning, Joyce and Showers (2002) found that the translation of changed practices from lecture rooms to classrooms was minimal (around 5%) for the teachers in their meta-analysis. Once some form of coaching was introduced, the difference in teacher adoption of enhanced practices was phenomenal. It was helped even further by the voluntary (as opposed to compulsory) participation of teachers and the administrative and overall support of the schools in which they worked.

Dunst (2015) reflects the same concern for genuine adoption of changed practices in his comprehensive model of professional development for early childhood educators. He identifies seven key features of contemporary evidence-based approaches in this area: (1) Specialists’ explicit explanation and illustration of content knowledge; (2) job-embedded practitioner opportunities to use and then evaluate the practices; (3) use of a range of strategies to engage practitioners in reflection; (4) coaching, mentoring, or feedback from a professional development specialist; (5) follow-up supports to reinforce learning; (6) multiple opportunities to become proficient; and (7) inclusion of as many of the preceding six features to maximize the effectiveness of professional development (adapted from Dunst, 2015, pp. 213–214). This invaluable and research-based review both highlights key features for meaningful improvements in translational in-service learning, and recognizes that it may not be possible to embed all of these into any given program. Consistent with the integrated and compensatory elements described by Fixsen et al. (2009), this approach sets the scene for efforts to both design and sustain models of enhanced and sustained adoption of evidence-led practices to ultimately benefit student engagement and participation. It is also important to note that in promoting the uptake of evidence-led strategies, less energy or attention will be devoted to approaches that do not have a sound evidence base and may yet be popular in the field.

Exploring Evidence-Based Practices

John had volunteered for a research project on the effectiveness of a mentor-model professional learning program for teachers of students with severe and complex disabilities in both regular and special schools. The goal was to work collaboratively to tailor a package of functional communication and engagement strategies that would increase the observed interaction and alertness of students who were traditionally hard to reach. For example, by discussion with his mentor-model, an increasing schedule of visual activities had been refined and displayed for Jack, a mobile and sometimes agitated 14-year-old student with severe intellectual disability who sometimes exploded into physical violence when uncertain about the next activity he was expected to undertake. What John liked most about this program of mentor-modeling was the absence of a time frame: the expert practitioner in his room was there in support until the data indicated that the improvements in John’s pro-social behavior were well established. Indeed, the arrangement of episodic check-in chats between John and his mentor led to a continuous improvement process that was much larger and enduring in scope and length than the original mentor-modeling arrangement.

Staff Performance Evaluation

Without doubt, vigilance around fidelity of implementation is a contested space. How can we most effectively provide support to practitioners with respect to their professional practices without impinging on boundaries and creating resistance? The literature on staff evaluation recognizes this complexity and reinforces the need for constructive advice for practitioners that has the singular intent of improving practices (Woolf & Johnson, 2005). Clearly, there is an interface between expectations of fidelity by staff and the level of mentoring, coaching, and professional support they receive in adopting such practices. If all participants are on the same page with respect to improving learning outcomes, it can be anticipated that the presence of a colleague in the classroom will not be perceived as an adversarial event, but rather as a quality improvement opportunity.

Exploring Evidence-Based Practices

Sarah could not say she enjoyed having her supervising teacher Alex at the back of her Year 7 class each Wednesday afternoon for four weeks. However, rather than an isolated, unplanned episode, this opportunity for professional learning was prefaced by a planning discussion on the specific pedagogical features of her classroom program, including small-group work with students who had a range of moderate disabilities. It was then followed by a debrief session in which Sarah and Alex analyzed the field notes that had been collected and worked on goal-setting for the next visit. The collegial and constructive tone made for a positive, if at times daunting, interaction.

Decision Support Data Systems

This aspect involves the strategic use of process and outcome measures to ensure quality improvement. For example, a primary school may adopt a policy to send student reports home twice a year and may discover in an audit that while this is happening, the information contained in the reports is not used to guide discussion with the student or the family. Accordingly, it may be appropriate to institute weekly communication books or email dialogue twice a week to enhance interaction between the educational staff and the family. At a policy level, it may be that schools that have had a history of isolated action without recourse to systemic policy protocols recognize the need to collect data on events in their school and to modify their processes accordingly. For example, funding support to the schools to enhance support for students with complex needs may be determined by a quarterly review of data on student enrollments and functional student support needs. When enacted using accurate data on student functioning (in the Australian educational landscape, see the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Students with Disabilities project), a modest increase in resourcing for in-class support may provide welcome cross-disciplinary input from a speech pathologist or other related and relevant personnel.

Exploring Evidence-Based Practices

Jim was conscious that his teaching staff felt burdened by the weekly item at the school staff meeting on Positive Behavior Supports and the need to avoid reactive, nonpolicy-aligned activities to manage student behavior. He had found that it was useful to invite one teacher a week to describe to their colleagues one aspect of classroom support they found to be a challenge and the ways in which they were addressing it, as well as recording data on their actions. A culture of whole-school commitment to positive rather than intrusive methods of supporting children with challenging behavior was achieved through this form of professional learning and the recording of data that was able to reflect quality learning environments and policy adherence in a nonthreatening and cohesive manner.

Facilitative Administrative Supports

If classroom and other intervention staff working with students who have complex trajectories are to collect and meaningfully use the sort of data described by Shaddock (2014) to guide programming decisions, it is clear that a supportive administrative structure is required. Aligning schoolwide adoption of a consistent approach to recognizing the abilities of and communication expectations made of individual students will require effective school leadership and a culture of cooperation. Such a platform means that class practitioners can maximize the achievement of learning outcomes that are both meaningful to the target student and generalizable across settings and people. As Fixsen et al. note, “Practitioners” interactions with consumers are the keys to any successful intervention (2009, p. 535).

Exploring Evidence-Based Practices

Debbie had used a short and an intensive match to sample instruction in symbolic communication to assist Charlie, who was nonverbal, in pointing to one of six preferred items in a photo array. He had made strong progress in initiating preferred selections with Debbie and Christine the teacher’s aide, in the classroom environment. The time had come for Charlie, who could be very aggressive toward peers and staff in situations where he was unable to get his message across, to begin to generalize his choice-making with others in the school environment. School administrative staff and related personnel were asked to display reminders to all staff, in a variety of settings, to ensure they cued Charlie to point to his preferred activity (for example, swing, walk outside, drink, trampoline) when they engaged with him at breaks.

Systems Interventions

At the macro level, systemic support such as funding of programs, policy imperatives, and reporting requirements all impact on the actual delivery of high-quality evidence-based programs in the classroom. If, for example, a funding authority changes funding models with the effect that fewer support personnel can be employed to assist in classrooms, the delivery of individualized, intensive, relentless instruction to maximize engagement and reduce or prevent challenging behaviors will be compromised.

Exploring Evidence-Based Practices

Although what happens in classrooms on a daily practice may seem a long way from national funding such as the “More support for students with disabilities” program or the recently reviewed Disability Standards for Education in Australia, there is within the Fixsen et al. (2009) model a fluid connection. Specifically, as increasing autonomy is provided to regions and schools in the form of resource support, so the potential for improved in-class support for learning and the provision of high-quality professional learning for educational personnel is increased.

Cultural Variables in Implementation Initiatives

An additional and important consideration in the analysis of implementation efforts is the cultural context within which such professional learning takes place. In the following table, the special education and inclusion context in Greece is described, with particular attention to the ways in which teachers refresh and invigorate their professional skills, knowledge, and values.

Table 1: Inclusion, special education and teacher professional learning in Greece

Equal opportunities in education for all individuals means accepting diversity, although social inequalities remain a reproduction of educational ones within the imposition of the dominant culture; this intensifies individual differences and can make inclusion a challenging task for individuals with disabilities. The current mainstream schooling system in Greece still classifies students based on their learning profile, but, often, this classification is the result of several cultural and social factors, as reflected in integration classes, which are frequently attended by children from disadvantaged socioeconomic environments. Children with special needs in Greece are estimated at around 10% of the total student population and, according to the latest available data, of the 36,011 total, 7,861 attend special schools, 26,350 are enrolled in special classes within the mainstream educational system, and 1,800 receive parallel support.

Special education in Greece dates back to the 1980s, and several laws have been introduced involving the integration and inclusion of all pupils with special educational needs (SENs) into mainstream schools. Overall, in the 2000–2009 decade, a total of seventy-one pieces of legislation were passed on special education, versus thirteen during 1990–1999 and seven during 1980–1989. Especially during 2000–2004, various important development projects were introduced, such as the establishment of the innovative Centres of Diagnosis and Assessment of Children with Special Needs in each prefecture of the country, along with integration classes, professional workshops for special education teachers, and specific curricula for all children with disabilities.

In the following years, the special education policy began to be organized in line with the European Union practice and policy framework, leading to Law 3699/2008, Special Education for Individuals with Disabilities or Special Educational Needs. Special education, like general education, is compulsory and is an integral part of the integrated public and free education program, while the state is required to provide special education services at preschool, primary, and secondary education levels. The aim of this law is to ensure equal opportunities to all citizens with disabilities and special educational needs, thereby facilitating integration and inclusion of all individuals into the nation’s school system.

During the last few years, the Greek educational system, through the law of 2008 and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol of the Convention in 2012, has followed a path of harmonization with the European Union’s policy on the rights of the disabled. During these years, several attempts have been made to help the special educational scheme move from the anachronistic medical model focusing on treatment to a more inclusive model that puts the emphasis on education, social inclusion, and integrated development. Although educational intervention has been underestimated in several instances, a significant number of individualized programs, special curricula, supporting services, and special educational structures have been implemented under the prism of a model for “a school for all.”

This new special education scheme under Law 3699/2008 includes diagnosis, evaluation, and mapping of special educational needs and systematic educational intervention with specialized and well-adapted education tools and programs. These programs are implemented by the local Centres of Differential Diagnosis, Diagnosis and Support of Special Educational Needs (KEDDY). In addition, special education includes specific-purpose schools with the appropriate infrastructure, inclusive programs, home instruction programs, and diagnostic, evaluative, and supportive services.

Today, students with mild learning disabilities usually attend mainstream schools, supported by the teacher who cooperates with KEDDYs and the special education advisers. In addition, pupils with special education needs can attend mainstream schools with parallel supportive and inclusive education from teachers of special education, as required by the specific nature and extent of educational needs. Parallel support is provided to students who may, with the appropriate individual support, participate in the general curriculum of the class, as well as students with more severe needs when their area has no other special education facility and individual priority students based on the advice of the respective KEDDY. The support given to individual priority students by special education teachers can be permanent, or it can be provided on a scheduled basis. In this frame, the special education teacher supports students one by one and facilitates mutual interaction between them, maintains a discreet presence in the classroom, and encourages participation in the school activities relevant to the individual student.

Students with special needs can also attend integration classes, which operate within mainstream general and vocational schools with two different types of programs. First, Integration classes, established with Law 2817/2000 and functioning under Law 3699/2008, mean that today, students can attend them with the consent of the school special education consultant. According to these laws, integration classes operate within mainstream schools and include students with mild special needs, as well as students with more severe needs, monitored in parallel by another individual educational supporting program.

Educational programs implemented in these classes are designed according to the student’s special educational needs profile and are delivered through individualized education or team teaching in particular classrooms based on a prearranged program. The aim of these classes is to help the student achieve continuity and establish a direct link with the respective educational level curriculum. Second, students attending integration classes can also attend mainstream classes. On the negative side, it should be noted that integration classes have been criticized for intensifying social isolation and providing limited integrated development.

When students with disabilities and special educational needs find it particularly difficult to attend mainstream schools of integration classes, then they can attend School Units of Special Education (SMEAEs). Indeed, for some students, such as those with autism, attending mainstream schools can be a challenging experience, and, thus, participating in special school units can significantly support their inclusion in a well-monitored and supportive environment. Special educational programs in SMEAEs and during coeducation in mainstream schools are implemented according to the students’ special educational needs and disabilities for their entire school life.

Additionally, several systematic intervention programs are provided, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, physiotherapy and other services supporting students’ equal treatment, assessment, and pedagogical and psychological support. Students also participate in socialization programs, and, if necessary, they are encouraged to participate in full integration programs or to move on to another level of special education, such as integration classes, so as to ensure continuation of schooling to the next levels. Lastly, children with more severe difficulties can attend home schooling in exceptional cases, such as when serious short-term or chronic health problems prevent movement and school attendance.

On the one hand, the Greek special educational system has made significant progress during recent years, moving from a “treatment-centered” model to a more inclusive one and focusing on individualized programs and special structures that provide supporting and special services, while encouraging students to pass to mainstream schooling settings and subsequent education levels. On the other hand, lack of appropriately qualified and trained educational staff and other resources, legislative complexity, and other institutional inefficiencies hamper the effective implementation of an integrated model that bridges special and mainstream education. Although integrated education is a complex and controversial issue, an inclusive policy can be implemented essentially by ensuring equal opportunities, making radical changes, and adopting the best practices available, such as positive peer group models.

Teacher Training and Development in Greece

All teachers in Greece, whether special or mainstream educators, must first of all be qualified general educators. Currently, certified SEN teachers study at the university level either in a pedagogical department followed by an in-service training course (two years), or at a special education department (two universities in Greece offer such courses). Teachers in inclusive school settings face multiple challenges, including inadequate professional preparation and training (for noncertified SEN teachers); a too heavy workload; lack of time, equipment, and human resources; and coverage of the compulsory and demanding Greek curriculum. As a result, Greek inclusive school leadership teams face a great deal of stress deriving from trying to balance the inadequacy of professional preparation and resources with responsibilities to meet their mandate to help all students achieve their potential.

Multiple strategies are used to ameliorate the consequences of these challenges. Teachers’ use of approaches to enhance inclusive practices in Greece is mainly reflected in active strategies such as setting priorities and reorganizing their workload in an effort to become more effective. In addition, both problem-focused and emotion-focused strategies are used. An example of a problem-focused strategy is seeking advice, information, or assistance from colleagues, SEN teachers, or KEDDY, whereas individual moral support and understanding exemplifies an emotion-focused strategy. In-service training in schools is increasingly becoming more regular. In addition, teachers’ professional training programs at both the graduate and postgraduate level are now undergoing reappraisal in an effort to render SEN courses compulsory at university. The next target, reform of the national education curriculum, has the long-term goal of successfully implementing differentiated curriculum in all Greek schools. Effective teacher training and professional learning will play a central role in achieving this goal.

Contributed by Despoina Damianidou

Research into Practice Priorities for Professional Learning in the Future

Four themes emerged out of this snapshot of teacher professional learning in the context of implementation science. First, there is the central importance of a whole of system approach to changing teaching and learning practices to support inclusion outcomes in modern diverse schools. Data-based studies, preferably longitudinal and multitiered in nature, are urgently required to better understand how teachers can change, maintain, and continually improve differentiated practices within a universal design framework for all learners. Second, in light of the plethora of professional learning providers (“purveyors” according to Fixsen et al., 2009), an improved system of regulatory control is necessary to ensure that teachers receive learning experiences that are both pedagogically sound and evidence-based in relation to the strategies promoted for use in classrooms. Third, large-scale international research attention to the question of how effective heavily utilized pedagogies and learning supports such as mentoring, instructional coaching, and lesson study are required in a range of cultural contexts. What are the key, shared elements, and how are practices altered in light of cultural variables and philosophies? At present, data on these strategies has a national focus (especially centered in the U.S. research environment) and cross-cultural perspectives will assist in both uptake and refinement of strategies into the future. Finally, and notwithstanding the leading-edge work of scholars such as Michael Giangreco in the United States and Webster, Blatchford, and Russell (2013) in the United Kingdom, paraprofessionals and other related personnel in educational settings are playing a larger strategic and practical role in the pursuit of inclusive practices. Dedicated research into their professional learning needs and outcomes, and the translative integrity of such learnings into complex classrooms in general and special schools, is also important as we move forward together in this vital area.

Note: Sections of this article include material adapted from an invited contribution by the author to the ACT Expert Panel on students with complex needs and challenging behavior that resulted in the following report “Schools for all children and young people.”

The author wishes to thank Despoina Damianidou for the case study on teacher professional learning in Greece (Table 1).

Special thanks also to Genevieve Farrell who designed and produced Figure 1 for the author.


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