Structured teaching and eclectic classroom practice for children with autism in special schools: a case of mindful blending

  • Marie Howley

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This study, conducted in one local authority in England, set out to investigate how and why ‘Structured Teaching’ is implemented for children with autism and learning difficulties who are educated in special schools in one local authority in England. Structured Teaching is the educational component of the comprehensive approach ‘Treatment and Education for Autistic and Related Communication handicapped CHildren’, better known as the TEACCH approach. Structured Teaching aims to promote independence and self-esteem, manage behaviours and, in so doing, facilitate learning. Despite its popularity, there has been little research in relation to the approach as it is implemented in the United Kingdom. In addition, the need for eclectic educational practice is widely documented, given the wide range of individual needs and strengths of learners with autism. Yet despite schools implementing a diverse range of approaches, knowledge of how and why teachers select combinations of approaches is limited. This investigation aimed therefore to: 1. Identify which Structured Teaching strategies are implemented, in what ways and for what purposes. 2. Identify which other approaches are used in combination with Structured Teaching and for what purposes. 3. Explore factors which underpin teachers’ decisions in selecting and combining approaches. An early literature review established key principles, purposes, definitions and concepts associated with Structured Teaching, as determined by those who developed the TEACCH approach to autism. This enabled the researcher to evaluate whether Structured Teaching was being implemented in the ways intended by those who developed the approach. A further literature review explored the existing research evidence-base for Structured Teaching and revealed gaps in that evidence, both methodologically and in relation to outcomes for children. A positivist approach which measures children’s behaviours has resulted in Structured Teaching being identified as an ‘evidence-based approach’. However, that evidence neglects to consider the perceptions of those who implement the approach and does not consider in depth other outcomes for children such as the effect upon their wellbeing and readiness to learn. This investigation was therefore designed to explore the gaps in the existing research evidence in order to better understand how and why the approach is implemented. An initial survey questionnaire, distributed to five special schools in one local authority in England, found that all components of Structured Teaching were being implemented. The results revealed that a predominant perception of outcomes for children was linked to their wellbeing. A variety of other classroom approaches were also identified by respondents and again linked to children’s wellbeing. Subsequently, an interpretative case study approach was designed to gather qualitative insights into classroom practices in relation to Structured Teaching combined with other approaches. Multiple case studies included: two key stage two classes in one special school; one key stage two class, together with one contrasting class for children in their early years, in another special school in a neighbouring town. Fieldwork took place over four school terms. Iterative analysis of interviews and classroom observations revealed that Structured Teaching is implemented as a flexible framework, responsive to individual needs and strengths. Within this framework, a combination of other approaches is implemented. Decision-making is underpinned by knowing each child as an individual and with a priority focus upon children’s wellbeing. The analysis and synthesis of the case studies result in a new model, which reflects the ‘mindful blending’ of approaches within a framework of Structured Teaching. The results of this investigation complement the existing research evidence-base. Future research might best be conducted by adopting a mixed-methods approach, combining positivist with interpretivist methodology. This would enhance the research evidence. Measurable behaviours would reveal what children do as a result of classroom practices, whilst insights of practitioners may shed light on potential reasons for why. In addition, an interpretive approach might also usefully gather the insights of those who are at the receiving end of a blend of approaches, that is, the children and their families. Finally, future research might test the usefulness of the ‘mindful blending’ model in order to inform and enhance educational approaches for children with autism.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Northampton
    SupervisorS Ralph (Supervisor), Estelle Tarry (Supervisor) & Richard Rose (Supervisor)

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