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Publication: Reclaiming Children and Youth
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 37561
ISSN: 10895701
Journal code: RCAY

Mt. Richmond Special School reflects the richness of the cultural and learning diversity found in many New Zealand schools. Located in the heart of South Auckland, the school's 130 students represent a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. The students present a comprehensive range of intellectual, social, emotional, physical, sensory, mental health, and behavioural needs. The universal values in the Circle of Courage (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 2002) provide a uniting and progressive framework for growing a culture of reframing problems as challenges to restore broken bonds and build positive connections.

Laying the Foundations

Since the 1989 Education Act, all students in New Zealand, regardless of their disability, have the right to be educated in mainstream schools. This policy change created a challenge for mainstream schools to respond to the widening range of abilities, interests, and needs of students. Special schools continue to serve many students with complex learning and behaviour needs. The closing of psychopaedic hospitals has also shifted responsibility for this population to special schools.

The launch of the New Zealand Disability Strategy (Minister for Disability Issues, 2001) and the publication of the National Health Committee report To Have an 'Ordinary' Life, Kia Whai Oranga Noa' (NACHD, 2003) further emphasised the right of all people with disabilities to be part of their local community and reinforced the pressure on schools to grow their ability to meet a wide range of complex learning and behaviour needs.

This social change has increased the focus on identifying features related to quality teaching and learning in New Zealand schools, a focus of recent research-based projects. These include a series of Ministry of Education (MOE) funded Best Evidence Syntheses (BES). Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling (Alton-Lee, 2003) identified a universal move away from the deficit model of locating the problem with the student to recognising the importance of school culture, the learning context, and "the relationship between pedagogical practice and student achievement outcomes" (p. 14).

One of the characteristics of a successful learning community is a shared vision founded on common values, attitudes, and beliefs. As the community grows and changes, so will the vision- but the core values that underpin the vision will be a continual reference point as the learning community adapts and changes to meet the needs of the members (Dufour & Eaker, 1998; Hord, 1997; Hough & Paine, 1997; Senge, 1990; Sergiovanni, 1994; Snell & Janney, 2000). The creation of a shared vision and common values is "not easy to accomplish" and requires "active efforts to put the values of community and equality into practice" (Janney & Snell, 2004, pp. 10-11).

This article outlines the progress Mt. Richmond Special School (Mt. Richmond) has made to this point in the journey towards further developing its ability to respond to a growing complexity of cultural and learning diversity. Mt. Richmond reflects the richness of the diversity found in many New Zealand schools. The school has 90 staff members who serve students from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds including (in order of representation) Maori (NZ and Cook Island), Samoan, New Zealand European, Tongan, Indian, Fijian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Asian. Another aspect of the diversity evident at Mt. Richmond is the comprehensive range of intellectual, social, emotional, physical, sensory, mental health, and behavioural needs presented by the students. The population ranges from those with serious developmental disabilities to bright but behaviourally challenging youth who have been excluded from mainstream schools.

The social and policy changes that impacted the New Zealand education system created a demand for special education knowledge and expertise that exceeded local availability of suitably qualified teachers. This necessitated Mt. Richmond's employing of many overseas trained teachers who represented a range of ethnicities and diverse values and beliefs. While this range of ethnic backgrounds provides a richness in both the student and the staff bodies, it also presented the challenge of building a common vision and framework that nurtured and sustained everyone's growth needs without compromising personal values and beliefs.

Mt. Richmond believed that the universality of the values, attitudes, and beliefs inherent in the Circle of Courage model had the potential to provide a uniting framework on which to build a cohesive learning community. A culture of genuine learning community, in which diversity is celebrated and effective teaching and learning strategies are practised, would create a context in which all students, teachers, and families participate and contribute as valued members.

A multi-faceted whole school professional development program was based on Circle of Courage principles using the universal Response Ability Pathways (RAP) program for staff development (Brendtro & du Toit, 2005). This provided a framework on which to build understandings, knowledge, and synergies between students, staff, parents, and the wider community. It included a research study to investigate the effectiveness of the program when applied in a whole school context. The ultimate intention was to grow the school's competence and capacity to respond effectively to diverse and complex needs.

Building the Framework

In 2005, school managers were introduced to the Circle of Courage and realised the potential for this philosophy to provide a unifying framework for cohesive practices and programming within the school. A whole school professional learning program was designed with the deliberate intention of establishing a common understanding of the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the Circle of Courage. The plan was to integrate each of the specialized programs in the school under the umbrella of the four key elements of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

This concept of program integration was further supported when The Draft New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2006) was introduced. Four of the five key competencies outlined in the new curriculum; relating to others, thinking, managing self, and participating and contributing; directly aligned with belonging, independence, mastery, and generosity. In addition to being key factors identified by Maori as essential for a person's well-being, these values were inherent in the school vision and the various cultures of the students and staff at Mt. Richmond. It was envisaged that eventually Circle of Courage philosophy would be reflected in the language and culture of the school and the focus would be on meeting the needs of each and every person (students, staff, and families) in the school community.

To lay the foundation for the whole school development program, five events were facilitated:

* A public address introducing the philosophy of the Circle of Courage to school and community members

* A three-day RAP training course for members of the school management team

* Strength-based Developmental Audit training with the school assessment team

* A workshop with staff to explore the relationship between the Circle of Courage and the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007)

* A workshop with staff to explore the relationship between the Circle of Courage and Positive Behaviour Support ideologies.

Adapting RAP for Whole School Professional Development

Following these events RAP training was facilitated with the staff of the school. The training was delivered with three adaptations. One was the delivery of a school-wide development program targeting all Mt. Richmond staff, in contrast to training personnel drawn from a range of organizations. Each staff member was included in one of eight trans-disciplinary groups made up of teachers, classroom support staff, administrators, specialists, and managers.

The second adaptation was to deliver modules over an extended time frame in contrast to the usual three consecutive days. There was a month between each module. This provided opportunities in the intervening periods for teachers to apply and reflect on new strategies and report back to the group at the following module. The intervening periods also enabled spontaneous learning and informal discussions and relating RAP to specific incidents.

A qualified RAP trainer who was also a member of the school staff facilitated the modules. This enabled the training to be related specifically to the school context. Discussions and activities could focus on specific behaviors and support needs of teachers and students in the school.

At the completion of the professional development program, participants were invited to complete a questionnaire and a randomly selected representative group participated in a focus group. The following section details the results of the questionnaire and the focus group discussion. (See also Table 1)

Results and Responses

The whole school professional learning program was designed with the deliberate intention of establishing a common understanding of the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the Circle of Courage and embedding this within school practice.

Since the RAP trainer was also a staff member at Mt. Richmond, concepts could be related to specific behaviors of the students who were known to all the participants. This established a common understanding of the logic underpinning student behaviours previously considered problematic:

This program has changed the whole atmosphere. . . all pupils are happier.

I feel the program has had a positive influence on how staff, peers, and students act - this understanding is helping develop a more supportive positive atmosphere, which is having a positive affect on students' behaviour.

The modular approach across a five-month period was a very effective way of learning. Participants valued the period of time between modules as it provided opportunity to review and apply learning, knowing that uncertainties could be explored and successes shared at the next module. The modular approach also enabled them to revisit the material frequently and build on their knowledge and understanding. The continuity and high level of understanding and learning that developed during the training was reflected in participants' expressing the belief that Circle of Courage philosophy and RAP strategies needed to be further integrated into the whole curriculum.

The applicability of RAP strategies to the special needs context was well demonstrated. Participants made effective use of the time between modules to apply the strategies and then share their learning in small group discussions. They commented that learning from the experiences of other participants had been substantial. Some felt that their learning could have been even greater had the delivery been lengthened. Participants suggested that five fullday modules (rather than the six 3 -hour modules) would have been an appropriate time frame to assimilate and discuss information. They requested that the same one-month time frame between modules be retained.

Whole school professional development has organizational implications and requires a high level of commitment from school management. Participants acknowledged that professional development was a valued activity in the school and that management strongly supported the implementation of the program.

The design of the professional development focused on relating concepts and learning to the 'real' situation (teachers and students). This was identified as one of the best aspects of the professional development program. Another highly-valued aspect was the number of opportunities for interaction and sharing with colleagues. Relating the information and learning to 'real' situations also enabled material to be presented in a way that best suited the learning styles of participants.

Participants acquired a sound level of understanding of the components of the Circle of Courage, problem behavior, and the three Response Abilities:

1. Connect to provide support to children in need.

2. Clarify challenges and problems.

3. Restore harmony and respect.

Each RAP training session began with an activity in which participants reflected on how the previous session of RAP had influenced their teaching. One teacher shared this example of how RAP was altering his thinking about his students:

An 18-year-old youth who was severely challenged with Autism and unable to communicate verbally liked to begin each day with a walk around the perimeter of the school grounds. Each morning the student and teacher did this walk together. One morning they came across a large branch lying along the fence line. The student went over to the branch and attempted to pick it up. It would not move because one of its smaller branches was lodged in the netting of the fence. The teacher kept walking. After several attempts to dislodge the branch, the student followed the teacher but stopped after four or five steps. He turned and looked thoughtfully back at the branch. He walked back over to it and momentarily paused. This time he pushed the branch into the fence, twisted it and then pulled it out towards himself He showed obvious delight when the branch dislodged and he was able to clear it away.

The teacher shared with the RAP group how this incident and his new [RAP] understanding of everyone's "natural ability to clarify problems and cope with challenges" had caused him to completely alter his paradigm about the student. Whereas previously he had not credited the student with this problem solving ability, he now realized the student had a much greater potential for problem solving and he needed to re-think his class programme.

Another recognized outcome was the increase in the ability to connect with challenging students. RAP training helped participants to realize that students greeting them in an inappropriate manner (e.g., a wisecrack) could be a well-intentioned attempt by that student to connect. It enabled staff to positively reframe behaviors they had formerly regarded as challenging and move their focus to teaching more appropriate skills of connecting.

Staff are more compassionate and aware - students are valued and respected. I feel that the atmosphere is more positive now.

All staff respect each student and take into consideration why they react as they do.

More positive comments are used now and staff take the time to connect, clarify, and restore in most situations.

Recognition that this professional development program helped staff to feel more confident was a recurring theme. The RAP training applied not only to relationships with students but also with families and fellow staff. One participant commented on how much easier it was now to talk with parents and commented, "I wish all the parents could do this program as well."

Participants acknowledged that the program was already making an impact on staff interactions. They made particular mention of increased generosity. For example, staff members covered for each others duties, shared support staff during absences, and showed general goodwill. As a result of RAP, two teachers reported they had begun working more as a collaborative team and were now cross-grouping students and sharing ideas.

When asked to identify the best aspects of the program, participants' responses included the following:

Talking with colleagues

Group discussions

Collecting, relating, and sharing previous experiences

Working as a team

Sharing and learning with other staff members who I don't usually work with

Small group discussions with a range of people from classroom support workers to senior teachers

Good to have all staff involved

The majority of participants found the program useful. They considered that their time had been well spent attending it. They specified that during the training:

Personal issues as well as professional school ones had progressed.

[This] life-changing course has made me more aware and more understanding of both adults and students and why they behave and react as they do.

Participants identified the importance of opportunities to reflect on, practice, and consolidate new knowledge to ensure new learning becomes embedded in school culture and practice. Whole school professional development in Circle of Courage and RAP training established a framework.

I feel that the atmosphere is more positive now. All staff [members] respect each student and take into consideration why they react as they do. More positive comment is used now and staff [members] take the time to connect, clarify, and restore in most cases. Staff [members] are more compassionate and aware; students are valued and respected.

The majority of participants reported evidence of the Circle of Courage and RAP in the every-day life of the school. The comment was made that:

The Circle of Courage needs consolidating, practicing, and continuously reinforcing in order for it to become a school-wide philosophy followed by all.


This article highlights the findings of an evaluation conducted at the completion of whole school training in Circle of Courage and RAP designed to develop a common understanding of the values and attitudes inherent in the Circle of Courage and to provide a springboard for implementing Circle of Courage philosophy and RAP practice into the curriculum and school culture.

The evaluation indicates that the RAP training was an exceptionally positive learning experience for the majority of staff. The program was considered to have been very well-designed and facilitated, and has added to an increased knowledge and skill base to support teachers and students within the school and the wider community.

The underlying intention of this program was to further develop the school as the type of "authentic learning community" described by Peterson, Beloin, & Gibson, as cited by O'Brien, Thesing, & James (2004). An authentic learning community is one in which relationships between teachers, students, families/caregivers, and support agencies develop so that members of the school community work together in supportive partnerships. These relationships reflect a connectedness that enables challenges and problems to be clarified resulting in positive outcomes for all. Findings indicate that this experience has further developed the school as a learning community.

This program has contributed considerably to the progress Mt. Richmond has made in moving from reacting to incidents to responding to needs. The school environment reflects the move from a reactive to a responsive culture. Among the more obvious of these are the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) program, the closure of the Time Out Rooms, and the removal of iron gates from classroom doorways. It is also evident in a significant reduction in the use of physical control and restraint as teachers have become more effective and confident in de-escalating students in crisis. Current plans for further development include the use of the 'Circle' as a planning template for individual educational programs, and in-class coaching to apply the new knowledge and strategies in program implementation.

The whole school professional development program using the process described in this article demonstrates how RAP training can reinforce the values, attitudes, and beliefs inherent in a learning community culture. The stage is now set for further developing the positive paradigm that celebrates diversity of everyone in the school community.


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National Advisory Committee on Health and Disability. (2003). To have an 'ordinary' life: Kia whai oranga 'noa'. A report to the Minister of Health and the Minister for Disability Issues. Wellington, NZ: Author.

O'Brien, R, Thesing, A., & James, W. (2004). Enhancing effective practice in special education: A pilot study (research report). Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1994). Building community in schools (ist ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Author affiliation:

Deborah Espiner, MA, is a principal lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has a strong background in supporting students with special learning needs within education and community settings. Her experience includes designing and delivering programmes for teachers and human service workers and facilitating Ministry of Education special education contracts. Contact her by email at

Diane Guild, MEd, is the Manager of Professional Development and Outreach Services for Mount Richmond Special School in Auckland, New Zealand. Mount Richmond School is "growing a Circle of Courage culture" with a view to becoming the first Circle of Courage school in New Zealand. She can be reached by email at

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