Supporting students with additional needs

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The Kitchen Garden Program benefits students from a range of different ages, settings, and backgrounds. It’s especially valuable for students with additional needs, who may require a bit of extra support.

According to Louise McKinnon, Kitchen Garden Program Coordinator at Southern Support School in Tasmania, classes are a functional way to teach students practical, everyday skills. “The program at Southern Support School has a really positive impact for our students, as we are able to integrate so much of the curriculum with a hands-on approach, in particular literacy and numeracy,” she says. “For example, weighing and counting produce, or measuring ingredients for a recipe.”

Louise has been able to see her students grow in confidence and build stronger social connections:

“Students often begin the program hesitant but as the year progresses it is wonderful to observe our student’s confidence grow and their participation and willingness to try new foods increases.”

She also notes that, “The program has also been a great way to build strong connections with our families and local community.”


Getting hands on in the garden at Southern Support School

Educator Leeanne Boyd has more than three decades experience working with students with additional needs and was instrumental in running the Kitchen Garden Program at Crescent Special School in Goulburn. She made sure every student was made to feel included in classes, with tasks designed to play to individual strengths. “Everyone had to have a job,” she explains.

“If you were making a recipe, everyone had something to chop, grate, or peel. One boy liked washing up, and he was really good at it, but he didn't like being wet. So, we ordered him a raincoat to do it in – it’s just about adapting.”

Leanne believes hands-on learning in the kitchen and garden helps students build life skills and confidence to navigate the world outside of school. It also encourages them to try new things and expand their flavour palette – which can be especially impactful for students on the autism spectrum, who are more likely to stick with what they already know. “Students never had to try anything they didn’t want to,” she says. “But we’d encourage them with small steps. First, they would be asked to kiss the food and put it down. If that was as far as they got, that’s terrific. But over time they became more open to trying new things.”

“For our students with autism that was a real challenge, to try something other than their seven familiar foods. I watched how they ate, how they chewed. I noticed students who had trouble chewing liked pasta, as it was easy. So we tried making butter chicken. I had twin boys who ate the same thing all the time – just cheese and ham sandwiches. One night I ran into their mother in the supermarket, and she said ‘Leanne, show me the aisle with the butter chicken ingredients. The boys would never eat this before, but now they do’.”

At the end of every lesson students at the Crescent Special School come together, set the table with flowers and a tablecloth, and share the meal they have prepared together. This is a great chance to build social skills and connect with students in a less formal way that naturally encourages sharing. For Leanne, this might take the form of asking a simple question, like “What did you do last night?” She also developed visual placemats printed on vinyl for students with language difficulties, so they could point to images surrounding their plate and express whether they thought the meal was delicious, or they didn’t like it – learning to communicate their needs and feelings. “With the older students we might ask them to taste a dish and then tell us what they thought it needed, or to identify the flavours present.”


Using pictures to communicate at Southern Support School

The Kitchen Garden Program has also provided a way to bring the Crescent Special School community together. “We would invite in volunteers, carers, and parents to the space for showcase events,” Leanne explains. “Every week we would publish an update with what the students made along with a recipe in the school newsletter. If one of the students went home and said ‘we made pizza dough at school, can we do it again?’, the family could follow along at home. Through remote learning we would record video instructions, to keep people active.”

Leanne suggests the procedures of the Kitchen Garden Program also helped students manage stress and anxiety. “We were always aware of it,” she says. “A sense of routine is really important. We would mark the beginning of class by washing our hands together, putting on our hats and protective clothing. There were rugs with vegetables on them we could put over the knees of students in wheelchairs to help them feel comfortable.” Classes focused on tactile, sensory engagement, to help students connect with their food. “For students with limited eyesight we would concentrate on smelling, tasting, and feeling their food. Maybe that’s shaking the container with rice in it to hear it moving around. And we’d always use timers so people could hear when the food was ready.”


Getting ready to share a meal at Southern Support School

It’s not just the therapeutic act of cooking that can aid student behavioural management. Research suggests replacing processed foods with fresh foods (particularly vegetables and fruits) can lead to improvements in mental health, emotional regulation, cognitive function and sleep quality – all of which contribute to better learning outcomes.

Kalianna Special School in Bendigo North recently connected with the Foundation's Healthy Kids Advisors initiative after a total school canteen transformation. Since the change, staff have seen a huge improvement in students’ behaviour, alertness and academic attainment. According to Year 10 teacher, Leonie Johnston: “We used to have to get all the teaching done before lunch; now, the students are alert until the end of the day.”

An evaluation of the Kitchen Garden Program by researchers at the University of Wollongong backs up what educators have been telling us for years. According to their assessment, “research has shown that gardening and cooking had positive impacts on engaging students who were otherwise difficult to engage with learning in the classroom, students with special needs, and students from diverse backgrounds”. The study also found the program can be easily adapted to fit the specific requirements of higher care students, stating, “Students with special needs were reported to be able to participate in the Program with few adjustments or special programs.”

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