Tools to help teach students with additional needs or disability


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A program of tailored teaching and assessment tools is improving education for children and young people with disabilities or additional learning needs.

The outcome

A package of online teaching and assessment tools, as well as professional development and advice, is helping teachers improve the learning experience for students with disabilities or additional needs.

Developed by University of Melbourne researchers at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the Students with Additional Needs (SWANs) tools are used in primary and secondary schools in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

The tools allow teachers to design learning plans tailored to student needs. The tools provide a more standardised approach to teaching, making it possible to determine which teaching strategies are most effective.

The tools help teachers track a child’s ability along a learning progression. They can see the skills the student is developing and those they might learn next. Teachers can also use them to assess students who might not respond to traditional testing methods. For example, helping a child who cannot communicate verbally to say yes and no using hand movements.

Tailored versions of the SWANs tools, called ABLES and Early ABLES, were developed in partnership with the Department of Education and Training in Victoria, Australia.

Since 2011, more than 50 000 students in Australia have been assessed using either the SWANs or ABLES tools. Early ABLES has been used to support the learning of more than 7000 children aged between two and five years.

The need

Since 2007, Victoria has required its schools to develop individual learning plans for students who receive government-funded support based on disability. To develop these plans, teachers need to observe and assess each student’s learning progress.

However, little guidance was available to help teachers assess students, identify appropriate teaching strategies, or monitor learning over time.

Traditionally, students with a disability or additional learning needs were assessed in terms of the nature and severity of their disability – focusing on what they couldn’t do rather than what they could do. Some teachers lacked clear guidance about what children and young people with additional needs or disabilities should be learning and when.

With no standard method for observing and tracking students’ learning, teachers and education researchers were also unable to identify successful teaching strategies.

Developing the solution

In 2007, the Department of Education and Training (DET) partnered with researchers from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education on the SWANs research program. The research team was led by Professor Patrick Griffin and Dr Kerry Woods.

Initially, the SWANs team worked with more than 70 teachers to develop materials to describe and monitor the skills of students with disabilities or additional learning needs. The skills included reading, writing, communication, learning skills such as attention, memory, and organisation, and emotional self-management. Together they created learning pathways for students to develop these skills and linked these to recommended teaching strategies.

The SWANs materials were trialled by 700 special education teachers in 77 Victorian schools with 1597 students with additional needs.

Based on the teachers’ feedback, the researchers improved the materials, created online versions, and tested them in further trials in 2008 and 2009. The materials improved teachers’ capacity to understand student learning and allowed them to personalise teaching programs.

In 2011, a tailored version of the SWANs tools was commissioned by the DET. Linked to the Victorian Curriculum, it was launched as the Abilities Based Learning and Educational Support (ABLES) program.

In 2013, the DET created the ABLES Professional Learning suite. The Victorian Government recommends the suite to teachers registered in the state of Victoria. It is an endorsed professional learning option as part of teacher registration in Victoria.

Between 2014 and 2015, researchers worked with the DET to develop Early ABLES. Early ABLES provides resources for early childhood professionals to assess, plan, and report on the learning of children with disability aged two to five. Early ABLES is aligned to the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework outcomes.

From 2014 to 2017, a second round of research expanded the SWANs tools to include measures of numeracy, digital literacy, movement and thinking skills.


Assessment Research Centre, The University of Melbourne

Department of Education and Training, Victoria


ARC Linkage Projects


Griffin P, Woods K (eds) (in press) Assessing learning growth in students with additional needs (SWANS). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer

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Banner image: The SWANs and ABLES tools are shifting the focus to what children with disabilities or special needs can do, not what they can’t. Image: Ben Mullins

First published on 2 March 2022.

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