A map of Tokyo subway routes

Incorporate special interests in the classroom

Middle years
0

Resources are provided with this practice

No

Summary

Students on the autism spectrum may have special interests, i.e. one or two specific and intense areas they’re interested in. Students may be stronger in these areas than in other areas of their development, and they may have more knowledge than their peers in these areas. 

Although special interests have traditionally been discouraged, research suggests that including these interests in curriculum materials and classroom instruction can: 

  • motivate students to complete tasks
  • assist teaching
  • help students to engage.

This practice will help students to

be more engaged

focus across a range of topics

complete a larger volume of work

stay motivated

This practice will help teachers to

establish relationships with students

promote student engagement

How the practice works

Apply this practice with your students

The tabs below provide information to support your implementation of this practice. The sequence aligns with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership's High-Quality Professional Learning Cycle. You can find out more about high quality professional learning in the Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders.

A. Plan

How to use special interests in the classroom

Know your student well – liaise with parents and colleagues to identify the student’s special interests.

After you have identified these special interests, you can:

  • embed the student’s special interests into curriculum tasks as a whole-class plan
  • provide individualised tasks for the student
  • use the special interests to motivate the student using the Premack principle.
Embedding special interests into the curriculum

When planning a lesson, consider which of the student’s special interests might be appropriately embedded. 

Example

A teacher is attempting to engage a student in a unit of work about modern Japanese culture. As this particular student has a special interest in trains, the teacher asks the student to complete a research assignment on the rail systems in Japan.

Providing individualised tasks

Using a student’s special interest does not have to be time-consuming.

Example

In an assignment about Ancient Rome, students are to write a script of an interview between themselves and Julius Caesar. The teacher suggests to the student with a special interest in Spiderman that they write a script with Spiderman interviewing Julius Caesar.

This example could also work as a whole-class approach – each student could choose their favourite character to be the interviewer.

Motivating students

Use a student’s special interest to motivate them to complete less-preferred tasks by using the Premack principle. The student must complete a less-preferred task to a satisfactory standard to be allowed access to their special interest. 

Make sure you:

  • show the order of tasks
  • clearly describe what the ‘satisfactory standard’ looks like.
Example      
  1. Read all of page 54.
  2. Write a five-sentence paragraph to summarise page 54.
  3. Read The Lord of the Rings (the student’s preferred activity).

It works better if the teacher:

  • knows their student well enough to identify a special interest that will motivate the student
  • sets a realistic amount of work for the student to complete
  • allows enough time for the student to access their special interest after completing the less-preferred task
  • regularly assesses and reviews whether the use of a special interest is helpful and what further adjustments may be needed next time.

It doesn’t work if:

  • a special interest is used to punish the student, e.g. taking away access to the special interest
  • the teacher changes expectations partway through using the Premack principle – this is likely to increase anxiety and decrease trust.

Materials informing this practice

B. Set goals

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C. Apply the practice

  1. Deliver the lesson to students, ensuring that individualised tasks are adequately explained with explicit instruction.
  2. If the task is completed successfully, praise the student.
  3. Monitor student progress.

D. Reflect and refine

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Reflect on your student goals

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Reflect on your teacher goals

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E. Share

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Your student goals and reflections

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Your teacher goals and reflections

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This practice is from the core research project