Student learning leads to Red Centre

 

At a school for children with special needs in Central Australia, a group of final-year Master of Physiotherapy students from Flinders University has been getting a taste of working in paediatrics. And as one student discovered, even a small contribution can make a very big difference. Melissa Mitchell reports.

Final-year student Jessica Kellett expected Alice Springs to be much like a small country town. There would be red dirt everywhere, she thought, and she would easily be able to travel the 20 minutes to nearby Uluru. She was wrong on pretty much all counts—except for the red dirt. As it turns out, Uluru is more than five and a half hours drive from Alice Springs, a thriving town which boasts a population of more than 25,000 people and is the central point from which thousands of tourists set out to explore the Red Centre each year.

‘I found Alice Springs to be a really interesting town. There are a lot of students there and there were so many things to explore around the area,’ Jessica says. ‘It was actually really different to what I was expecting. I’m from Adelaide and hadn’t had much experience in remote communities but my time in Alice Springs was a really positive experience, a unique experience.’

Jessica joined fellow students Imogen Hardacre, Heyson Hinge and Campbell Taverner in a four-week physiotherapy student-led paediatric therapy service at Acacia Hill School in Alice Springs in May. The school has an enrolment of about 90 pupils with moderate to profound intellectual and/or multiple or complex disabilities. Sixty-six per cent of the pupils at the school identify as Aboriginal and while most come from the Alice Springs area, many others come from remote communities in the Northern Territory, the Queensland border communities and the 

Pitjantjara Homelands in northern South Australia. The school naturally focuses on each pupil’s individual learning plans and their literacy skills, but many pupils have unmet needs related to allied health services such as physiotherapy.

Early this year, a pilot project was established jointly by Alice Springs physiotherapist and Flinders NT academic Annie Farthing, and the Flinders University Master of Physiotherapy program. Funding was provided by the Northern Territory Primary Health Network, Future Workforce Program. All Australian physiotherapy programs require students to complete about 30 weeks of supervised clinical practice in order to graduate, so the project was designed with the aim of providing a valuable clinical learning experience for the Flinders students as well as much-needed therapy intervention for the pupils. The student-led physiotherapy service was provided by two groups of four students, each spending four weeks at the school under the supervision of experienced paediatric physiotherapist and educator Anne Bent. Anne had previously worked in Alice Springs and was well versed in the cultural context of the school and region. The first group attended in May and the second group attended last month.

The main focus of the placements was to assess and treat individual pupils identified as having a high need for physiotherapy by either the school staff or by the Child Development Team in Alice Springs. The students undertook individual treatment sessions with these children, working on strength, range of motion, independent movement and optimal positioning using equipment such as standing frames, walking frames and specialised seating. They provided a daily physical program for a whole class which incorporated sensory elements, physical activity, coordination and turn-taking. They also worked in the playground at recess and lunch to engage pupils in structured physical activity. They also delivered in-services to the school staff on the use of specialised equipment and manual handling.

It proved to be a win-win for both student cohorts—the students got to experience paediatric physiotherapy in a school setting, and the children were given access to physical and functional assessments and interventions, therapy plans and levels of support enjoyed by their city-dwelling counterparts.

The clinical experience allowed the students to undertake an intensive period of assessment, treatment and planning for their young charges, who have a broad range of conditions including cerebral palsy, autism, genetic conditions and disabilities. The students led physical activity and exercise physiotherapy, focusing on movement and hand and  eye coordination, they went along when the children and their teachers attended the town’s swimming pool (the school’s own hydrotherapy pool was undergoing renovations) and they developed ongoing programs with teachers and families. The students and their supervisor also travelled to the township of Ti Tree, 193 kilometres north of Alice Springs to provide assessment and advice for pupils attending this remote school .

Jessica says she signed up for the placement because it was in paediatric disability, a field she has a huge passion for and for which placement opportunities are often limited. She says she was also eager to spend her weekends enjoying the many natural wonders and attractions surrounding Alice Springs; she and her fellow students enjoyed a trip to Uluru, they went hiking, camping and visited spectacular Kings Canyon.

Jessica—who will graduate at the end of this year and works casually as a support worker for children with disabilities while studying—says she gained some practical knowledge and insights from being at Acacia Hill School and seeing first-hand the resources the school had available to the pupils, such as accessible bathrooms with ceiling hoists and support workers with teachers in each classroom. Through the placement, she and her fellow students were able to deliver direct therapy and create plans for the children with special needs, they developed their skills in specialist areas and got to experience a variety of workplace settings. They were able to immerse themselves in the school culture as well as get a bit of a taste for working in cross-cultural service delivery in a remote setting.

Jessica says she felt that sharing knowledge with the school’s teachers and parents was an important way to provide ongoing support to the pupils long after she and her fellow students had returned to university. ‘You feel like you’re making a real difference on a placement like this,’ Jessica says. ‘The students were lovely  and clinically it was a really unique experience. I feel as though I learned so much … it was interesting to be there and see it for myself. I got to see cases I wouldn’t normally get to see and you just know that your therapy means a lot out there.’

 

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