Julia Knight

Understanding SEN

An explanation of what SEN means and involves

Special Educational Needs or SEN - the acronym it goes by - is an interesting part of international education. The last couple of years, there has been an explosion of understanding around SEN and a race to employ SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Co-coordinators)

My background in the UK meant I worked very closely with the school SENCO and have a broad understanding of the issues that some young people face and was able to access services for a wide range of needs. I am no expert, nor do I profess to be, however I can recognise basic signs and can offer basic advice.

I came across a Connor's Checklist recently, it had been translated from English to Thai and back again. It had lost some of the questions meaning and omitted some information which renders it useless. The checklist is for ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) children, the questionnaire is completed by parents and teachers to gauge any pressure points during the day. The questions are all slightly similar to each other to weed out any preconceived notions from either party. The checklist came from a respected hospital in Bangkok but any psychologist or indeed a good SENCO could tell this young person was not ADHD. However how do you test and assess Speech, Language and Communication difficulties in a student who is learning in English but his mother-tongue is Thai?

To me, his area of need is SPLD (Specific Learning Difficulties), he can understand English, however he can not process simple instructions such as 'tie your shoelaces' or 'catch the ball and run'. But I am asking and assessing him in English. How can an international school teacher accommodate a student with SEN in an English speaking environment? Surely the SENCo needs to be able to communicate using the student's mother-tongue? SEN should not be confused with EAL (English as Additional Language) requiring different pedagogical approaches and outcomes but more often than not, they are put together side by side.

My colleagues who are SENCos can enjoy a wealth of job opportunities across the world and with very good pay too.This is because their specialism is much sought after and very few teachers are trained to any depth in this area. A SENCo's job is a minefield and particularly difficult in countries such as Thailand where there is still a social stigma and no agencies for support.

Social stigma and poor parental understanding of SEN is also a significant part of a school's obligation, to teach parents whose culture and education may not match those of a westernised international school. It takes tact and skill to deliver news which may be unexpected or unwanted.

Another colleague whose school has recently employed a SENCo is also finding that apart from writing strategies on paper and sharing them, there is not much impetus from the staff to follow through on recommendations, nor is there the real understanding of such issues. There are some very poor views of children with SEN that probably existed in the UK in 1970s and 80s. Her current role merely ticks the box for the accreditation body visiting her school soon.

Some international schools ask parents to pay extra if their children are deemed to be SEN, I would hope that parents are savvy enough to ask questions about what the provision is and will be for their child. In the UK, every parent of an SEN child has an Annual Review to discuss targets, areas of improvement and development. There is a specific budget attached to those children with Statements of Need and schools are accountable for its expenditure.

The UK has moved its language on from SEN to AEN (Additional Educational Needs) to remove the stigma of the word 'special'. The debate around semantics can continue there but here in Thailand, there is a growing number of students who have a wide range of learning needs who require recognition as well as supportive learning. Teachers need to be trained properly and school leadership must embed the delivery and provision into its ethos.

SEN provision is at the core of excellent learning for pupils who face barriers and challenges to learning. The teaching and learning that takes place must be specialized and not just tacked on like a new buzz-word or to fill the required empty void of an accreditation box.

About me



Hi Kevin, I share your frustrations but from a teacher perspective. You can find me on wordpress writing about my UK experiences, if I can ever be of help, please get in contact. Regards, JK


By Julia, BKK (15th December 2013)

Julia, thank you for your reply. I agree with you that SEN children require specialist teachers. The challenges they have in many cases are so profound that they need focused specialist care to help them improve. Bizarrely, I think it's the UK government's position to have mixed education and move away from specialist provision. Regarding SEN care in the UK I can only see the situation worsening as austerity and cutbacks continue and more children will suffer.
I apologise if I what I said came across as 'teacher bashing' as this was not my intention. There are many frustrations that build up in a parent of a SEN child that you can not begin to imagine unless you have one. My point really is to realize that working at international level, teachers are playing a 'small part' in SEN care in Thailand. This environment is somewhat closeted as you are only encountering people with money. The dynamics completely change when you don't have any. I think within the west we have had it for so long that we completely take for granted our free education and healthcare, Thai's do not have this. Thus being in an international school environment where parents all have money does not give you the real picture about the realities for the 'average Thai' here in Thailand. I could tell you some stories that would shock you to the bone.
I think the situation is slowly improving with more specialist schools but mainly in Bangkok. The provision in the rural areas is practically non existent. I would therefore encourage anyone looking to volunteer to do it in these areas where 'some' help will be better than 'no' help.

By kevin, Bangkok (14th December 2013)

Hi Kevin, thank you for your considered response. I read your comments with much care and I think we are both on the same page with a lot of our views. SEN is a sensitive subject and I can only reference my time in the UK and my limited experience here. I can say to you that SEN children require teachers to adapt to their worlds and not them to ours, if they could, then they wouldn't require the support.

My experience here is that bigger international schools who have (money) large teams dedicated to the child are offering better salaries to attract the high calibre of teacher. There is nothing wrong with that- the UK has moved to PRP (performance related pay) recently. And yes, parents have to pay. I don't know about gov schools or rural schools so as said my experience only extends to BKK.

I had a cohort of 365 in my previous role as HOY in the UK, only three met the threshold for statement of needs which carried teaching assistant funding and only one was full time. We had roughly 25 kids with EBD which were not covered by statements and the school screened every child for dyslexia and found just over a quarter displayed signs and we put in place small measures such as overlays and different colour text books.

I have taught child with autism and one of my proudest moments was watching a girl I taught who was also in my tutor broil collect her gcse results,she did fantastically well. But her mum and I worked together and her mum battled the school on lots of things so I know it is a struggle for parents especially those who aren't as articulate.

My discussion only opens up some of the issues and I thank you for illuminating me further, you have given me lots to think about.

Many thanks, JK

By Julia, BKK (14th December 2013)

You have made a few valid points but I think you are quite unaware of the realities here in Thailand.

I am the parent of an older Autistic child here in Bangkok and have experienced over many years the issues involved. To Guy, you don't have a clue what your talking about. There are huge amounts of children here that require SEN help but they don't get it for many reasons. The fact that you may not have encountered any, which is why you made your false comment, does not mean that they do not exist.
Yes, there's a growing awareness about children with learning difficulties but as a whole it still a massive problem here in Thailand. To put it simply for you, Thai's like things to be perfect. Anything less than perfect is embarrassing to them and causes a loss of face or shame on the family. This is one of the reasons parents find it extremely difficult to get education (of any sort) for the child. Therefore I, in the most part completely disagree with you that 'it's a schools obligation to teach parents about SEN'. Yes, this is true when both parties are coming from a neutral, understanding position and want to provide the appropriate education for their child, but in the main it is for the schools to listen and understand parents and particularly the child and provide tuition matched to their needs. I know of hundreds of Thai families who have children with learning difficulties. The usual scenario is that their child goes to school (they are unaware of issues at this stage), once the child develops any issues the school excludes them. Then the parent goes from one school to another and is equally refused at the other schools. The main reasons this happens are due to the 'perfect' issue, other parents do not want their child to study with a child who is 'flawed' and who could provide a negative influence upon their child and also there are not teachers trained to teach children with SEN. Basically, a regular teacher doesn't understand or want to deal with a child of this nature. I can understand this to a point as there are many testing realities involved with caring for a child with SEN.

There are actually some schools and hospitals that provide specialist care here but you only really know about them when you are in this position. Most people in this situation learn through networking with other parents rather than through officialdom. Another point to consider is that there is not free schooling here. No money = no education. This is not the UK. I found it slightly grating when you talked about your SENCO colleagues 'wealth of job opportunities...with very good pay too'. Although everyone has to make a living I would question their reasons to be doing this here in Thailand. Why are they not working in there home countries? Perhaps they might spare a thought for the thousands of parents countrywide who don't have the money to send there children to school or have no SEN provision where they live. Out of Bangkok their is almost nothing across the whole country. Perhaps they would consider volunteering if children's SEN provision is their pure motivation. I say this because the view of many parents I know is that because schooling is not free, really they are just businesses and primarily interested in your money. This is why there is apathy amongst employees, as well as the Thai culture of not 'rocking the boat'. This equally applies to standard schools and is why there is such a growth of 'international' schools. Further, although the UK is better and more advanced in terms of SEN it is in no way perfect. Although schooling in the UK is free, SEN provision is not automatic and there are many parents with no provision and/or tied up in legal wranglings to do with achieving a statement of need.
Your point about assessing a Thai boy in English is valid. Children with SEN are very confused as it is without trying to communicate in English and although there are signs as you mention that can be recognized I firmly believe that the child should be assessed by a specialist doctor in their native Thai language. This is also necessary as some children cannot speak all.

By Kevin, Bangkok (13th December 2013)

Hi Guy, I said an 'explosion of understanding' not that SEN has only just been discovered but your last point is a salient one indeed. JK

By Julia, BKK (28th November 2013)

SENCo and the alphabet soup of 'new' job titles cited by the author had me in stitches. Special Ed has been around a lot longer than the last couple of years.

I don't believe Thailand is lagging behind. There simply isn't any need for special ed in Thailand because there aren't any special needs students.

By Guy, Bkk (24th November 2013)

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