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.