Mark Beales

Learning difficulties

Dealing with students that have special needs

Many schools have problems dealing with students who have behavioural problems. In some countries, these students tend to be left to cope in mainstream classes, largely because there is no alternative.

In developing countries, there are few options if your child is autistic or has a behavioural disorder. Parents often don’t like to admit their child has any issues and insist on keeping him or her in mainstream education.

If you get the chance to talk to the teacher you’re replacing, ask them if there is anyone to look out for with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in the class. Otherwise, you could be in for a shock, as I was during my first few days with a new class.

Student Gun

We were playing a quick vocabulary game to review some new words, and all seemed to be going well.

Part of the game was a hangman-like quiz where students could choose a letter and try and guess the word. After a few turns, one of the quieter students, who tended to spend his time drawing musical staves, took an interest. His hand shot up and it waved furiously around in the air.

‘Hmm, yes, OK Gun, do you want to have a guess?’ I asked.

Gun nodded fervently and replied ‘Five’.

‘OK Gun, this is like hangman, so we’re really after a letter,’ I explained.

A little crest-fallen, he went back to scribbling crotchets. A minute later we were onto a new word, and again Gun’s hand was up.

‘Yes, Gun, do you know the word?’

‘15’, came the reply.

Gun could actually do most of the work, the challenge was persuading him that it was worth his while. Gun really wanted to just write music. His love of writing crotchets and quavers extended to actual songs, so any time I used a song he would be up dancing around the room, and no manner of persuasion was going to get him to remove his disco shoes.

Student Big

Gun was harmless, but other students can be far more troublesome. Big, a 12-year-old boy, was one such student. His teacher was an English woman in her mid-20s who had never taught before. Big’s English was good, but each lesson he would test his teacher to see how much he could get away with. The teacher handled things pretty well, until during one afternoon class, she’d had enough.

After telling him repeatedly to take his book from his bag and at least open it, she raised her voice and told him, in so many words, to pull his finger out. Now nobody in the school spoke to Big like this, not even the Thai teachers, but nobody had passed this information on to his English teacher. 

Big stood up, screamed at the teacher in Thai, tried his best to rant a little in English, then finally threw into the air the few papers he had bothered to take out of his bag. He ran out of the classroom and downstairs, where I was walking past. 

Big stood alone, oblivious to anything, literally shaking with rage. I approached and asked what was wrong. Big scowled at me before launching a salvo of expletives towards me in his native tongue. Unfortunately for Big I knew what he was saying and so put on my best authoritative tone and got him to calm down. 

Big did seem genuinely sorry about the insults he’d sent my way, or possibly sorry that I’d understood him. We sat on the stairs and chatted for a while about his problem, and after 10 minutes, all was well with the world. Big wasn’t a bad student, he just had certain needs that weren’t going to be addressed well by this particular school. Thai teachers shrugged and labeled him ‘autistic’, but that tends to be a term that’s banded around for any problem child. 

If you do have students such as this, then do your best to find out the full picture. Teaching those with SEN is a completely different job from teaching ESL, and so you’ll have to find ways that work for you and your student, and don’t impact on the amount of time you have left to teach the rest of your class. 

International schools may have specialist teachers for this type of situation, but that’s the exception rather than the norm. A good option is to get the student professionally tested to see if there are any underlying problems, but tread carefully; not all parents want to admit there is a problem. 

- Above blog adapted from 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)


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