Richard McCully

Handling students with learning difficulties

How can I ignore students just because they are different?

Taking a CELTA or TEFL course will help you with the basics of teaching but one thing it doesn't cover is teaching students with learning difficulties.

As a teacher in Thailand it is more than likely you will have students with various disabilities as it seems there is very little provision for specialist care for these students. This can range from teaching students who are autistic through to blind or deaf pupils. I remember in my first week at my government high school there was a student who was severely autistic and I just wasn't prepared for the task at hand.

At first I was shocked and didn't know how to approach him or what I should say to calm him down whilst he was running around the classroom screaming at other students and trying to kick his classmates. One of the girls in the class came to me and said they would look after him and to just pretend he wasn't there. It seemed ignorance was the key.

Foreign attitudes

After this class I approached the head of the English department and told her about the situation. She shrugged her shoulders and told me it wasn't a problem - "Just teach the other students and don't worry about him". I asked her if there was a support teacher for him and she looked at me as if I was suggesting something crazy.

That night I spoke to a Thai engineer who lived in my apartment block about the problem. He told me that there isn't care for people with learning disabilities and that in a lot of cases the parents and teachers won't even acknowledge that the student has a disability. He also said that a lot of Thai people believe that if you are disabled or have learning disabilities it is because of sin in a previous life and as such there are sometimes negative feelings towards these people.

I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place. I wasn't equipped to deal with the situation. Teaching 50 kids isn't easy on your own and I had no idea how to deal with students with learning disabilities.

Students left alone

In my school in the UK we had a couple of deaf students and a student with Down Syndrome. They all had specialist equipment and a teaching assistant to help them. Here in Thailand, at least in government schools, they are left to their own devices and have to make the most of the situation. I would be interested to hear from anyone at a private / international school or a university to see if it is the same situation there.

I decided in my next class to start an activity with the class and then approach the student with autism. It was then I noticed that the other students in the class are very protective of other students with learning difficulties. They helped him to do his work, explained instructions and gave motivation. It actually made me feel very proud of these students but also sad that they had been left to do this without any support from the school.

There were other students at the school with learning difficulties. Some had mild symptoms and were great students, often just having problems interacting but being able to write fantastic articles in English.

Decent support system

I now work in a language school for adults (age 16+) and have a few students with learning disabilities. It is much easier now as my class sizes average 8 students but I still haven't had training on specialist teaching methods for students with learning disabilities. There have been occasions where I have had to ask the student to leave the class or have an assistant come in to help as there isn't the relationship between the students where the others are prepared to help. However, at least we do have a support system for them and can be more focused on their needs.

Another issue which always gets people talking is ADHD. I'm not a doctor or a specialist but even with everyone arguing about the diagnosis of this condition there is likely to be a time where you have to teach a student with ADHD. In your CELTA / TEFL course they will teach classroom management but this brief overview isn't enough to fully prepare you for every circumstance. Those teachers with QTS are likely to have more experience and training in dealing with learning difficulties but in their own countries they will receive help and support which is lacking here in Thailand.

Improvement surely needed

There are plans afoot to improve education standards in Thailand but I have yet to hear about improving conditions for those with learning disabilities. As for us foreign teachers it seems we are getting orders from heads of departments to ignore these students and just focus on standing in front of the class and do our best.

It's not possible to change the world overnight and even more unlikely to change the education system in Thailand in such a quick time but I feel lost when it comes to teaching and helping those with learning difficulties. I'm sure many of you have faced similar situations and would love to know your approach and the support you receive from your school.

If you enjoyed this blog, check out my website - Life in a New Country 

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@Mark... WOW man you nailed it with that response; couldn't have said it better. 20+ years teaching here and my feelings are exactly the same. Despite taking many SEN modules in my Master's program, I see the Thai "support" is quite adequate and the British system totally irrelevant (like most things!) in a place like here. Kudos to you, mate, for such great insight.

By Ajarn_M.Ed., Surin (28th September 2016)

I think Richard nailed it on the head when told by his Thai neighbor why they won't acknowledge learning disabilities. In a society which values 'face' (aka ego/image), making such a condition public would counter that greatly. Parents might be shunned or lose precious 'face' for having a learning-challenged child. In a class-hierarchy society, any such children from a lower class family would be explained away with "that's why they are lower-class". Learning-challenged children from a middle- or upper-class family wouldn't be acknowledged as such either, again for the same reason (face/status).

Which leads back to the question of what to the ever-contrarian Mark Newman points out, it's best left to the teacher. Most often, that is true. If you spend time around learning-challenged students (certainly no two are the same) you get a feel for what is within their comfort level and what isn't. Familiarity and rapport will go a long way.

By Bart, Phuket (20th July 2016)

I teach about 30 kids with various learning abilities over the course of 18 different classes. Some teachers call them "not normal" and others just say they "take medicine" which is my cue to be aware of them. How I deal with them is up to me.

Some sit quietly at the back and I don't engage with them... others want to really be a part of things and make an effort which is fine by me, too.

Richard made a good point about how the other kids rally around the ones that struggle. It's a joy to see this in practice and it's something I get to witness every day.

My problem is this cry for 'support'.

First off, it's a Western thing that has become so entrenched in Western society that many people can't survive without it. 'No kid left behind!' and all that rubbish.

Second off, what kind of support should 'special' students get and who's gonna pay for it?

Finally, what happens when the 'support' stops, the kid leaves school and now has to fend for himself without any kind of training or practice.

So, let's deal with these three points one by one...

Instead of being critical of the schools or the government for not providing 'support' we should be thankful that these kids are even making it to school and that the schools are taking them on.

So now let's have a look at what the author actually wants? What kind of support is missing? Equipment? Trained staff on hand? Social workers? Where do you stop... or start?

And 'support' comes in many guises, too. There is already a strong social support system in Thailand that protects these kids from being bullied and harassed. This nullifies the need for 'professional' busybodies with their weird social agendas.

And while Richard may feel proud enough to brag about the resources spent on 'teaching' the special kids in the UK, dragging those expensive and dubious methods to Thailand isn't something that's ever going to happen. And nor should they be.

Why? Well, in the UK, people with disabilities are managed from cradle to grave. What Richard is suggesting is that schools should adopt Western 'support' systems. That's fine but what happens when the kids leave school. This pointless intervention can, in my view, eventually do more damage than it does any good.

The practice in the West is to over-medicate everything and eventually this doesn't work out well. After years of interference and pressure to be forced to join society, kids with special needs are still no closer to doing that and are just left more isolated and miserable... and are now adults with special needs.

Locally held seminars by mental health professionals might help teachers in Thailand to do a better job. But then again, they might not. Teachers aren't trained to absorb complicated regimens of mental health classroom management. But in my experience, they do have plenty of love for all their students, an abundance of common sense and a dedication to their professions.

I personally think that in Thailand, this is quite enough 'support'.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (19th July 2016)

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