Every child receives one-on-one instruction in order to shape…
Special Needs School and Inclusive Education – by Ilana Gerschlowitz: Author of Saving my Sons – A journey with autism.
Some people feel that a label defines the child and should dictate their learning environment. In my experience, there are so many ways to teach a student with a label the skills they missing so that they can cope in the mainstream classroom and to avoid the need for a special needs school. It’s possible to reduce the challenging behaviours that interrupt their learning and success. By identifying the skills missing and focusing on teaching skill acquisition, we can ensure the success of a student with a label of ADHD, Autism Spectrum, Oppositional Defiance and more. It’s extremely important that we adapt the child to the environment and that we don’t adapt the environment to the child especially in the foundation phase this way preventing the need for a move to a special needs school. If the learning environment of a young child is changed to a special needs school or remedial school too early on, we have to ask ourselves where are we going with this long term? We risk that they will always need an accommodated learning environment like a special needs school or work environment. A child will only achieve as high as we set our expectations. In addition, early intervention is key and we should work on addressing a child’s delays and skills deficits as soon as possible in this way preventing them from needing a special needs school. Early intervention sets the stage for best results. Many children with a label, are missing what we call Executive Functioning (EF) Skills. EF is the CEO of the brain. EF skills continue to develop even into the early twenties. If these skills are missing, it will certainly affect academic success. Examples of EF skills includes sustained attention, planning and organising, self-management, problem solving and so one. It’s often recommended that a student repeat a grade. By repeating the grade the student shouldn’t suddenly miraculously learn to sustain or divide their attention or learn those EF skills they’re missing. This needs to be taught and with the right support children can achieve far beyond their initial label. This is just an example, of how to address the challenges of a student who is falling behind their peers. There can be more skills deficits in other developmental domains which require identification and which need to be taught. The point here, is that it’s possible to teach those skills that a student is missing and that’s holding them back and in this way we can keep them in mainstream school without the need for a special needs school.
When a child is restricted by a label and there are no expectations or the wrong expectations it will be challenging for that child to have the self-confidence and motivation to succeed. Sadly, students are being defined and boxed by their label. Until Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile in 1954 no one had done it before. As soon as he showed it was possible, scores of people started to run sub 4 minute miles after he proved it possible. The old school of thought, believes that setting the bar too high, will cause unnecessary anxiety and pressure on a student who isn’t able to cope in the mainstream classroom. With the right support in place, it’s possible to teach emotional coping skills and those skills missing so that they can be successful. In the same way the expectation on what a child with a label can achieve should not be cast in stone, so too, we need our teachers to believe in the children and to be willing to work as a team to make the necessary adaptions in the classroom, in order to ensure the success of that individual learner who requires support. As soon as there is a child with a difference, our schools tend to highlight the deficit and refer to a special needs school or remedial school or other therapies. Instead, so much could be achieved if certain accommodations in the mainstream classroom were to be made. I appreciate that the challenges of including a student with a label may seem daunting. However, if mainstream teachers are paired with the correct special education program and receive the necessary training the student with a label can succeed in the mainstream classroom. A remedial school and special needs school setting has to accommodate for an entire class of children with different strengths, weaknesses, labels and skills deficits. By customizing an Individualised Education Plan for each individual child and including these students in the mainstream classroom best outcomes are much more achievable.
There are also students who lose their label and no longer fit the criteria for a diagnosis. It becomes very difficult for these children to discard the shadow and the judgement. Just because a child has a few areas that requires polishing or support doesn’t equate to a label and the need for a special needs school. What’s required is tolerance, an open mind and the willingness to support these students in the mainstream classroom so that a special needs school is not required. We need our schools to be willing to consider other perspectives and to be open to learning more about treatment modalities they haven’t yet experienced. If there is an expectation to ‘back the dark horse’ it will go a long way in changing the future of students with special learning needs.
Within an inclusive education system, the student with a label or learning difficulty is educated in the least restrictive environment, along with typically developing peers.
The South African Schools Act of 1996 states that schools must admit students and serve their educational requirements without unfairly discriminating in any way.
The Constitution of South Africa guarantees everyone the right to basic education. Accommodating students with a label through an inclusive education framework is constitutionally mandated.
Inclusive Education is also discussed in Education White Paper 6. The aim of this Paper was to dismantle separate special education systems and promote access and participation in regular classes for students with labels or other special needs.
Children with special learning needs, have a legal right to be included in mainstream school irrespective of any physical or intellectual disability and do have a choice to not attend a special needs school. When a child with a learning challenge is ready for a school placement there should be no hesitation to demand access to a mainstream school and not to a special needs school.
Inclusive education, values the unique contribution each student can make to the class. The opportunity for students with a difference to learn along-side their typically-developing peers in general-education classrooms has become more urgent than ever before, especially considering the increase in the incidence of the learner with a label and the learner who is facing a special needs school. Without a real understanding of human differences, how could children become complete adults capable of contributing to a healthy, fair, non-judgemental society? A society that, as its core, has a strong sense of good morals and values, HAS to encourage exposure to children with a difference or learning difficulty. Religious schools especially, which claim to teach children good morals and values, have to be true to their mission statements.
Our South African education system tends to box children in different ‘classes’ with specific labels, such as ‘remedial’, ‘special needs school’ or ‘school-ready’. A future where segregation along such lines is no longer a common practice is something to be encouraged and welcomed. The time has come for change. We need a shift in thinking. Our students with challenges deserve the opportunity to bridge their deficits. We have to abandon the approach that simply identifies students who can’t keep up with the class and ships them off to various therapists, or to a remedial or special needs school, wing or school. We need to embrace a new mindset of “Look at how I, the teacher of a mainstream class, has addressed the individual needs of each learner with a label”. Some children just need a foot up and could remain in the mainstream classroom without needing to move to a special needs school.
Typical learners learn a lot from an inclusive model. They learn patience, kindness, acceptance and tolerance for children who may be different. These lifelong lessons will help the typical child as they grow into adulthood. Parents of typical children need to be reassured that the inclusion model does not mean the ‘watering down’ of the mainstream curriculum. The only way to ensure this, is for the leadership, to set expectation and to provide support and the necessary training.
Therefore, inclusive education advocates for inclusion instead of needing to adjust the learning environment as a special needs school does to suit individual learners with a label or learning challenges.
Special Needs School
Little Stars: a reality – our special needs school
We decided to establish a special needs school. We head-hunted an experienced speech therapist and special needs teacher who had received her training in the UK at a prestigious special needs school for autism, appointed her as our head teacher and briefed her on our vision for the special needs school. She was experienced and passionate about working with children with autism, and we believed she would be able to deliver the educational programmes required for the special needs school we had in mind.
I’d made friends with a mom whose son also had autism and went to the same occupational therapist as David. I called her excitedly to let her know we were establishing a special needs school that would cater for the need of autistic children and that we would be importing the best reaching methodologies and strategies to ensure these children’s success. Our special needs school would be one of excellence ,whole mission would be the advancement of children with autism. The focus would be on helping each child to catch up on their education; and on teaching them those skills they lacked but needed to make further progress. We did some research and decided on four children, one teacher and two teaching aides per class, who we’d train in the latest teaching methodologies for autistic children who would attend our special needs school. We ordered only the best equipment and I was soon very busy managing the installation of top of the range jungle gym swing and everything else we needed for the school. I ordered b ran new occupational therapy equipment and set up an OT room that offered the latest and the best for our new special needs school. If we couldn’t find anything we needed locally we ordered it from the United States and had it shipped to South Africa for our special needs school.
We opened our doors and David and the one other child were the first students at the special needs school. When I dropped off David every morning at our special needs school I left confident and with the peace of mind that he was in the hands of a capable and professional team. I drew a certain amount of comfort from this knowledge and held out hope for this future at our new special needs school.
Soon word of mouth spread and my phone started ringing with parents who’d heard about my special needs school and wanted to enrol their children in our new special needs school. In a short space of time, we’d grown to 20 children and a long waiting list.