Special Education for Children Living Abroad

SpecialEducationSpecial Education for Children Living Abroad

By Erin Long

Global Living – Issue 13 | July/August 2014

When I began my foray into the life of a Foreign Service spouse, it was with great personal trepidation. I feared I would never work as a speech pathologist again. It was a great relief when I realized I was able to find work in my chosen field because many families were living abroad with special needs children. As I began working with these families, I realized they all faced their own unique challenges, but they shared one thing in common: the need to scour the world in search of the right education and services for their child with special needs while living abroad. When you consider the complications of language barriers and limited special education services around the world, it can seem like an insurmountable undertaking.

To be honest, at first I thought it was simply impossible to move around the world and locate suitable teachers, therapists and specialists for a child with special education needs. That was until I began working with many people who were doing just that. It was clear from the start there was no simple recipe to follow, and it wasn’t ever easy, but with flexibility and personal investment, parents were finding ways to get their children the help they needed.

When moving abroad, parents must locate schools they believe will be not only suitable, but also nurturing places for their children and, for many of us, the international schools are our first choice. Although many of these schools are beginning to recognize the value in offering some special education services, others still have not made the leap. The first question the parent of a child with special needs should ask is: “Will you accept a child with special needs?” Parents who have experience asking this question are not surprised when they hear “no”. However, around the world it is almost universally true that even schools with the strictest policies against accepting children receiving special education services do make exceptions. It is up to the parent to ask questions and to be honest about the child’s needs.

For example, a child who gets speech therapy for a lisp, but otherwise has average or above-average academic skills, should not be refused, because the lisp will not affect her academic performance. If, however, the child has significant developmental or learning delays, the school is obligated to tell you if it cannot meet the child’s needs. If you feel your child should be able to function in a regular education classroom with mild accommodations, you might want to ask the school to review your child’s specific case before making a decision. If your child already sees a specialist, you may want to ask the specialist to write a letter describing your child’s needs and why they will not impact her ability to function in a normal classroom. Sometimes the answer will still be “no”, and it is then time to start expanding your search.

It is no secret in the expat community that smaller international schools are more willing to make accommodations for special needs kids because they have smaller class sizes and are more flexible. Smaller schools can often pay more attention to your child’s socialization opportunities. There might also be more children who speak a common language. In larger international schools, all instruction is provided in English but the local language often dominates the playground. That is not helpful to a child who already experiences difficulties with socialization.  Just because a school doesn’t have a special education teacher or specialists, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t knowledgeable, capable people staffing schools that are willing to learn and do what is best for your child. Some teachers and administrators are willing to consult with outside specialists to develop a program and learn the best ways of educating a child with special needs. When it comes to school, whether it is big or small, parents have to become involved in decisions about the best way to educate a child with special needs.

Parents who are having trouble identifying a school that can handle their child’s specific needs, or who need help developing a strategy or program with an international school, may also want to talk to an international educational consultant. These consultants often have close ties with a variety of schools around the world and, in many cases, can help parents identify the best fit for their child.

Online service providers are also an incredible resource for expats. Online services such as speech therapy are rapidly growing and becoming available to children and adults throughout the world. Professional associations, such as the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association, and the American Telemedicine Association, have invested significant time and resources into determining the efficacy of online services and determined that they are equal to traditional in-person services. As technology has become more advanced, online meeting platforms offer clear communication and genuine opportunities for interaction between the child and his teacher or therapist. An added benefit to online services is that you can find a therapist who speaks fluent English, for example, and possesses the specific skills and training you need. Online therapy is no longer in its infancy, and there are many providers who have developed excellent methods for conducting fun and effective therapy over the Internet. Online services can provide direct therapy as well as parent and teacher training. Online service providers can also be a resource to parents who need advice on how to address their child’s needs and what therapies, adaptive strategies, and programs may work best for their specific case.

As the expat community continues to grow, more and more families will face the challenge of finding appropriate educational services for their children. Luckily, the advent of online services and the increased willingness of international schools to make the necessary adjustments have helped many families to achieve this goal. While the process isn’t easy, it’s not nearly as impossible as I, and many others, had once believed.

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