We are excited to interview Fiona McDonald, Head of Learning Support for Julia Gabriel Centre and Chiltern House as we have lots of questions about kids with special needs and how parents can help their kids.
QN: Who do ‘children with special needs’ refer to? Do they need special education or can they go to school like other children?
The world of “special needs’ is wide and vast. “Special” or “Additional” needs broadly refers to anyone who needs adaptations, accommodations or support in order to fulfil their potential. Therefore, this term can be applied to anyone who has:
- Social, emotional or mental health difficulties – for example, challenges with making friends or relating to adults, understanding and/or managing emotions or behaving appropriately in a group setting.
- Specific learning difficulty – for example with reading, writing, number work or understanding information.
- Sensory or physical needs – such as hearing impairment, visual impairment or physical difficulties which might affect their ability to learn and interact.
- Communication challenges – for example challenges in expressing themselves or understanding what others are saying.
- Medical or health conditions – which may slow down progress and/or involves treatment that affects his or her education.
It is also important to note that giftedness can also be regarded as a special need as those that fall into that particular category also need accommodations, adaptations and support in order to fulfill their potential.
Just as the field of special needs is vast and diverse, so can be the educational pathway for children who have needs. Some children will thrive in mainstream schools, others benefit from smaller classes, additional support both in and out of class, special units within mainstream schools, adult support through an extra teacher within a class, special schools, home schooling, e-learning and virtual schools etc. Finding the best “fit” will mean that they are given the optimum environment in which to learn and this can change as the child develops.
QN: For preschool kids, how do we know if a child has special needs or if she or he is just a little slow in development?
There are several options for support depending upon the school system and philosophy. In many mainstream primary and secondary schools, support comes through Allied Educators, School Counsellors or Learning Support Specialists. This group of people work with a number of children within the school and assist teachers with strategies and support for the child. Some schools will offer Learning Support – this may vary from special pull-out groups where children work on specific areas of challenge to individual support within a classroom. There are options of having Shadow Teachers in some schools – these teachers have a primary focus to support the individual child and they work with the class teacher to adapt and accommodate activities and situations to best suit the child. Their job is not to build reliance but independence and over time they may fade out their support. Some schools will offer specific classes for children with additional needs – these classes normally are smaller, involve more adults and adapt the curriculum and activities to suit individual children whilst still building a sense of belonging to a group. They often involve the children in the regular activities of the school such as attending assembly and participating in cultural celebrations as well as having time when a more specific activities catering to their needs are included in their programme.
At the same time, there are a variety of more specialized settings for children. Some will offer mainstream curriculum but in smaller classes with adaptations for learning; others will have alternative curriculum and options for learning. Some specialized schools will include individual and/or group therapy (such as occupational therapy) as part of their set-up and others may focus more on life skills and other areas of development
Parents need to look at their options when choosing schools – as with any school choice, looking for the most appropriate environment to ensure the child is happy, able to learn and is being given the right level of challenge is the key. Ideally the concept of “least restrictive and most enhancing environment” should be followed.
General developmental milestones often serve as a good indicator of a child’s progress and along with understanding of the child’s background (including general health, family history, language, exposure etc.) recommendations can be made. During preschool, teachers will highlight to parents their child’s progress and through open discussions often areas where the child may need additional support may be identified or further investigation may be recommended. Parents and teachers during this time have more opportunities to observe the child’s development and to measure their progress alongside their peers as well as the general developmental milestones. Recommendations may include further investigation into specific areas by specialists, early intervention to build up skills and/or further monitoring and observation when specific strategies are applied. It has been generally supported by research that early intervention is a crucial factor in the effectiveness of support so it is important that families, teachers and specialists work in partnership in the best interest of the child.
QN: Should parents who suspect their kids have special needs, get a formal diagnosis as soon as possible?
General developmental milestones, are a good guide for parents to keep in mind, when observing their own child’s progress. If a parent has a concern, they should speak to their paediatrician and the class teachers. General health is something that should always be considered – does the child need a hearing test or a visual check, do they need to see an Ears, Nose, Throat specialist? – These are often good starting points. Nutrition and diet play an important part too so investigating whether allergies are playing a part or an essential nutrient is missing from the child’s diet. Exercise, rest and sleep are key parts of development so any concerns in this area should also be investigated.
In general, parents should be observing their child showing progress in the following areas and referring to the broad ages and stages of Child Development Milestones:
- Social/emotional – areas such as their sense of belonging to a group, their developing ability to do things for themselves, their behaviour and response to those around them, their awareness of others, their ability to use others as a model to imitate etc.
- Physical – areas of both gross motor and fine motor development, their ability to control their body and actions, their ability to plan and sequence a series of movements in order to achieve their objective, their visual/auditory skills
- Cognitive – this covers their learning, thinking and problem-solving skills, it is not just based on their “score” in a test or their ability to read, but covers abilities to acquire and retain knowledge, to build skills and to apply their learning across areas and situations. Language & communication – this area covers being connected to other people, as well as the ability to understand and express oneself in verbal and non-verbal ways.
– What are the main things parents should look out for, to see if they need to seek support?
– How can parents, with special needs children, develop their child’s ability to interact with other people?
– What can parents do at home to help their special needs child learn? What are the learning support options in mainstream schools? Should parents consider enrolling the child to a special needs school?