Children with special educational needs require interventions to improve their ability to learn. Education Consultant, Santhi Latha, speaks to two special needs educators and provides some advice on early diagnosis and intervention.
The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ covers a broad spectrum of learning difficulties and includes conditions ranging from dyslexia to autism, and from attention deficit disorder (ADD) to cerebral palsy. Generally, it refers to children who have dyslexia and dyspraxia, children who suffer from ADD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), children who have difficulty with normal speech patterns, and children who are generally slow learners.
Could your child have special needs?
While there are concerns about labelling young children with any tag that may carry lifelong psychological and emotional implications, the need to identify whether your child may suffer from some form of learning difficulty is important. Unless the problem is identified, no efforts can be taken to assist and support the child.
Unfortunately, the process of identifying such issues normally arises when the school or class teacher informs you that your child is ‘slow’, or ‘unruly’ or ‘disruptive’, or ‘can’t sit still in class.’ For many young parents, this is a turning point that can either result in pure panic, or open the door to committing to a specific focus on your child’s learning.
The question is: how do you know whether your child has special needs?
While there are many professionals and organisations that claim to be experts about special needs children, this author advocates caution, firstly, about the labels that will be placed on your child, and, secondly, whether the professional then suggests that your child be medicated as a means of dealing with the matter.
If you think that your child may have some issues, Aly Cheah of Beacon Life Training Centre suggests that you do a diagnosis as early as possible, as early intervention is very important. Ms Cheah advises parents to look out for some signs that indicate that their children may indeed have special needs. These include speech problems, an unwillingness to interact with peers, poor eye contact and restlessness.
Parents, however, must be careful not to view this as normal behavior. Or to consider these tendencies as the result of too much television and/or access to games on handheld electronic devices. Current research seems to suggest that children who regularly play games on handheld devices, such as smart phones and tablets, often exhibit poor eye contact and restlessness when not on those devices. There are sound arguments for the view that children should not be exposed to such devices at an early age, According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, ‘There are many potential benefits of limiting television exposure in children, including improved diet, lower risk of being overweight, less exposure to violent content, and improved sleep quality’.[i]
Time is of the essence
There is a perspective that children may outgrow their special needs. Such a view is misleading to say the least. If a child suffers from learning difficulties, this often has many implications for the child in the classroom. Imagine a young child who is unable to read, but is required to read aloud in the classroom; or a child who has ADD or ADHD who cannot sit still in a passive classroom environment and is then publicly told off by teachers. The outcome of scenarios such as this is that the child may be negatively affected and may ultimately ‘switch off’ in the learning environment.
Ms. Rosh Vettiveloo, a Developmental Education & Learning Consultant with Sri Rafelsia, expressed concern about the ability to provide support and assistance to the child who is diagnosed with special needs, ‘Too many learners are coming to us very late in academic life, making intervention difficult. Many institutions claim they can cater for learners with difficulties, such as dyslexia, but are in fact unable to effectively do so.’ This perspective is useful as it highlights the need for parents not to depend solely on input from teachers, schools or third parties, without first conducting some form of diagnostic testing on their children.
It is also recommended that parents work with reputable organisations and professionals in this process. Some of the things that parents should look out for when selecting an organisation to test their child are given below:
- the qualifications of the tester/assessor;
- the type of tests conducted i.e., verbal/oral, written, observation etc;
- whether the test is self-created or based on an existing international or local testing structure;
- the duration of the test as some children may not be responsive to a testing environment and, as a consequence, the results of the test may be negatively skewed;
- the report – it may be useful to ask to see a sample report, so that you have an idea of what the report will address and how specifically it will do so.
Ms Vettiveloo, who has worked with children aged between two and a half, and 15 years using three specific intervention programmes since 2000, took this further by suggesting, ‘My advice is to surf the Internet and check out intervention options as early as possible. Very few mainstream schools in Malaysia can actually deal with learning difficulties effectively within their system due to lack of staff and trained professionals.’ Conducting thorough research on this topic prior to deciding on the options available cannot be over-emphasised.
Tips for dealing with special needs children
Parents who discover that their children may have special needs are often at a loss about how to deal with them. Concerns arise, for example, about whether changes should be made to the child’s diet A useful guide when dealing with children who display symptoms of restlessness or who are fidgety is to find out if they have irregular meals, or have food allergies, for example, allergies to food additives.
On whether the interest of a special needs child will be effectively managed in the government school system, Ms Vettiveloo emphasised that ‘it really depends on the type of special educational needs. We tend to forget that there are different dimensions and levels of severity within special educational needs. Each child is unique with a unique set of difficulties even if they may have the same general diagnosis. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ programme or solution.’
Parents are sometimes burdened by the fact that their child has special needs and deal with this in many ways. While denial of the problem, or blame-sharing is common, the overall focus must be on the child. Ms Cheah, who has been working with children aged from seven to young adults since 2008, highlights that the emphasis should be to ‘love your child for who they are, never comparing your child with others. [It is also important to] get support from a specialist who can guide you.’
Ms Vettiveloo best summed it up with her three tips for parents. She said, ‘First, do not compare between siblings; second, if tutoring has failed, and difficulties persist, get professional help, do not wait; and finally, it is difficult for parents to actually ‘handle’ learning difficulties themselves as it requires specialist training to do so.’
For more information about special needs, parents can visit the following website:
- Research on special needs children: http://search.aap.org/?source=aap.org&k=special%20needs
- Beacon Life Training Centre: https://beaconlifetc.wordpress.com
- Sri Rafelsia: http://srirafelsia.com