“Everyone is Special”
Supporting the education of children with individual requirements
Ross Hunter, MA (Cantab),
Headmaster, The English
International School, Moscow
All children are unique. The last forty years has seen a revolution in the recognition and adaptation of schooling to recognise diversity of ability, special needs and culture. Children grow up at different speeds. They learn in different ways and styles. They have a huge range of native abilities, and – especially important in our setting – have different aptitudes with languages. Small minorities have an assortment of different characteristics including dyslexia, dyspraxia, a lack of social skills (some of which may be called Asperger’s), problems with concentration (sometimes referred to as attention deficit), epilepsy, shortfalls in self discipline or difficulties processing auditory signals. And these are just the invisible ones. Add in problems with eyesight, hearing, locomotion, bone development, circulation and breathing and “normal” may be the exception. Estimates vary, but each of the specific learning difficulties in the first list may affect 1-6% of the population. While they may overlap, it is clear that 10-20% might be affected. That’s four children in a class of 20 who deserve and need recognition.
Moscow has not been at the forefront of this evolution. I would love to be proved wrong, but many opinions converge on an estimate that we are some 30 years behind. What is accepted wisdom and even law in western Europe and north America and elsewhere is not even recognised here. There is a lack of official awareness, and therefore a severe shortage of expertise, resources, experience and opportunities for children who struggle to get help in ways which are routine abroad, and is their right.
A further problem for international families in Moscow is the double blow of language. Such local help as is available is naturally dedicated to the majority language. Switching languages may mask other learning problems or just as frequently be the cause of them. This is a significant issue, and one must be very careful not to rush to judgments. A number of children we have met who have been described as having special needs turn out to lose all such symptoms once their English reaches a good enough level.
Perceptions and knowledge are constantly changing. Consider three examples. How long is it since left handedness was denied as a ‘normal’ attribute? Being ‘kak-handed’ or ’gammy-handed’, as I am, is handy when playing tennis or cricket, but a nuisance when writing. Everything goes wrong as soon as the pushed pen gouges the paper and the following hand smudges fresh writing. Help in the form of special pens and a sensible change to writing position is now easily available, but if not, good handwriting is usually a permanent casualty. How much damage and confusion was done to earlier generations forced to do everything the wrong way round?
Dyslexia was only accepted properly in the 1970s or even later. In a decent environment, it is now wholly de-stigmatised, and people for whom letter recognition does not come naturally, and for whom the letters jump around and dance off the page, there are simple and effective ways to ease the problem. The net potential of dyslexics was wasted, is now available.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was hardly known twenty years ago. It may affect 1-3% of the population, and among those, boys ten times more than girls. Again, it can be remedied by a series of strategies. But diagnosis and treatment are not always right. I have seen miracles performed with the use of the well known amphetamine drug, but I am convinced it should be the last trick tried, and only after the most careful and (literally) exhaustive diagnosis, and extreme caution in respect of children’s age and development. When one reads of 10% and 20% of schools being on medication, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong.
There are risks connected to over diagnosis and over invasive treatments, as there are with denial and avoidance. Over medication, labelling and creating a culture of dependency and permanence can also be hugely damaging.
Myths still need dispelling. Dyslexia and epilepsy, for example, occur at all levels of the intelligence scale, reasonably equally. Even allowing for some fanciful inferences about the attributes of historical figures, an internet search soon reveals a wealth of great, intelligent and creative people with such conditions. With ADHD, the evidence is less secure, but anecdotally, I can accept that if not evenly spread, it seems more prevalent in children with high intelligence. So. The still far too common view that special needs equals limited ability (usually phrased rather more brutally); that out of sight so out of mind is appropriate; or “that’s all fine, but not in this school, thank you”, need eradicating. Dyslexia is simply NOT a middle class excuse for poor work, as it was often dismissed as being.
In the UK, a step change came with the Special Education Needs Disability Discrimination Act (SENDDA) in 1996. This made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of physical or mental disability. Schools have to take reasonable steps to adapt to pupils’ needs. Some schools managed to adopt a minimalist approach with a few token ramps. My last school, in England, chose to accept the spirit of the new law. Under the inspired guidance of the Bursar, all aspects of school life were reviewed thoroughly. Physical alterations, in Victorian buildings and on a hilly campus, cost some money. Wheelchair access, heading aid loops, lifts in any new or refurbished buildings and altered facilities were all made available. More telling, education of staff and peers, changes to classroom layouts, lighting and teaching praxis and an informed tolerance of unexpected behaviour impacted upon everything. There were surprising truths and unexpected benefits. All children gained from newly focused techniques. Youngsters are often far more tolerant and caring than adults. They are enlightened by diversity and expand their awareness, empathy and skills.
There remain questions of degree in these matters, and there are limits to what is possible. Mainstream education is still not realistic for some children with severe disabilities. Observation and careful diagnosis are needed, not least to tease out and separate several confusing factors which may cloud the picture, such as ability, language, diet, problems at home, exercise and expectations, just for starters.
But the starting point must be positive. To help and to adapt if it is physically and humanly possible. To look for solutions and not baulk at problems. Rather later than we would have liked, and still with limited resources and expert support, this is the approach now being implemented at The English International School. It has been enthusiastically endorsed by all staff, creating opportunities out of the extra demands it makes on them. Provided that we feel we are able to make progress, children with mild or moderate special educational needs are welcome at EIS.
Sometimes remarkably little is needed to make a large difference. Miracles happen. Just the relief at recognition, and a simple plan of what to do can release the tension, fear and lack of confidence that has gnawed at child and family. Identifying the problem, without making too much of a fuss about it. Small classes, with support. Being positive and pro-active. Changing classroom lighting and seating, taking care with fonts, type sizes and page layouts, offering tinted paper and breaking tasks into clearer, shorter chains all have rapid effects. A stress ball can dissipate distracting fidgeting, and more regular activity and exercise calm the over-active. I wish we could have a pet cat in school. Watching for situations and easing them before they become crises makes prevention better than cure. There is much, much more than can be squeezed into a short essay, and I can feel your concentration wavering.
To sum up. Not every child is a genius, but every one is special. Mull over this little mixture of famous epileptics and dyslexics: Isaac Newton, Agatha Christie, Alfred Nobel, Jackie Stewart, Leonardo da Vinci, Peter The Great, Richard Branson, Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo, Susan Hampshire and Cher. I wish I could have had any of these in my school. No, hold that: I am delighted that I HAVE got people like that in my school.
It is an achievable goal to work so that a few years later more parents are able to look back and say “what was all the fuss about?”