Education Opinion

Serving Students with Special Needs Worldwide

By Jessica Shyu — June 11, 2013 3 min read
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They say you never forget your first love and isn’t that the truth.

I’ve worked with general education classes around the world that I’ve respected, valued and will devote my whole life to supporting. But nothing comes close to the heart palpitations I feel when we talk about serving students with special needs.

And so it feels a bit like I’ve cheated on my lover when I admit that we’re not doing much in Teach For China to serve our children with different learning needs. My reasons are the same as anyone else anywhere around the world--we’re trying to improve basic general education needs, the public education system doesn’t support it, basic student and teacher training aren’t even in place yet, we don’t have the staff or expertise. The list goes on.

But the reality is, students with special needs are the gap within the achievement gap anywhere in the world--whether it’s in the United States States, China, Pakistan or Chile. What keeps me up at night is knowing that until something changes, it’s these children who are most at-risk of staying illiterate and stigmatized, most likely to be homeless and jobless, and most likely to have few resources, independence, friendships or opportunities in the world. This isn’t true everywhere or for everyone, but in the most under-resourced communities such as tiny mountainous towns in China, this is undoubtedly the case.

In China, our teachers have 40-minutes a day (if they’re lucky) to teach classes of 50 to 90 children. All at once. By themselves. If the statistics we use in the United States are accurate, about 14 percent of those students have some form of a disability that hinders their learning. And in China and elsewhere, it’s that 14 percent of students who will undoubtedly drop out of school by the time they hit 6th grade, even they even have the chance to go to school. In China, there are few, if any, system-wide supports. There are no IEPs, psych-ed evaluations, or IDEA.

I’ve met families whose children stay at home all day because the local school won’t allow their child to attend and the family can’t afford private schools or institutions. I’ve met 8-year-olds who are on the verge of dropping out because they can’t control their behavior, struggle to read and do math no matter how hard they try, and truly believe they’re dumb. I’ve met young adults who can hardly form sentences or interact in public, but who probably have similar disabilities to the children I used to teach and who are on the honor roll right now in high school.

But for every instance of heart-break that I’ve seen, I’ve been reminded by how possible this is to solve. I’ve seen teachers create behavior systems and differentiate their instruction so that their most struggling learners can achieve and be more confident, even though they’ve got 80 other students to take care of (check out the video of a struggling student above!). I’ve met impassioned leaders of schools for students with intellectual disabilities and speech/hearing impairments who have received no formal training themselves, but are doing whatever they can to ensure their students are as independent as possible. I’ve gotten to know parents who’ve only finished the third grade themselves, but devote their entire lives to teaching their children with special needs basic skills because no one else will.

But most of all, I’ve met countless teachers who feel equally passionate and urgent about serving all of their children, including the ones with special needs. They just want to know how to do it in their context and without the system-wide support that we enjoy in the United States.

And so with all of that in mind, I’ve resolved to start or support a non-profit program to create resources and training for teachers in under-resourced communities worldwide to serve their students who struggle most. Are you experienced in serving children with special needs? Are you interested in helping globalize supports for teachers worldwide? Do you already have a program like this that we can directly support and not start from scratch? Message me so we can get this love affair started.

Note to Readers: Apologies for my lack of posting for the past month! We’re getting ready to welcome more than 200 new Teaching Fellows to Teach For China a month from now, so my time has been more limited than usual. I’m back to blogging, however, and can’t wait to share updates of our newest teachers in this global education movement.

Video by Sasha Lipton-Galbraith, Teach For China 2011-13 Teaching Fellow of one of her students who initially faced significant learning challenges

The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.