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SEN support at international schools

SEN support at international schools

Finding the right school for your child is a challenge in any situation. But if you know your child has additional learning needs and is going to require extra support at school, it can be even more difficult.


Special Educational Needs (SEN) is a broad category and encompasses children with physical, intellectual and mental disabilities or challenges that impact on their ability to learn. The vast majority of schools will make it clear on their websites how they build SEN support into their curriculums, and of course each child’s experience will be unique. To find out more, Winter’s spoke to some education experts as well as parents who had first-hand experience of finding the right additional support for their children.

Rebecca Grappo is a US Foreign Service spouse who has lived in nine countries. With a background in teaching, Rebecca founded her own educational consulting practice to serve internationally mobile families who want to ensure that their children’s educational needs are being met. Her advice is that families who know their child has SEN should be cautious about making an international move, but by no means rule it out. “A family should thoroughly research the resources that are available before accepting the assignment,” she says, “Sometimes the support can be found and the assignment is a positive experience for all. However, this is too important to leave to chance. In developing countries, there may be very few, if any, trained professionals who can provide the therapies or special education that children need. It is much better to find that out before the family is uprooted than after they arrive at the new location.”

"...ask as many questions as possible of the school..."

Offering information and asking questions

The most frequently offered advice from schools and professionals is to be upfront about the extra support your child may require. Catalina Gardescu of the American International School in Bucharest says, “One thing we ask is that the parents contact the school as soon as they are even thinking of moving. In some cases that means a year ahead. There is nothing worse than signing a contract with the company and then discovering there is no schooling option. Depending on the needs of the student, the parents should also reach out either to the school or to the relocation company to ask about available therapies – whatever is needed for the child.” 

"...make absolutely certain that the school you are looking at has the support you need..."

It's sensible to supply the school you’ve chosen with an educational psychological evaluation so that they can determine the extent of any difficulties. As Catalina points out, this in itself can be a challenge, as schools are supplied with different documentation and styles of assessment from many different countries. “In some cases you might get nothing or something very cryptic (like a number – which tells you nothing really). Psycho-educational reports and Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are something we get only from very developed countries. There is also the cultural aspect – for many parents it is such a problem to accept that there are special needs that they will deny it all the way to denial of admission,” she says.

As well as being upfront with the information you have, the other advice from Rebecca is that parents themselves ask as many questions as possible of the school. If the school does provide learning support, how much will your child receive and how often will you have meetings to stay up to date? Will they provide you with an IEP for the year? If the school cannot cover all of your needs, do they have the resources available to help you secure the necessary support such as tutors, psychologists or occupational therapists?

As parent Julie Marcus puts it, “Don’t be afraid to push! Push hard! Be the squeaky wheel. And make change happen if they aren’t willing to do what you need. Who says you can’t be the first? Make absolutely certain that the school you are looking at has the support you need. And if they don’t, can they help you with outside resources? Can those resources come to the school? Be honest up front even if it means that a school says they can’t help you – better to find out early than when you really need the help. Research, research, research!”


Making the most of support

One of the challenges Julie faced was discovering her children both had additional learning needs once she was already living overseas in Barcelona. “Our main difficulty was in finding a native English speaker who could do the necessary testing once we knew our sons needed some help at school. We were on the waiting list from October until April for the testing as there were only two people in the city that could do it,” she says.

Through her experiences in Barcelona and subsequently living in the Netherlands, Julie has several pieces of advice for parents considering an international school for their child with SEN. Her younger son, for example, has what’s known as Non Verbal Learning Disorder and required the help of an occupational therapist. Julie found an OT who was willing to visit him at school: “This was hugely important,” she says. “Not having to go outside of school for his appointments kept his mind in the right place and he wasn’t so exhausted.” So, arranging for therapists to visit your child at school can be very helpful if the school allow it.

As children get older, however, this may need to be adapted as Rebecca Grappo points out: “If the school is open to the idea, hiring an aide, or shadow, is certainly an option. I know of people who have done this successfully. But it seems to work better when the children are younger; as they get older, sometimes there is an increased resistance to ‘being different’.”

Parents whose children have additional needs will be more aware that they will have to advocate for their child throughout their education.  When you throw an international move into the mix, this becomes even more true. One huge advantage that parents have today is the accessibility of support online. This might mean a forum based in your home country, which allows you to keep in touch though you’re far way, but there is also a network of expat forums and groups all over the world for meet-ups and information sharing about SEN in your new country. Julie has drawn support from the Expat Special Educational Needs Group in the Netherlands (ESENG) which has sub-groups devoted to Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia. “Join forums via Facebook and other social media,” she advises, “The beauty of technology today is we can research even from afar to find out what experiences other people have had.”

Julie Marcus discovered that both her sons had additional learning needs.

Julie Marcus discovered that both her sons had additional learning needs.


" huge advantage that parents have today is the accessibility of support online..."

Images: Winter's

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