I know my child is different and may have special needs but…. now what?
We all love our children for being uniquely themselves. In a family, the intimacy we share helps put each child’s individual personality, behaviour and talents centre stage in how parents imagine they might find their place in the world. Even when they are attending school every day, we remain invisibly connected with them emotionally and cherish hopes for their future lives without us. It can therefore be incredibly painful to hear from our child’s school that, for whatever reason, they may not be learning or thriving in the school environment. Failure to thrive is a serious issue: could it be an indicator of how they will manage independently outside the home?
Individual rather than group plans
As an advocate for the integration of children with special needs into ordinary (known as mainstream) classrooms, for over 25 years, I still believe that individual learning plans (ILPs), based on an understanding of how a particular child learns, can help children who learn differently to fit in. In Montessori and small schools in particular there is plenty of expertise in how to guide children to work individually, and their concepts might be a better fit for your child as a result. Before your child starts in a new school, you can check if individual planning is possible there.
Learning support assistance
In the first years of school a wide range of different learning styles can be accommodated in the classroom, but as children progress through primary education, the integration of some children who have problems conforming to group norms can distract other children from learning. For children who can simply do better with specialist support, it is wonderful if you can get them the help they need, provided it enables them to really fulfill their potential. The presence of a learning support assistant should not limit a child’s learning to how to behave, even if this has to be a priority at the start. The assistant should make the curriculum more accessible to the children and enable them to stay in in ordinary school. Over time your child’s words and deeds will show if she is cognitively gifted or has very individual talents and needs. Whichever school your child attends, she should be able to build skills to complement her natural abilities.
Children might need assessment
My heart goes out to parents confronted by the idea that their child’s uniqueness might make it hard for him to fit into an “ordinary” school, and that his differences might make it necessary to label a behaviour or learning style as too different from the norm; especially as we fear our child, if in a minority, could be bullied or disliked. Few of us wish to live in a world peopled only by those who are “average,” yet even having a differently-shaped school bag can be frowned upon in Swiss schools. Diversity should lead to tolerance, because we all need to live together, but here parents soon learn that conformity is valued in schools. It is not just an issue in Swiss schools. I used to deplore the inflexibility of traditional school environments, but in general rules have been developed to create fairness and keep peace in diverse classrooms of about 20 students; it is the adult-child ratio that makes rules inflexible.
However unpleasant it may be to accept, in order to keep your special child in any ordinary school you will need an assessment. Some parents avoid going down this road, terrified their child will end up excluded, in a special school or somehow labelled as a “misfit.” As a foreign language-speaking family, you may well have to pay for the assessment in your own language in order for your child to be understood, and for his or her possible lack of German not to be labelled as the problem.
Parents have trouble, I think, knowing who to trust in a new country and not knowing what will be done with test results. But specialists cannot make recommendations unless they have a lot of information. Changing schools, countries, and even languages reduces the likelihood that there will be enough information available, so when parents try to protect their child’s interests by not passing on detailed history or reports, they will probably limit the options a child could be offered. There is a huge body of expertise in special needs education, and in general, educational psychologists are trained to advise parents what sort of assistance could work. Although some schools, areas or languages will suit them better than others, try to keep knowledge about your child in one school, however tempting it is to change schools when there are initial difficulties. If you try to give your child a fresh start in every school, it is like handing over a jigsaw puzzle in batches of pieces, while the teachers are waiting hopefully for someone finally to have all the pieces and thus the whole picture.
How to go about it
Get a referral from your Swiss paediatrician so you have the best chance of the bill being covered by health insurance. Look for specialists who recognise your child’s behaviour or learning problems and find other parents for support and to swap experiences so you do not feel so alone. If a special school is recommended, don’t close your mind to it; go and visit, and ask about the concept. This will broaden your awareness of your local options and give you material to discuss when you have meetings about your child with their teachers. If integration is considered best, you still need to keep in touch with what the plan is for your child’s individual needs.
There are some schools for gifted children in Switzerland but also interesting schools with new concepts of learning. Look around to find a school where your child’s behaviour and learning style will be accepted rather than making people feel uncomfortable. Education can be a very personal thing.
Long-term, the pressure is definitely on the parents: if you feel your child is not achieving her potential, you have to find some schooling that is appropriate; that may not be easy if you do not speak a local language yourselves. Furthermore, if you both work, you may even need to take some time off until you have a solution, as it is already a job in itself living abroad. Having a child with special needs can put a great strain on any marriage, as well as on your relationships with your other children. Finding a therapist you can all confide in might be another form of support worth considering, as when we feel insecure about our choices, it is only too easy to blame those closest to us.
Value detailed observations of your child
Trust your instincts regarding which approaches might suit your child best, as you have the most complete overview of how he has responded in different situations over time. Others who are new to your child may jump to a conclusion that suits the external appearance or the symptoms of the problem, without detailed knowledge that only you and a series of accurate observations can probably give. Keep in touch with teachers who you feel understood your child, even after you leave, and pass on reports as early as possible once your child starts in a new school.
By Monica Shah Zeeman
Monica worked to promote innovation and inclusion in educational charities in the UK until 1998 when she moved into social services and managed a counselling centre. Her work with clusters of schools led to anti-bullying projects, teacher training in behaviour management and individual reading schemes such as Toe-by-toe for children and teenagers with reading difficulties. She has lived in Switzerland since 2002, and is the founder of the nursery school and kindergarten Children First in Zurich.
Illustration by Laura Munteanu
Laura has studied Journalism and Advertising, and has been working as a journalist and an illustrator. She has been illustrating for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and ten-year-old daughter.
Links for further reading and information:
Article from 2015 for parents of children with special needs.
Get to know other parents for support and information.
European Dyslexia Association
Network of therapists and extra help for school age children in and around Zurich.