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Empowering students with special needs to succeed

Elizabeth Grover is supporting teachers at a Bhutanese school for the deaf to improve their sign language skills and adapt the curriculum to meet students' needs.

Some very special schools in Kenya and Bhutan are helping children understand what they are truly capable of achieving. We're proud to support them.

Tashi* carefully sticks a picture in his workbook, smoothing out the lumps of gluggy glue. With this final image he completes a social story - a visual resource that will teach him to knock on the door and wait before entering the school staff room.

Learning the rules can take time when you're still learning a language. At Bhutan's only school for deaf students children like Tashi - through basic sign language and visual teaching methods - are gaining the skills they need to communicate and learn, many for the first time.

Access to education is an ongoing challenge for children with special needs. Many more children with disabilities miss out on education than those without disabilities; and if these children make it to school, lessons are not necessarily tailored to their learning needs.

In Bhutan and Kenya, the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is working to make high-quality education accessible, by supporting schools and teachers to meet the requirements of children with special needs.

Setting individual goals

Identifying what a child can do and what they are capable of achieving, is a cornerstone of special education. Individual education plans are an essential part of a teacher's toolkit; they provide a tailored approach that allows each child to progress and accomplish milestones according to their own unique learning style and pace.

AVID volunteer Tom Horniblow is working at a middle secondary school where many students have cerebral palsy and a range of learning difficulties. Tom has helped teachers conduct assessments that will lead to plans with specific, measurable and attainable goals. Now for the first time the school has a complete set of literacy and numeracy assessments. "Even within a small group of five kids you're still getting a diversity of needs, so we try to group the kids so the teacher can do more explicit teaching," Tom explains.

In Kenya, a unique community-run school measures success not only by the goals of an individual education plan but by a student's growth in confidence. Established in 2001 by a group of parents,  the school supports children with disabilities to explore educational opportunities into adulthood. "Our work is to ensure that these children are ready for what the future may bring. They should be able to confidently approach life in a way that any other person, whether with or without special needs, should," says Principal Joseph Athiende.

AVID volunteer Pam Smith has helped the school to make its individual education planning more child-centred and aligned with current international practices. She has supported the school in two further areas: behaviour management, especially with children with autism; and the protection of children in the community. The school is one of the first in Kenya to develop a board-endorsed child protection policy and code of conduct, and Pam has run sensitisation sessions on child protection for parents and teachers.

"I think, since she came, our school really, really is different," Joseph says. "We are doing things differently, we have enhanced our core values - be safe, be responsible, be respectful."

Putting plans into practice

Adapting mainstream curriculum to suit children with special needs is a challenge that requires creative teaching methods. At the middle school in Bhutan, teachers are bringing listening games, songs and nursery rhymes into the classroom with Tom's support, and Principal Nyendo has noticed a positive change. "There is lots of interaction between the teacher and the student so even the students are coming forward to ask questions … I can see lots of child-centred learning, which I feel is so important," he says.

Another Bhutanese school has a dedicated deaf education unit, with a focus on visual teaching methods and adapting the curriculum. Established in 2003, the unit has made impressive progress in the past 11 years, having developed a basic Bhutanese sign language and expanded from only a handful of students to 78 this year.

As Bhutan's only school for the deaf, children can enrol at any age from 6 to 18 years. This poses a significant challenge for teachers, as AVID volunteer Elizabeth Grover explains. "Here you might get a 13-year-old who's never had any language. So it's knowing and building on their strengths and even though they might not have language they might have a really good ability to draw or mime something, so you use that to start their language."

Elizabeth has been helping staff to improve their sign language skills and increase their knowledge of audiology, language development and child development. Armed with this knowledge, teachers will be better equipped to understand their students' abilities and plan lessons.

"Elizabeth has given teachers lots of strategies they can take into the classroom," says Principal Khandu.

Strengthening special education

The AVID program will continue to work with services for children with special needs, under its commitment to supporting people with disabilities to access their right to education and employment.

In Bhutan, Principal Nyendo hopes his school can lead the way in assessing children with special needs and offering individualised learning, and would like to see a vocational skills program developed in the future. And in the coming months Tom will train more teachers while also developing the school's life skills language program.

At the school for the deaf, Elizabeth is now preparing a teachers manual that includes all of the professional development topics she has covered through the past year, as well games and activities that can be incorporated into lessons. A second AVID volunteer has recently joined the school to support teachers in the general classes who have students with disabilities or learning difficulties.  

Kenya's community school also has a strong vision for its future. By contributing to the development of curriculum resources and training teachers in mainstream schools, it hopes to have a lasting impact on special education in Kenya. Its ultimate vision is to become a model centre that will be replicated across the country.

And as former principal Ciriaka Gitonga explains, a volunteer's support can not only help an organisation to strengthen capacity, it can highlight existing strengths: "As the school grows we realise now we have the capacity to meet the needs of slightly younger children … So we have admitted the first three-year-old now and we will be able to say we can run an early childhood program. The confidence we built is with the input of someone like Pam."

*Children's names have been changed and school names omitted to protect privacy.

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Photo: Australian Red Cross/Mareike Guensche