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Interview with a Social Worker: School and School Shadowing – Integrating SEN Children into Mainstream Schools

Differences in children’s learning abilities can pose a great challenge for schools, teachers and parents. Given that each child with special educational needs (SEN) has his or her own specific and unique characteristics, how may schools, teachers and parents help them to better adapt to the school environment and to enjoy the learning process?

We are honoured to have the opportunity to chat with a school-based social worker from a local subsidized school.

1. How many years have you been working at schools as a social worker? And which type of SEN students have you encountered?

I have been working at schools for 7 years now. I mostly work with students with speech and learning disorders (SPLD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with a few of them having oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or anxiety.

2. How do schools usually deal with SEN students?

Subsidized schools usually run in large classes. Depending on the curriculum, there are also classes containing isolated cases, or boosting sessions before or after classes. Depending on the school’s allocation of resources, additional teachers may also be present in classes to assist the students.

3. From a professional perspective, what are the needs of SEN students in mainstream schools?

SPLD students mainly face learning issues, while confidence-related issues account for a large part. Mainstream schools focus on academic results, but these students may not get good results even when they try their best. As a result, they may think that they are not as good when compared with others, and lose self-confidence. Some may even become less motivated and lose interests in learning.

Many students with ADHD are hyperactive and impulsive, which affects their socialization, and makes them more prone to be negatively labelled. Fortunately, medication is available for putting their hyperactive behavior under control. While ASD students also suffer from behavioural issues, but their needs varied and can be quite specific.

It is important for us to get to know them better, and understand their characteristics, their behavioural problems, as well as their personal needs. They typically don’t feel comfortable in socialization as they cannot adequately identify the motives behind others’ actions. In short, different SEN students have different needs.

4. What are the common challenges SEN students faced at school?

I would say socialization, learning in class, and following rules. Following rules is particularly difficult for them to adapt to, especially for those who have just transitioned from kindergarten to primary school, as the environment of the former is often more relaxing. It is not unusual for their needs to stay hidden from teachers and parents in kindergarten. When they transit into primary school and fail to meet teachers’ requirements, they are prone to be negatively labelled.

We try to communicate the situation first with their parents, who themselves may be unaware of their children’s needs and subsequently did not notify the school. Meanwhile, we ask for feedback from past teachers to better understand students’ behaviors, which enables us to develop better plan to deal with the issues. If we suspect that the student has special educational needs, we may refer them to undergo assessments, receive immediate training, and provide trainings in teaching skills to parents and teachers. We also conduct social skills and academic training at school or at community centers.

We wish to make the most out of the time needed before an assessment can be made. These trainings take place once a week, with 1 to 1.5 hour sessions for 6 to 8 weeks.

5. What recommendations do the schools provide for teachers to support SEN students?

The school provides teacher training to enable teachers to better understand the student’s learning needs, as well as their emotional and social needs. Our psychologists pay regular visits during trainings and focuses on particular issues, such as specific SEN type, or how to help students to better recognize words.

Schools typically utilize a three-layered pyramid approach as guidance in providing support, taking into account the type of student, and the nature of their needs. At the lowest level we try to provide school-wide support, such as modifications of exam methods. The middle level consists of isolated groups, with the highest level being individual assistance.

6. Do you tend to treat SEN students under a general direction, or in case-by-case approach?

We provide assistance on both levels. First, all teachers should be notified about our strategy in supporting SEN students, such as after-class support groups or social skills classes. When the school term starts, we will discuss with the class teachers about student’s needs, and monitor student’s learning progress continuously. Counsellors act as bridges between teachers and parents, so as to update parents about students’ progresses and encourage their involvement in providing trainings to students outside school.

7. How and when does a case begin?

Usually when parents or teachers notify us of their children’s special needs, they hope that we can provide assistance in gaining a better understanding of the children. When we open a case, to make the right plan we first need to understand whether their learning needs and behavioral issues arise from their abilities, or other factors such as family background.

8. Could you share with us the greatest concern for parents with SEN children?

Apart from learning issues, parents are also concerned about their children’s emotional regulation, motivation to learn, as well as their socialization.

9. What is the greatest challenge working as a social worker at school?

Time is really tight for us. It takes a considerable amount of time to understand a student’s needs and to provide follow-up. There are numerous students to support in addition to SEN students. We are also responsible to prepare moral and ethics classes for students. As such, our team divides the workload and do our best to support as many students as we can within limited time.

10. How may parents, teachers and schools assist SEN students in learning at mainstream schools?

For parents, they need to build a trusting relationship with the school. They should inform school about their child’s condition and work together to help the child. Some children may need more time to acquire social skills and some may be slow learners in academics. To uncover students’ full potential and strengths, it’s vital for parents to acknowledge and appreciate that their child is unique. As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome – I believe that having good academics is not the only way leading to a bright future. Every child has their own unique characteristics and potentials which waiting to be realized.

Our school assists SEN students at many levels. Firstly, we try to implement school wide preventive measures. For example, this year we are promoting love and kindness within the campus through assorted activities to encourage interaction between students. We want all students to learn to accept and assist people around them and hope to build a more inclusive environment. Secondly, we conduct moral and ethics lessons to help students realize that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, more importantly, to embrace these differences. Thirdly, we provide group trainings based on specific needs of students, such as teaching ASD children communication and social skills.

11. What is your most memorable experience?

During my years serving SEN students, I have met many parents who could not come to terms with their children’s special needs at the beginning. For one particular case, it took me four years to build a trusting relationship with the parents. It took a lot of time and patience for parents to turn denial into acceptance. Sometimes they want their child to receive assistance, but other times they would refuse to do so. They were having their doubts, yet the golden time for student to receive treatment should not be delayed. I learned to stay hopeful, not give up, and believe that a trusting relationship can be built. I’m grateful to say that they eventually learned to accept their child’s differences. These changes helped massively in the child’s learning and self-growth.

12. Are SEN students aware of the differences between them and their peers? How did you help them in accepting themselves and alleviate their feelings?

When these children grow older, they do realize their differences from their peers. Some of them feel bad when others tease them about their poor academics. I think it is important to let these children know about their own condition – and I spent times explaining their situation to them. At the same time, I try to facilitate parents and their children in understanding and uncovering their potential, and to make it easier for them to accept their differences.

13. What is the greatest challenge for teachers? Do SEN students have any special needs in classes? What does the school do to support the teachers?

Teachers have to teach around thirty students in a class, which is a lot. It is quite challenging for them to spend all their attention on one or a few students all the time. Teachers need to learn how to allocate their attention during class to take good care of all students.

Some SEN students may be forgetful or inattentive towards details in class. Some may forget to write in their handbooks, while others forget to bring back their homework, or fail to follow teachers’ instructions. When teachers are situated in a big classroom setting, they usually assign general instructions targeted to the entire class and hence unable to cater the specific learning needs of each SEN student.

To let quick learners to better prepare for classes, the school give them the syllabus in advance. School also offers tutorial classes and support services which run in small classes to meet the needs of SEN students. Also, we provide isolated classes, where teachers may group students according to their abilities and conduct small-group teaching.

14. What are the possible reasons that some schools or parents may not accept school shadowing service?

Parents of other students may be concerned about the reasons behind the presence of a shadow teacher in their class, and whether their children will be affected because of this. Since shadow teachers are not school staff, parents are also concerned about the safety issue. For the schools, teachers may feel stressed knowing that they are being observed in class. To maintain a good relationship with parents, schools value their comments.

15. What do you know about the concept of school shadowing? Do you mind sharing with us how “shadow teachers” help in facilitating communication between students and teachers in class?

Before joining this school, I have never encountered any shadow teachers. I think they act like support teachers, except that their role is not to improve students’ academics, but to help with the student’s personal growth at school. School shadowing has been of great help to the school. Subsidized schools often lack resources to understand students’ needs and characteristics. And I believe here is where the “shadow teacher” fills in the gap.

There was this one case, where the student required heavily individualized learning needs. The shadow teacher was here to help understanding better the reasons behind student’s emotions and behaviour problems, where the school teacher may find it hard to understand the real cause behind the student’s fluctuating emotions in a large class setting. From this experience, the teacher learnt a lot about the student from the shadow teachers and together formulated rules and techniques in communicating to help the student catching up in class.

The shadow teacher bridges the gap between student and teacher to develop the most effective communication module. The shadow teacher helps school teacher to understand the reasons behind student’s behavioural problems, and subsequently develops a personalized rewarding system for the student to better adapt in classes. A consensus was reached with the “shadow teacher” when developing the plan, which is to develop the most suitable program for teacher to understand the student and equip a set of communication skills with the student within a limited time frame. The shadow teacher also assists the student in adapting the requirements in class, catching up with his/her academics, and communicating with classmates.

I really appreciated the school shadowing service. Thanks to the trusting relationship between the shadow teacher and the teachers here, the student has adapted to school much better now.

Info provided by Samantha Mak, Senior Behavioral Therapist
Autism Partnership Samantha Mak
Ms Samantha Mak obtained her Degree and Honor Degree in University of Southern Queensland, major in psychology. She has joined AP since 2010 as a behavioral therapist(one-on-one and Jumpstarts program) and a shadow teacher in the mainstream school. Moreover, she has over 5 years of experiences in working in social group and providing parent training. Aside designing and planning learning phases and activities for students, she is also experience in providing training to junior staffs in AP and interns from university under supervision. She receives direct training with Dr. Angel Au, Clinical Psychologist.

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