Celebrating and Learning from Each Other’s Strengths

Twenty years ago, I remember, “He rides the short bus!” and, “You’re a retard!” as pop culture insults. I heard them at the playground, at home from my older siblings, and on television during comedy shows. I’m thankful for the change in United States culture to include and celebrate all people, including those with learning differences.

Witnessing this change gives me great excitement in seeing the special education developments in China. The current social climate in China is exciting because the government and the people genuinely want to be included in globalism. There’s no surprise that they also want to be a global power. In addition, my Chinese peer generation and younger generations are aware of global changes and attitudes, since a greater majority seek foreign friends or experiences abroad. So, when I hear about the state of Chinese special education, despite how abysmal, I know there are glimmers of improvement coming to the nation of China.

disabled child in China


Anne H., a foreign supervisor at a well-respected Kindergarten in Beijing, explained that there are no services available for children with special needs at her school. When asked about the process of special education referral, she responded, “I don’t really have an answer for you. If the nurse suggests to the parents that a child needs testing or analysis, the parents don’t have to allow the child to undergo tests. There are no services available for special needs children in our kindergarten. The policy at our school has been to not inform parents of our suspicions, because it’s sensitive.”

Although there is a Chinese law that guarantees education to all disabled children, there is only one public school in China that provides special education services. “It’s one school for the whole population of Beijing. Parents feel hopeless because there is a long waiting list for one school,” Anne pointed out.

These types of special education diagnoses can also work against a child’s education in China. Jolie Wang, a 32-year-old mother of two said, “If my child was diagnosed and the Kindergarten said they couldn’t admit [my son], I would not accept the diagnosis. But if they tested him and they offered more help, I would think, ‘Great!’” She added, “In China, tests are given so that schools can refuse students, not for special help. So, this is why parents are not willing to accept these kind of results.”

What can China do?

The first step would be to look at other examples and the strengths of their programs. I interviewed teachers and pulled together information about the school special education referral process from three countries, the United States, France, and Finland.

In the United States, the Pickens County Special Education Administrator, Kathy Parrish, stresses parent involvement in the referral process. “Before referral, the parent is responsible, as they are throughout the entire referral and educational process. The parent is an integral part of their child’s education.” Before a child arrives at school between the ages of 3 and 5, there is potential for special education referral during a screening at a pediatrician visit. After the child attends school, all children in the American system are annually assessed and part of the responsibility of identification falls on the general education teacher.

“Students with disabilities are those students who are unable to have their educational needs met in a regular class without special education or related services,” Parrish said. Once they are identified as having a disability, a team, comprised of parents, teachers and other school staff, creates an Individual Education Program. Again, Parrish stresses, “Parent input is requested through the entire process of referral, evaluation and creation of the IEP. The parent has the right to call an IEP meeting at any time. All decisions for a child with and IEP are a TEAM decision. The parent nor the teacher can make IEP decisions all on their own.”

Two other strengths of the special education system in the United States are early intervention and assessments. Kayla Swiyner, a resource teacher at Pickens County School District explained, “For students in kindergarten through second grade (this grade varies based on the school), each student is given an evaluation at the beginning of the school year (currently EasyCBM or MAP). If students are identified as being high risk, based on this test, they begin receiving additional instruction to target these weaknesses and are progress monitored every ten days.”

If after the instruction has been altered, but no progress has been made, the student will be referred to the school psychologist. “During this time the school psychologist evaluates the student using cross battery assessments and determines if the student qualifies as having a disability. Typically the school psychologists looks at the student’s achievement score to determine if it is below their ability level when determining if the student has a learning disability. Of course, they use other assessments to identify other disabilities,” Swiyner said.

Even though students in third through fifth grade do not have a yearly assessment, if a teacher is concerned about a student’s progress, the teacher will alter instruction before referring the student for further special education assessment. This early intervention pays off. “Middle and High school levels have a Student Intervention Team plan where the teacher provides differentiated instruction in the general education classroom for that student. The teacher documents these attempts and refers the student for special education if they continue to have a concern. Typically, students are already referred and placed into special education in elementary school, so there are far fewer referrals at this level.” Teachers also pay special attention to reading and math at these levels, with growth being measured three times a year through a computer based tool.

The strength of the French system is the many different customized plans. Guillaume Palis, a French teacher currently working at the French International School in Beijing, gave me a great deal of insight into the French special education system. Before accepting his current post as a Grade 3 Teacher for a bilingual class, he worked as a middle school inclusive program coordinator and a primary school special education teacher.

Similar to the American system, a beginning of the year test is given to assess current student achievement. If a student is identified as struggling through the tests of the in class observations, teachers keep track of all differentiations and efforts to see if a solution is made. “When we have the conviction that specialized help will be more efficient, in the process to maintain clear communication with the family, we will organize a meeting called ‘Educative’s Team.’”

The information kept by the teacher of all the different interventions made would be discussed in this meeting. This could possibly be extensive information since teachers are required to devote one to two hours per week to struggling students. The teacher might put a group of students together focusing on one issue, and meet in smaller ratios for a different area of struggle. “If I didn’t have any student who had struggles, I could propose to one of my colleagues to take charge of some of their students in a specific area of trouble.”

At the end of the Educative Team meeting, there are four different programs that could be proposed for a child.

  • The PAI (Individualized Home Program) “defines the possibility of medical treatment at the school.”
  • The PPRE (Personalized Program for Educational Success) “is a short term program with clear objectives that can be reached by the student in a short time.”
  • “If [the issue] is a persisting difficulty that affects the learning process, and it originates from one or several learning disorders (dyslexia, dyscalculia, etc.), the PPRE and PAI will not be enough. We will propose a PAP (Personalized Support Plan). This plan defines the differentiations and adaptions needed by the student to have normal schooling.
  • Lastly, “if the difficulty originates from a disability, we will propose a PPS (Personalized Enrollment Program) that will organize the schooling of the student, including the schedule, objectives and differentiations. I think this is the equivalent of the IEP in the English or American curriculum. The PPS is the level where the State would fully recognize that the student has a disability and needs an individual program with specialized support and possible compensation.

An interesting aspect of the French system is that teachers look not only for issues in literacy, comprehension and numeracy, but also memorization, time and space localization and organization. Of course, literacy, comprehension and numeracy receive the greatest level of attention in addition to providing teachers with curriculum tools to differentiate their instruction in these areas.

Although I wasn’t able to interview anyone with direct contact to the special education field in Finland, I was inspired by the video posted below, which discusses the role of special education in Finland. I want to highlight that all children receive individualized attention, so that a child is special if they haven’t received this attention. If special education systems around the world were able to incorporate technology on a daily basis for assessments, I believe a greater amount of children would show to need special attention.

In the future, I hope that greater teacher training and educational research will cause teachers to join with policy makers in order to create the best practices for special needs children in every country.

If you’re interested in special education, but new to the topic, this mind map covers the disability types supported with free education by IDEA, a United States law.

Add a Comment