I started my teaching career as a part time English subject teacher. Four children in my two classes needed special attention, but I didn’t receive adequate support to differentiate my instruction to meet their needs. One child clearly had a physical or mental disability, given away by profuse and uncontrollable drooling, slurred speech, uncontrolled rolling of eyes, floppy hands and frequent tippy-toes walking. But his disability was left undiagnosed and avoided in parent-teacher discussions. Another child had behavioral adjustment issues and auditory sensitivity. Teachers did broach the subject with the parents, but the parents insisted there was nothing wrong. The child was never tested, but behavioral issues still continue, two years later.
Two of my children were high performers. While the majority of my class had plenty of challenge with my lessons, these two consistently caused classroom behavior problems. Without training and proper support, unbeknownst to me at the time, I soon found myself in a passive aggressive battle with these two students. When I later had these two children in a smaller class, I realized my problems from the previous year had not been due to their behavior but due to my lack of differentiated instruction for them. The child mentioned above with the auditory sensitive also needed challenging instruction to reduce behavior issues.
Due to my experiences with this as a first year teacher, I soon inquired about the state of special education in China. In our school, the company-owned kindergarten acts as a company benefit for company employees, so employees’ children with disabilities must be accepted even if the school cannot accommodate them. Chinese administration members have explained to me that parents believe keeping the disability hidden is a matter of saving face.* Parents will even avoid diagnostic tests in order truthfully say their child has not been diagnosed.
I vaguely knew about special education key topics in the United States before I moved to China since my mother is a special education teacher. So, I pitched an idea about special education in Beijing to Lisa Gay, editor of City Weekend, Beijing Parents & Kids Magazine. Through my research for this article (viewable here), I soon learned about inclusive education and differentiating instruction. I was most surprised when John Giszcazk told me that 20% of children without diagnoses need special learning support at some point during their schooling years. Stephen Zissermann hit a personal chord for me when he explained inclusive special education supports not only children with disabilities, but also children who attend “Challenge” or “Gifted and Talented” programs. The key in supporting inclusive special education seems to me to be education of parents, strong research in inclusive education, and government support and funding of teacher training.
In China, the lack of laws and policies is what causes the greatest frustration for advocates of the inclusive education movement. The popular perspective in China is that majority rules in spite of the misfortune of a few. It’s a huge country and society, and few exceptions are given for special cases without guanxi (political or societal connections resulting in power). Although the Regulation on Education of the Disabled guarantees the right to basic education for the disabled, in 2009, fifteen years after the law passed in 1994, one third of the diagnosed, disabled student population remained unschooled (World Data, 2010). Although the education of the disabled is a State responsibility, it is not the most pressing issue of the country when compared next to issues that affect the majority, like water and air safety.
During our interview, Zissermann pointed out to me that parental education and partnership is a key factor in changing students’ lives. There is no law or policy set in place which encourages parents to support testing should their child be suspected by school staff to be disabled in any way. Zissermann was often required to explain to parents that early diagnosis and prevention are actually beneficial and could even help children to potentially overcome some of the mild disabilities. In a country where international teachers are not and cannot become voting citizens, therefore limited politically, parental and native administrative education initiatives are also the primary way organizations in China seek to change the face of special education in China.
SENIA primarily does this through providing professional development and awareness opportunities for parents, learning specialists, school counselors, principals, special education teachers and other teachers. They also partner with organizations or businesses to support advocating efforts in the countries and cities that have SENIA chapters. EARCOS is the umbrella organization over SENIA and takes a more political route in changing education policies. EARCOS meets yearly with regional directors and the State Department of Overseas Schools. It also provides grants for research in any area of education. Their first core value is, “All individuals have intrinsic worth; their dignity and value are enhanced when they are honored and nourished,” (EARCOS, 2010).
Although SENIA and EARCOS are great organizations that do have an impact in China, homegrown operations would be of greater impact if they had the ability to be self-sufficient, efficient organizations. A parent and friend I was able to interview told me all of the organizations, except for one local company, seemed to simply be in the business of making money. Sun Zhong Kai of Stars and Rain in Beijing was currently in the process of beginning a national organization called Heart Alliance Autism Network, but it is still in its formative stages.
When Chinese parents and educators look for examples of special education done right, they often turn to the West. While perusing through American organizations about the topics of special education, more specifically inclusive education, I was disheartened to see that the Common Core Standards website doesn’t even mention supporting teachers who would need to differentiate their instruction for disabled or gifted students. I can’t imagine what American parents with these students think as others discuss Common Core.
I was encouraged to see that the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) partners with CEEDAR Center, part of a cooperative agreement by the US Dept. of Education, located in Florida. The center helps states, higher education institutions and education agencies when they seek to provide teachers and leaders with opportunities to professionally develop specialized instruction in inclusive settings. The ultimate goal is to provide disabled students with every opportunity to achieve college entrance, college education and career preparation, (CCSSO, 2015).
Hopefully these leaders can continue to steadfastly support special education, especially with the knowledge that other citizens of the world are watching to see what is most effective and beneficial for every single child.
*The closest thing I can compare this to for an American is “keeping up a façade” where an American will try to present themselves publicly in such a way that his or her personal life seems to be perfect from the perspective of observing Americans. Admittedly this comparison is a bit simplified, but saving face deals with cultural notions of pride, respect and dignity.