Special Educational Resources in International Schools

Interview with Rebecca Grappo, M.Ed. – An International Educational Consultant

beckygrappo1 Rebecca’s background is in education. She taught in American international schools as well as Virginia public schools for many years.

Rebecca also served as the Education and Youth officer at the U.S. Department of State, where she helped families of American diplomats figure out multiple education issues as they moved around the world. As she worked with these families, she became acutely aware of the difficulty of finding resources for children with special needs.

Rebecca is also a Foreign Service spouse, and has lived in 9 countries. She understands the educational landscape overseas and the challenges of moving a family globally.

Rebecca founded her own educational consulting practice in order to serve internationally mobile families who want to ensure that their children’s educational needs are met both at home and abroad.

Rebecca is a Certified Educational Planner, and full professional member of various associations that uphold ethical and professional principles of practice.

Expats Guide: Should a family with a special needs child consider accepting an overseas assignment?

Rebecca: A family should thoroughly research the resources that are available before accepting the assignment. Sometimes the support can be found and the assignment is a positive experience for all.

However, this is too important to leave to chance.

In developing countries, there may be very few, if any, trained professionals who can provide the therapies or special education that children need. It is much better to find that out before the family is uprooted than after they arrive at the new location.

Expats Guide: What would you suggest to a family with a special needs child to do when preparing for overseas relocation?

Rebecca: First of all, it is very important to identify what your child’s needs are. Does your child need specialized learning instruction? Occupational therapy? Physical therapy? Speech and language therapy? Psychological counseling? Specialized medical care? Prescription drug monitoring?

Once these needs are identified, then the family needs to determine whether or not the resources are available overseas. If they are available, do they meet the expected standard of care or level of professional training?

Furthermore, if these specialists exist, do they have time in their schedules to take on additional clients/patients? And will they still be there in the new location when the family arrives, and stay throughout the length of the assignment? Many times specialized service care providers are also expats, so one must try to learn if they are transient or long-term residents of the country.

I’d also like to say a word about children with physical challenges. I once worked with a family about to move overseas who had a beloved child with a physical disability that impacted her mobility. They were naive, and surprised to learn that buildings overseas were not equipped for handicapped access. That included their home as well as the school. So this was yet another challenge they had to deal with as their family was moving and relocating abroad.

Expats Guide: What is important to check about the international school, and how significant is a full cooperation between the parents and the overseas school?

Rebecca: It is important to find out which schools are open to the idea of accepting children with special needs before departure. Some are welcoming, and some are not at all open to serving the needs of these children.

If the school does accept special needs children, it is important to ask who provides special needs services, what their training is, how much time the child could expect to receive services during the day/week, and how progress would be defined, monitored and reported.

It is also important to ask if there are trained special education teachers on staff who can engage in specialized instruction, or if the learning resource center is really more of a supervised study time.

Regarding specialized teachers, even special education teachers have sub-specialities. They might be qualified or experienced with a particular age group, or with a particular disability. One should assume nothing.

The issue of cooperation is also critically important. Are the teachers on board with working with children with learning differences or other special needs? Will they agree to implement recommended accommodations or a modified curriculum? Do the teachers, administrators, and special education instructors work as a team, or is there internal resistance? Is there a school counselor, and does that person play a prominent role in advocating for and supporting children?

It would be very useful to talk to other parents of children with special needs to hear about other’s experiences.

Expats Guide: If after a thorough research the family finds out that the most appropriate school for their child is a local school, would you recommend enrolling the kid into that school even if the spoken language is different from the child’s native language?

Rebecca: I think the question would be whether or not the child’s needs would be met in the local school. If the child has a learning difference or special need, it would be very important to know what those needs are. My worry would be that the language differences would compound the learning issues. I would thoroughly investigate what the local school has to offer before deciding if it is the best option.

Expats Guide: If the school doesn’t have the special education resources to assist the child, would you recommend hiring a special aid to help the child during school hours? How open are international schools for this option?

Rebecca: If the school is open to the idea, hiring an aide, or shadow, is certainly an option. I know of people who have done this successfully. But it seems to work better when the children are younger; as they get older, sometimes there is an increased resistance to “being different”.

Expats Guide: Would you recommend home-schooling for a special needs child?

Rebecca: Sometimes home-schooling is a very good option for a special needs child. It depends on the child as well as the dedication of the parent, or hired teacher, who organizes and teaches the program.

I remember one parent I worked with. Before they relocated overseas, I suggested she work closely with her child’s current special education teachers in the public school so that she could familiarize herself with his needs as well as what they were doing in the classroom. She approached this as a new career move, and did her homework thoroughly. That mother was highly successful home-schooling her son, and he thrived. But the level of her dedication and hard work cannot be underestimated.

I have also seen some children home-schooled for the core subjects, and then, with the cooperation of the international school, attend school for the specials like art, music, physical education, computer, etc. The children are happy to have the opportunity to socialize with other children, and very often the other children learn to be sensitive to the needs of those who are different from them.

Expats Guide: Is boarding school a good option for a special needs kid?

Rebecca: I have worked with many families over the years, and naturally, the first choice for almost everyone is to find a workable solution so that the child can remain with the family for as long as possible. But there are times when it is to the detriment of the child. Again, it depends on the need, but it breaks my heart to see kids who struggle needlessly in international settings where there is no support, no specialized instruction, or insufficient support. Feeling unsuccessful day after day can have a profound negative effect on a child.

I work with many families who have children struggling with the academic complications of ADHD, learning differences, psychological, behavioral, and/or emotional problems. I know that these needs may never be met in the international location, and yet could be addressed beautifully and successfully in a specialized educational or therapeutic setting. It can literally change or save a child’s life. So sometimes it is in the best interest of the child to take advantage of the many opportunities specialized boarding schools can offer.

I’d like to give an example of a child whose life was changed. She had never been overseas before, and was relocating abroad right before her senior year to a school with a very small high school and a rigorous academic program. She was overwhelmed, and unable to cope with the academic demands. This 17-year old was failing in every subject, and went into such a deep depression that she had to be evacuated to the United States.

As part of her evaluation, she had a psycho-educational evaluation that revealed undiagnosed learning disabilities. Within days, I had her placed in a traditional boarding school with a very warm and nurturing school culture and excellent learning center. Over time, she blossomed, become everyone’s favorite student, graduated, and went on to college/university. Boarding school and the support she found there changed her life. I have many success stories like that I could tell!

Expats Guide: Some families might find that their child has special needs only after the overseas relocation? How would you recommend handling this situation?

Rebecca: Families often contact me when their child is struggling overseas. In that situation, I try to dissect what is happening and refer them to the closest, but most highly qualified, professionals for further evaluation. Once the needs have been identified, then we search for a way to address those needs. Sometimes we can find suitable options, and sometimes we have to look elsewhere.

Expats Guide: Do you have any additional suggestions for families with special needs child that are considering accepting an overseas relocation assignment?

Rebecca: Do your homework before you go. Be honest with the school, and with yourselves. Do not withhold information just so that your child will be accepted to the school, because you could be setting your child up for failure. And if you feel like you need guidance, seek the help of a professional educational consultant who understands the complexity of special needs education.

Expats Guide: Thank you Rebecca for a very interesting, informative, and important interview.

More about Rebecca Grappo and her practice can be found at http://rnginternational.com/