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Finding that special support

RELOCATING your family to Shanghai from abroad can be a daunting enough experience, but when one of your children has special educational needs it can be particularly challenging. Fortunately, as Nie Xin learns, there are organizations based in the city that work with schools, children and parents to ensure these specific needs are met.

One mother who could not find an occupational therapist for her child in Shanghai finally found one with the help of Shanghai Chosen Families (SCF).

This organization founded five years ago offers a discrete and supportive environment where members can discuss the joys and frustrations of parenting, find service providers for their children, and educate and empower themselves.

Bringing a family abroad is always a cause for worry and involves choosing the right school for the child, worrying about their adapting to new school life and making friends.

However, when the child has special needs, the difficulties multiply and the challenge seems insuperable.

"A special educational need is defined as being present when a child has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age. They may need extra or different help," says Eileen George, SENCO (special education needs coordinator) and learning support teacher at Shanghai Rego International School.

Awareness about learning difficulties is on the rise in Shanghai and there are more resources available now than in the past. International schools and relative groups such as SCF provide learning environments for children and adolescents and many are on par with private schools in the West.

Some parents look into SCF before looking for a house and a school when they consider their move to Shanghai, according to Augusta Klaarenbeek, the executive director of SCF.

SCF addresses issues including autism spectrum disorders, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), sensory processing disorders, dyslexia and general learning difficulties.

Service providers in SCF have a strong presence to speak at seminars and participate in meetings. Every other meeting is reserved for parents.

"Some members need a parents-only place in order to feel they are in a comfortable and supportive atmosphere," notes one member. Attendees spend a lot of time laughing and often end up staying longer than their scheduled time.

Members say that participating in SCF has allowed them to open up about their children outside the group.

Individual needs

The group currently has more than 75 member families and recently added meetings in Minhang District to its meetings in the Pudong New Area, with hopes to expand to Hongqiao. Last year's SCF seminar, "Helping Kids with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder," drew an audience of 70 people. This kind of exposure has helped the group make a name for itself.

"I think all schools here are aware that their students are unique and have strengths and weaknesses," says George.

British-trained teachers at international schools have been taught about the range of special educational needs and how to support and help individual needs.

"Inclusive education is something many teachers are aware of and have been trained in," adds George.

However, even the best international schools in Shanghai are generally not able to provide Individualized Education Plans (IEP). Some international schools will offer support, once parents have fully made the schools aware of their situation and found out if they can provide sufficient support for their child's needs.

Shanghai American School is one of the best prepared for special needs students.

If the child started at kindergarten as neurotypical (not on the autism spectrum) but then later requires special support, SAS will provide the extra help needed. And they do have excellent staff for that, too.

The Essential Learning Group, formerly Special Education Consulting, offers a large range of programs (which can be found at that can supplement the education a child with milder learning difficulties receives from his international school.

Comprehensive care

The group's intensive courses can also help children with severe learning difficulties who cannot be admitted to the international school system.

Their Creative Garden is an intensive program for children on the autism spectrum, with learning disabilities, with global development delay and emotional or behavioral problems.

There is also a clinic which offers various assessments, therapies and other consulting services.

Another center which aims to offer comprehensive care is Olivia's Place. This center offers individualized services for children from birth to 12 years and covers occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy. These services complement the child's experience in the regular education system.

"In Shanghai, it is easy to get fragmented services. You may need to trek to one location for a good physical therapist and another for speech and yet another for occupational therapy. And all the therapists may have different standards," says Quynh Chow, one of the founders of therapy services provider Olivia's Place.

Chow moved back to the United States for nearly a year but then decided to return to Shanghai. "We then realized that we want to have a place where our daughter could get all of her therapy in one place," says Chow.

Shanghai Edexpat Learning Enrichment Centre (SELEC) is working with Olivia's Place and independent therapists to provide integrated therapies at their Pudong base and on-site at Shanghai's international schools.

Their mission is to provide a linked educational environment for children who have a special requirement in their educational provision, children who cannot gain access to many of the Shanghai international schools and children who need a special experience to enrich their lives.

The institute works closely with the British International School Shanghai at their Pudong campus, and all of their students spend some time in the mainstream school to gain the benefits of an inclusive education.

SELEC enrolled their first child at the beginning of September 2010, with a learning enrichment program that includes 15 hours as a BISS Pudong student, gaining valuable integration and mainstream experience and qualifications, while being provided specialist instruction and personal development from SELEC staff and consultants.


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