Finding the balance

By Dave Bester

One of the greatest challenges a Head faces is ensuring that all his or her children’s needs are catered for, from the group too easily labelled ‘special needs’ to those often called ‘gifted’.

Both of these groups are ‘hot potatoes’ and a Head spends a good deal of time in conversation with parents whose children potentially fit into either category. Most parents have an intrinsic fear that their children will be labelled ‘special needs’. On the other hand, a parent very easily believes and is often convinced that their child is gifted in some way; that they have some special or superior talent.

All children have special needs

I would like to offer a third option or explanation. I believe that at some stage in their schooling, every child has a ‘special need’. To my mind, children who have remedial needs and children who need to be extended or challenged should all be viewed as children who have special needs. Virtually every school I have visited manages one end of this spectrum well, but not the other. Some schools have great support departments that cater for children with remedial needs, with occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, and counsellors and remedial support staff on campus. Other schools have brilliant enrichment programmes and talk freely about Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment and James Anderson’s Habits of Mind, focusing on stretching those children considered to be specially talented. But all schools need to do both really well. We must all find the balance.

A child must not be labelled Schools that specifically cater for children with special needs may feel they risk being labelled remedial schools, potentially scaring away prospective parents. They may develop the reputation of ignoring the needs of the ‘normal’ child. On the other hand, I have heard often from parents that they have been told upon enquiry by certain schools, “Sorry, we don’t do special needs.” In either case, it frequently transpires that a child needs only a brief therapeutic intervention from a specialist and a little understanding and care from the teacher.

However, it is often extremely difficult to convince a parent that their child needs some kind of therapeutic intervention or even an assessment. Many initially refuse to believe that their child needs help. “I struggled at school and I turned out fine” is a phrase I have heard far too often. It is our responsibility as leaders and professionals to guide a parent through the often traumatising experience of discovering that their child needs assistance, and then convincing them to consult the correct professional to remedy the problem.

Put the right systems in place

Working with and providing support for children who experience barriers to learning is a challenge in itself. At St George’s Grammar School, we have come up with systems to ensure that children receive the best and most appropriate support, and that teachers stay informed about a child’s needs and learning style. We have a very wise and experienced Support Coordinator, Linda van Duuren, who works closely with our staff. Teachers do a termly checklist of needs, strengths and challenges, which then feeds into the report system. We do an annual audit of needs for every child, highlighting various aspects of a child’s educational profile – from reading and Maths proficiencies to physical and emotional health. We track children via a ‘Care List’ to enable us to identify who requires a higher level of care or may be experiencing a time of crisis. Our weekly meetings are invaluable in keeping tabs on children who need immediate, high-level care.

What does ‘gifted’ really mean?

At the other end of the spectrum, many parents are quick to believe their child is gifted. This term, in my opinion, is far too easily bandied about. I am often challenged by prospective new parents as to how we extend and challenge children deemed extraordinarily bright. I have found myself in tricky conversations with parents convinced their child shouldn’t be required to comply with the more mundane aspects of the curriculum such as spelling or tables and bonds, since that ‘bores’ them. Heaven forbid that a ‘gifted’ child should fail a spelling test because he was too bored to learn. Naturally, I exaggerate. Most parents have common sense when it comes to their children’s learning and what a school requires from a child for that child to progress to the next grade.

Introducing a meaningful enrichment programme

Introducing a meaningful enrichment programme at a school is not an easy matter. Fundamental issues of ‘selection’ can cause Heads and their teachers a headache. I try to operate from the premise that not only does every child have a ‘special need’ at some stage of their schooling, but every child deserves to be enriched, regardless of their needs.

Therefore, the design of an enrichment programme needs to be very carefully tailored. The programme approaches enrichment and support as part of the same dynamic; catering for ‘out-of-the-box’ thinkers as well as extremely hard-working children who perform well academically but who do not present as necessarily ‘gifted’. We also try to cater for children who require intensive remedial support. I present a topic to my teachers, who then decide which children will most enjoy and benefit from that specific topic. The children are then sent to me personally for an hour each week to explore issues like movie genres, bridge design, ‘green’ architecture, mythical beasts, global financial markets and Renaissance art.

Whilst I am busy with enrichment, the rest of the grade is divided up into groups to enjoy Maths support, language support, Maths extension, creative writing and ‘out-of-thebox’ enrichment. This helps to alleviate issues and anxieties around elitism and selection criteria. I cannot speak for the other teachers, but those periods are my favourite time of the week.

Let’s talk to each other

I would like to know how many schools – both public and independent – manage to strike the balance between satisfying both remedial and gifted needs. If they are candid, how many Heads face similar fears of their schools being labelled remedial? How many of us use the more PC term ‘specially abled’ to describe both their ‘struggling’ children as well as their ‘flying’ children? Let’s start the conversation.

Dave Bester is the Preparatory School Principal at St George’s Grammar School, Mowbray, Cape Town.

Filed Under: Summer 2011

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