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Addressing Special Needs in the International School

By Barbara Parker and Kristen Pelletier
Addressing Special Needs in the International School

The demographics of the student body in international schools have changed significantly over time. The need to increase enrollment in response to higher operating costs, and multi-national corporations' hiring and placing employees from diverse nationalities and ethnic groups have both been contributing factors.
When international schools were first created in the 1960s and 1970s, schools were very selective about their admissions and focused mostly on English-speaking expatriates who worked in business or the diplomatic fields. Schools often required a certain level of English language proficiency as well as the absence of any significant learning needs. They employed highly selective admissions criteria, ostensibly seeking a fairly homogeneous group of students.
Today trends indicate that host country nationals comprise 80 percent of the student body in international schools. This trend dictates that instructional practices and expectations need to change. There are now greater differences among students in areas such as English language acquisition levels, readiness levels for process skills as well as content knowledge, cultural and individual values, interests and beliefs.
In short, international schools are admitting students with more diverse learning needs and expectations. International school teachers need to be prepared for this diversity and to be equipped with strategies and knowledge to address these changing demands.
In addition to broader admissions policies, many international schools admit younger children, such as 2- or 3-year-olds, who are still experiencing constant and uneven physical and emotional development. Some of these children may eventually demonstrate a wide disparity in their cognitive, social and/or physical capacities from their peers; a disparity that was not evident when they were initially admitted to the school at such a young age.
However once a school has accepted a student, there is a moral imperative that the school is committed to meeting the student’s needs. This is especially significant as, depending on the country, the longer a student attends an international school, the fewer local educational options are available due to his/her language proficiency or the scope of the curriculum.
Most international schools ascribe to valuing diversity in their mission statements or core beliefs. An international school that professes to value diversity holds itself accountable on all levels – including accepting and honoring diverse learning approaches, different levels of readiness, and a variety of personal interests, beliefs and values. In addition to these types of diversity, there are also special learning needs related to brain processes or other developmental differences.
Overall there is an increase in the percentage of students in North America who demonstrate difficulty organizing and managing their time, their responses, and their behavior. Executive function is the term used to describe brain processes that control our ability to focus, solve problems, organize ourselves, remember information, learn from mistakes, and manage impulses (Searle, 2013).
In international school classrooms, teachers often have students who come from cultures that do not normally expect children to practice some of the behaviors associated with executive function. For example, in some collective societies, parents and schools do not teach children how to organize themselves; this is viewed as the job of the domestic staff, the combined efforts of everyone in the family, or the adults in the family.
When we have students in an international school who demonstrate difficulty solving problems, organizing themselves, or managing their impulses, we need to investigate further to know if this is an issue related to managing executive function or a lack of exposure and instruction due to cultural values and practices. Either way, the same instructional methods and supports can be effective in assessing and addressing a student’s need related to these skills and processes.
Being inclusive and accommodating diversity, beyond just counting different nationalities, requires that all international school teachers are able to differentiate instruction based on formative assessment and analyze the assessment of student progress toward mastery of skills and knowledge.
International school teachers need to know how to assess and evaluate a student’s level of understanding and to make informed hunches about the root causes underlying the incomplete understanding or the behavior. They need a variety of effective instructional practices and strategies at their fingertips so they can modify their plans to meet the needs of students based upon their professional judgment and assessment results. They need to be able to use flexible groupings to target particular readiness levels, interests, or learning approaches. They must be able to fit the instructional strategy to the learning need. This requires differentiation to be an ongoing, expected structure in an international school classroom.
Differentiation is interwoven into effective standards-based planning and ongoing assessment with timely feedback. In order to differentiate effectively, teachers need to know who their students are including their cultural beliefs and values as well as their learning needs. Each classroom’s learning environment must be based on a growth mindset (Dweck 2008). Differentiating instruction based on students’ interests, readiness levels, and approaches to learning (Tomlinson, 2013) is critical in an international school in which honoring and respecting diversity is a stated value and belief.
Various scholars (Dweck, 2008; Hattie, 2012; Tomlinson, 2003) have identified common characteristics that need to be present in a classroom learning environment for optimal learning to occur. These characteristics include respect for all students and an awareness of what makes them unique, including their strengths and weaknesses. Another characteristic is persistence and the message that there is always another way to approach learning (Tomlinson, 2013). Other scholars (Marzano, 2007; Hattie, 2009; Fisher & Frey,2011; Schmoker, 2011) emphasize the importance of timely and effective feedback to the student about his/her progress toward clear, focused instructional goals that were implemented according to effective practices.
Being able to know and respect each student’s uniqueness, including his/her strengths and weaknesses, requires skilled assessment, both formal and informal as well as ongoing formative assessment and summative assessment at critical junctures of development. The teacher must develop systems and structures for documenting the ongoing assessment results and use them to alter instruction to fit better the needs of an individual, a small group of students, or the whole class.
Teachers in all schools face these challenges and demands on their professional skills and abilities. In an international school, these challenges and demands can be accentuated due to a wide variety of language and cultural differences common in each classroom. Some international school students have never developed a primary language, which exacerbates their learning needs. Some students are only at a school for two or three years and enter at different grade levels and from a variety of educational systems; therefore the disparity in developmental levels and in skill proficiency widens the older the students become.
International schools in many countries may not have the wide variety of support services available through community resources, such as the community resources networks in North America or Europe. Consequently, international school teachers must develop and refine instructional skills and assessment expertise so they can collaboratively design effective learning plans to address special learning needs.
Knowing how to assess, plan and instruct in order to accommodate and differentiate for a variety of learner needs is critical in any school. The degree of diversity in an international school, combined with limited community resources in some settings, accentuates the need for international school teachers to develop fluency and confidence in addressing a variety of learner needs.

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02/19/2014 - Kristen
Dear Susan,
Thank you for your question. You find yourself in a situation that a lot of international schools face. I wish I had a simple answer for you but the reality is that even when you can make full formal assessments, and or bilingual assessments and it is reviewed and discussed with a multidisciplinary team these cases are tricky in trying to determine if needs are primarily the result of language learning, language confusion or an underlying learning disability….or a combination.
There is no magic assessment that I am aware of (and would think it dubious if there were) that can sort this out. There are almost always “interpret with caution” warnings when using formal assessments of course because of how and where these assessments are normed. Having said that, formal data and teaming give the best opportunity to figure out each unique situation.

In general best practice pointers would be:
· get as much information you can about the level of achievement in the student’s strongest language, past school patterns, educational history in general. If you can talk to past teachers it can be really helpful. If you have questions about language dominance, we have had some luck with the BVAT as one data point that can help (if it is available in the language you are looking for and someone can administer it).

· get as much information as you can about the achievement in English and see what you can compare

· are there any questions about memory, emotional, sensory, social or attention issues?

· create a team based approach to discuss the data that you have, and figure out what other data you need (the team of teachers who know the student the best would work for you if you don’t have an established school team that discusses these issues)

· set some specific goals with targets and teach and assess to them for progress on a determined timeline. If the student does not make the kind of progress you would expect after the intervention come back together with the team and talk it through again

At some point it may be necessary to undergo full formal assessment. The hardest part of this process is figuring out when it is time to do that. If kids are in MS and HS and these educational issues have been persisting throughout their school experience it is likely time to take this step.

I hope this helps. It is a short response to a very complex issue. You are not alone in grappling with it. The best formula is data analysis, teaming for decisions, good common sense, and persistence. Good luck.

02/15/2014 - Susan
Hello. I am the Learning Support Specialist in an international school and have been responsible for creating the structure for learning support at the middle and high school level. There has been a very small budget to order assessment materials, so I have been using free curriculum based measurements that are online. What other assessment tools are available for students who are EAL/ELL/ESOL learners? Some parents have been strongly encouraged to pay for a thorough academic and cognitive testing at great expense, but in SE Asia, there are very few places that provide that. Do you have any other suggestions?