This article is an introduction to special education in Irish secondary schools. The past then years have witnessed a sea change in special education provision in Ireland. The Department of Education and Science has issued numerous directives and guidelines in relation to policy, provision, structure and supports. Since 1998 there have been ten pieces of legislation passed through the Dail that relate, one way or another to children and special education needs The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has been established along with the Special Education Support Service (SESS). Both these organisations oversee and coordinate all special education initiatives nationwide. Ireland’s primary schools have pioneered these new directives. Special education provision at primary level is developing at a rapid pace and great strides are being made. The next horizon for improvement is secondary school.
Ireland’s secondary schools are driven by an exam-oriented curriculum. Subject area specialists teach all of the curricular content. The supports available to children with special needs are not extensive or as tested as those at primary level. In what follows we will look at the needs and entitlements of children entering secondary school who have identified special education needs and those who are entering and later discovered to have a special education need.
My child has been receiving extra help in primary school. What should I look for in a secondary school?
You should look for a school with a special education teacher in place on a full-time basis to support all children with special needs in the school. It is important to also be sure the school has a commitment to supporting and educating children with special needs. The school should have on its staff teachers who have had some training in how to differentiate their methodology and curriculum for children with special needs. There should be an accepting attitude on the part of all staff. Remember, your child is entitled to enter fully into the life of the school and avail of all it has to offer. How do you find out these things? Talk to the school principal and ask questions about the topics listed above. Remember, your child may be eligible for special consideration at the time of Junior Cert and Leaving Cert but this will have to be determined about a year before these exams will be taken.
What is s/he entitled to?
A child who has been receiving special education resources or support in primary school is eligible for continued support at secondary level so long as they continue to have a special education need. It is possible that a primary school child, after receiving several years of support, could no longer be deemed to have a special education need but this is the exception not the rule.
Your child will be entitled to the same general provision he or she received in primary school. Typically this takes the form of specialist teaching from a Learning Support or Special Education Resource teacher (both are now often being referred to simply as Special Education teachers. This support is to be determined based on need with the number of hours of support being determined by the Individual Education Plan (IEP) drawn up in the last year of primary school. In addition to the IEP there should have been a Transition Plan completed during the last year of primary school The Transition Plan will devise the structure of transition to secondary school and may alter the IEP for a short period of time. If this happens there should be a team meeting in about six months or less to write the secondary school IEP. In general students in secondary school are eligible for the same supports as in primary school. This may include a Special Needs Assistant (SNA).
How do I go about making sure they get that?
Generally speaking your child’s Individual Education Plan is the map which documents exactly what services your child will receive, when he or she will receive them and from whom. The IEP is your best protection against a child not receiving the services they need. IEP’s will eventually become legally binding documents on all parties and a school must provide the services outlined in the IEP. An IEP cannot be changed or implemented without your consent. Remember that upon entering secondary school a Transition Plan may be in place that slightly alters the previous IEP. This will have to be reviewed within a short span of time to be sure the child receives appropriate support services. Don’t be afraid to talk to the school principal because he or she is ultimately responsible to see to it that children receive the services they are entitled to receive.
What are my options if we run into difficulties?
Should problems arise you should first speak to the Year Head and address your concerns. The Special Needs Organiser (SENO) assigned to the school should be alerted as well as the appropriate special education teacher(s). A team meeting, of which you are entitled to be a member, can be convened within a reasonable time frame and your concerns will be discussed. If this meeting does not satisfy you or not result in the child receiving the services you may contact the National Council for Special Education for further information and support.
It is important to take things one step at a time. Speak to your child’s special education teacher first and be clear about your concerns. Be assertive and not aggressive. Remember, generally speaking everyone is doing the best they can. Do have your child’s IEP in front of you when you are speaking to the teacher or other staff member. Be aware of your rights to appeal as outlined in the NCSE and SESS websites. Don’t rush to judgement, try and work things out amicably before you make threats to appeal. The next most important port of call will be the Special Needs Organiser assigned to the school.
Not all children who have special education needs come to the attention of parents or educators in primary school. The human brain is an organ that tries to meet the demands placed upon it at any given time. As anyone who has gone to school knows, the demands of the curriculum get greater and greater each year of schooling. In secondary school the curriculum subjects become incredibly complex each year. The fact that a student is being educated by many different teachers each year further complicates matters. There are students who have had no difficulty suggestive of a special education need at primary school who suddenly seem to have a lot of difficulties in secondary school. Unfortunately they are often perceived as “lazy” or “unmotivated” and sometimes as “difficult” students.
If these labels stick and no thought or concern raised about a possible learning difficulty being present the student can become trapped in a cycle of failure and rejection by teachers. The result could be early school leaving, behaviour difficulties to hide the learning problem, lowered self-esteem, loss of self-confidence and trouble at home. It is important to recognise that some students, no matter how well they performed in primary school, may have a special education need that doesn’t appear until secondary school.
What are the warning signs?
It is not possible to list the many warning signs of a hidden disability but generally speaking one should be considered any time a student with a previously successfully record in primary school begins to exhibit difficulties in secondary school. There are a variety of causes to school failure at second level but a hidden disability can often be reasonably suspected when one or more of the following difficulties become noticeable:
oRefusal to go to school
oProblems with written language expression
oDifficulty organising thoughts into speech
oInability to recall facts from yesterday’s lesson even if they seemed retained the night before
oUnusual spelling problems
oUnusual difficulty with more advanced mathematical problems
oPronounced difficulty in foreign language class
oBehavioural difficulties not present in primary school
oMood swings or sudden mood changes that last several hours
oReluctance to engage with parents about school difficulties
Although a partial list it is a good guide for parents and teachers to thoughtfully consider the presence of a hidden learning disability.
I think my child may have a problem. Where do I go from here?
First speak with your child’s teachers. Ask for the facts: what does teacher think the problem might be? How often is this occurring? When? Is it serious? Present your own perception to the teacher(s) clearly and succinctly. If you have done some Internet homework on your own be clear about it and raise it as a query needing to be resolved. Try and get some samples from homework you have seen and ask for some samples of the child’s work in class if it is appropriate to do so. Speak to the Year Head and ask him or her to get some information about your concerns from all teachers. See if you can spot a pattern that validates your concern.
If you become more concerned then you have a right to ask for an assessment. Sometimes the special education teacher, with your permission, can perform some individually administered tests to discover if the child is seriously behind in reading or math achievement age. It is possible to discover if there are significant written language deficits in some cases. If this assessment leads to more significant concerns then you should request a psychological assessment. These can be provided free by the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) but be mindful that a lengthy waiting list may be in place.
The most important thing is to be persistent and to talk to the right people. Begin with teachers, speak to Year Head, go to Principal if necessary and don’t forget the Special Education Needs Organiser (SENO). If an assessment is carried out there will be a team meeting to discuss the results and to begin the process of writing an IEP.
In the case of a diagnosis, where do we go from here?
If your child is found to have a special education need an IEP should be written. This is, as stated previously, a road map to your child’s education plan. It should be reviewed annually but can be reviewed more frequently if it is decided to do so. The special education team, often referred to as a multidisciplinary team, will be responsible for writing the IEP. You are a member of that team. Your child is also entitled to be a member of the team and it is particularly important for secondary school students to participate in this stage of planning. This gives them a sense of ownership and control over their educational life.
Be sure that the plan covers all the areas of concern that have been discovered in the assessment process. Plans for children with social and behavioural difficulties that address only academic issues are useless and doomed to fail. Special education planning is a thoughtful and time-consuming process when it is done correctly. Don’t feel rushed into accepting a plan you don’t think will work. Take it away and ask if you can return in a week to revise it with the team. This may not make you the most popular parent in the school but it is responsible parenting.
Autism/Asperger’s in Secondary School
There are large numbers of children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder that are having considerable difficulty finding a secondary school to enrol them. The problem revolves around the lack of supports at second level and the lack of teacher training in this speciality area. Unfortunately there is little that can be done if a school refuses to enrol a child on the autistic spectrum. What is needed is the development of resource support. By that I mean resource rooms where these children can get services by a specialist teacher. Availability to the teachers of advanced training. Availability of print and video resources teachers can access to learn more about the spectrum. Along with this there should be a whole-school commitment to inclusion for children on the spectrum so they are not isolated from same-age peers.
The education of children on the spectrum is not that difficult once educators get the knowledge about how to do it and have the proper attitude towards these children and their families. Of course they present us with challenges but the good news is that once we get it reasonably right for them we begin to improve the education of all children. There are considerable challenges in the future to our secondary schools in education these children and it is time to get it right. Those schools which stubbornly refuse to enrol children on the spectrum are in the stone age of education. There is a clear choice for secondary schools in relation to these children: be in the forefront of change and development or be left behind forever. Parents will not forgive or forget. It’s time to get it right once and for all.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder affects about 5% of all children and adults. Unlike other special education conditions, children and adolescents with ADHD are frequently blamed for having the condition, perceived as hostile or unmotivated, lazy or cheeky. When ADHD goes untreated it becomes a serious condition affecting self-esteem, motivation, behaviour, self-confidence and relationships with adults and peers. ADHD is a high-stakes condition and it needs to be recognised that students who have it didn’t choose to be the way they are.
ADHD is a condition that is caused by brain chemistry and activity. It is a neurobiological condition. People with ADHD often have difficulty paying attention and concentrating, especially on things that require sustained attention and concentration. The can have problems controlling their emotions and impulses, can rush to finish things or have considerable difficulty waiting their turn. They often ask questions without thinking them through and sometimes make unfortunate comments in front of others.
ADHD is a life-long condition. One never grows out of it but the symptom picture changes over time. Often the impulsivity and high level of activity, if they were initially present, disappear in the teen years. The learning problems associated with ADHD do not go away easily and it is vitally important for them to be addressed in school. As in the case of children on the autistic spectrum, once educators and schools get it correct for children with ADHD they have improved the educational provision of all children.
Understanding is critically important. Adolescents with significant ADHD do not chose to be in trouble with and in conflict with adults. Constant rejection and criticism, constant punishment, and in severe cases expulsion from school is not the answer. Corrective teaching is the answer and appropriate support from specialist teachers is vital.
David J. Carey, Psy.D.