1. Gather information
As soon as you realise your child has some sort of learning difficulty, arrange for a consultation or an assessment with a paediatrician, specialist or psychologist. A diagnosis, when this is possible, is usually the first step towards finding help. The next step is to gather as much information as you can. Information empowers parents, and this is even more true for the parents of a child with a learning difficulty or special educational needs.
Use online research to access parent forums, blogs and local service providers. Online research using relevant key words will throw up information on all aspects of learning difficulties and special educational needs. It can also be used to identify specialist books on your child’s difficulties. Parent forums and blogs will provide you with useful tips and information from parents in a similar situation, both in your local area and further afield. You will be able to profit from their experiences of what worked well for them and what worked less well. You are also likely to discover plenty of useful information on services, therapies and extra-curricular activities for your child in your local area.
In Switzerland, many of the international schools have made significant progress in the field of special educational needs over the past 10 years. In the Geneva area, Ecole Internationale de Genève has developed a highly regarded Extended Support Programme, Post-16 programme and Learning Centre for children needing additional support. Other schools in the Geneva area that have increased their focus on support for children with learning difficulties include Collège du Léman, Geneva English School, British School of Geneva, IIL and La Côte International School . In the Zurich region, Zurich International School and Hull’s School are of two of the schools which have pursued a strategy of increasing their professional development training for their teachers to work with children with learning difficulties.
Use the information you have gathered from other parents and your own enquiries to create a shortlist of schools you believe may be suitable for your child. The next step is to arrange as many visits as possible, as these will allow you to see the ethos of each school and whether your child will fit in. To maximise the effectiveness of your visit, research the school beforehand and go prepared with a list of pertinent questions. A useful tip for parents is not to focus too heavily on your child’s difficulties. It is all too easy to spend the whole interview talking about the things he/she struggles with and little or no time talking about the things he or she is good at and his/her positive qualities. It can also be effective to go along to the school with a photograph or short video recording of your child as this will give the school a better idea of what your child is like.
Parents can also gather information on their children’s rights and entitlements in Switzerland, a country which offers a broad range of support and services to children and adults with special educational needs. You may find there is suitable provision for your child in the local Swiss school system, although this will be appropriate only when your intention is to remain in Switzerland over the longer term. Clearly, switching education systems and languages is a challenge for any child, but for children with learning differences and special educational needs, it is even more of a challenge. Should local education be a route you would like to investigate, you will find more information on education policy and specialist schools in the education section of your local Canton’s website. Under the Swiss constitution, local educational authorities are obliged to provide suitable education provision or training for all children up to the age of 18. This may be attendance at school up to the age of 18 or up to the age of 15 followed by a three-year training programme or apprenticeship. The Swiss apprenticeship or vocational education and training system is well-established and highly regarded, encompassing over 200 different professions.
2. Join a local or national parent support group
Another important step is to join a local or national parent support group, such as Insieme or ASK-All Special Kids, or a support group that is dedicated to your child’s problem (eg Autisme Suisse, Autisme Swiss Romande, Insieme 21, Association Romande Trisomie 21 (ART 21). A parent support group will give you emotional support and a network of other parents in a similar situation. It may also provide you with more information on appropriate local programmes, services and therapies and even offer its own children’s programmes such as inclusive holiday camps or after-school clubs to help with homework or social skills. It is extremely likely the association will be familiar with local schools and be able to provide you with an inside track on the schools you are considering. It may also be able to offer you a network of paediatricians, psychologists and therapists, including those who speak English. A parent support group can be a particularly useful source of information and support when you hit some kind of barrier in your child’s development or schooling. In addition, they usually offer parent support meetings, which are excellent ways of networking with other parents and special needs professionals, giving you the opportunity learn from their experiences.
3. Seek out self-help therapies for your child
In your quest for information, you will have discovered there is a kaleidoscope of possible therapies. These include sessions with a psychiatrist or psychologist; speech therapy; occupational therapy; sensory integration therapy; nutritional therapy; equine therapy; social skills classes; Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA); Relationship Development Intervention (RDI); and early education learning programmes such as Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI) and Portage.
Looking at some of these therapies, occupational therapy helps identify the strengths and difficulties your child has in his daily life and works out practical solutions using a new environment, new techniques or new equipment. It typically helps develop a child’s skills both at home and at school and can boost a child’s independence and self-confidence.
Equine therapy encompasses a range of activities with horses (not just riding), offering children an emotional connection with horses and helping to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth. It can be particularly effective for children with ADD, ASD, Down’s Syndrome, anxiety or behavioural problems.
Sensory integration therapy uses play activities in ways designed to change how the brain reacts to touch, sound, sight and movement.
Social skills classes can help children struggling to interact with their peers by teaching them how to take turns in a conversation, how to understand what is appropriate behaviour in a social situation and how to recognise non-verbal communication through facial expressions and tone of voice.
Whichever of these you feel is most suitable and you choose, you will also be able to support your child at home. This can begin from the earliest days with an early education programme such as Portage, which breaks down hundreds of skills into categories such as gross motor or fine motor and provides parents with an extensive checklist of tasks to work towards on a daily basis. Once your child reaches primary school, you can make use of online learning support programmes such as Lexia at Home, Mathletics or Jungle Memory. These learning tools can prove invaluable for children with dyslexia, dyscalculia or working memory issues.
Whatever your child’s difficulty, you should always be able to find a parent or professional with experience who can provide support. JUST KEEP LOOKING, LEARNING AND NETWORKING.
ASK All Special Kids (mother of two daughters, one with Down’s Syndrome and one with dyslexia)
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