BESSA In-Session: Sheridan Steen on How Boarding Schools Cater for Special Needs - BESSA
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BESSA In-Session: Sheridan Steen on How Boarding Schools Cater for Special Needs

Sheridan Steen, Founder & Director of Dyslexia School Search (DSS), shares with us her journey as a parent of a dyslexic child and how British schools can help provide a strong foundation for a SEN child.

Today’s companies such as Google, Apple and other technology giants deliberately look to recruit dyslexics and students on the spectrum, recognising that their ‘Out of the Box’ thinking leads to extraordinary innovation.  Famous leaders such as Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Virgin boss, Richard Branson are known to be dyslexics.  With huge advancement in research and approaches to special educational needs, our children can be supported far more than their genius ancestors – Leonardo di Vinci, Albert Einstein and Mozart.

Although awareness of dyslexia, dyspraxia and other special educational needs (SEN) has improved immeasurably, figures show that only 2 million out of an estimated 40 million American adults with dyslexia know about their condition and seek help.  In Asia, we unfortunately see less effort in catering to children with SEN.  Furthermore, a good proportion of those children go undiagnosed and girls, in particular, are often overlooked when it comes to the diagnosis of ADD.

For Steen, a mother of three, setting up DSS was not just another business opportunity. Having experienced first-hand the pain, frustration and loneliness of being a parent of a bright child who received little support from the teaching world, Steen advises with passion and advocacy, determined to provide parents with access to proper SEN education systems.

Steen is quick to point out the difference between SEN and disability.  Examples of SEN include speech, language and communication needs and refers to a child who finds it hard to learn, thus requiring additional learning support.  Children with SEN do not necessarily have a disability, and vice versa: a child who is profoundly deaf or blind may not have special educational needs.  Many SEN children also have incredibly ‘spiky’’ profiles.  It is not unusual to see them placed at the top 5% of their age group when it comes to verbal comprehension and fluid reasoning, but with extremely low processing speeds.  This can lead to huge frustration both for the child and the parents and teachers.

The UK is a world leader when it comes to teaching children with SEN.  However, it was no easy feat when it came to finding the right school for Steen’s dyslexic daughter.  “I was determined that my daughter should not attend a special school as she is a very talented sportswoman and it is via her sports that she is able to gain confidence and self-worth.  The level of sports exposure would not be possible in a small specialist school”. Steen’s journey made her realise that there are some amazing schools in the UK offering very good learning support and she is now able to share her knowledge and increasing expertise with families who want to help their children achieve success.

Steen advises parents to consider factors such as academic and extracurricular preferences and the parents’ work and living situation.  Boarding school can have its benefits by offering a child consistency in education and mentor support, independence in living, learning to be a team player and a diverse friendship.  It is important for a child with SEN to have the support from the same teacher throughout the term of their education.  British boarding schools are also well known for their first class sports, music, art and drama programs, all of which are areas that most dyslexic and children on the autism spectrum thrive in.  Students in private boarding schools tend to have smaller class sizes and qualified specialist teachers, so “the academic and social outlook for children who attend schools in the UK is certainly more likely to bring success as compared to always lingering at the bottom of a massive class and having your self-confidence exhausted”.  Steen elaborates that she always communicates closely with the school to ensure each child’s different needs are addressed.  These can range from necessary interventions being put in place (extra time in exams) to discussing a reduced timetable for the student.

Parents often approach Steen when they realise their child is experiencing problems at school or a teacher has highlighted an issue.  The first thing to do is to see a reputable educational psychologist, either in the UK or in their home country, who can assess the child and report.  Although there are many options for a diagnostic report these days, reports from the likes of an online source can be of poor quality and not sufficiently extensive. Along with the child’s psychology report and any other reports (eg. Speech & Language, Occupational Therapy or school reports), Steen asks parents for a very honest account of their child’s profile, likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses.  She uses all this information to then advise parents which are appropriate schools that matches the child’s profile and personality.

In a final word about how parents can support their children with SEN, Steen recognises that it is difficult not to show disappointment when a child fails to grasp what you see as an easy problem.  Her advice is to look for what the child is good at and follow those routes; be consistent with study and use all the assistive technologies that are now available. Her two mantras are: “Patience is Key” and “Confidence is King”!

Come and meet Sheridan Steen in person at BESSA Malaysia and Singapore on 25thand 27thOctober 2018