Students with special educational needs (SEN) have been integrating into mainstream classrooms in Hong Kong for well over a decade. However, many mainstream schools remain poorly equipped to cater to the learning profiles of many SEN students. This is despite a general academic consensus across the world that mainstream integration for mild to moderate SEN students leads to better long-term personal and professional outcomes.
While 60 specialist schools well versed in dealing with the challenges of a SEN cohort serve some 8,000 SEN students in Hong Kong, thousands more SEN children are accepted into mainstream classes. However, without adequate resourcing of qualified staff and specialist transition programmes in both government and private schools, the experience for many SEN students can be far from ideal.
“There is a myth or ‘wishful’ thinking that if a [SEN] student is placed in an inclusive setting, desirable and meaningful changes will naturally occur,” says Kathleen Man, school principal of the Aoi Pui School, a specialist campus for students with autism spectrum disorders. “[There is also the myth] that the student’s behaviour and responses will conform to social norms, students will readily acquire communication and social skills, while their cognitive and academic skills will develop through exposure.
“To be more effective learners in a group, [SEN] students who move to a mainstream classroom need a systematic plan of teaching. Sadly, there is an unrealistic expectation on the school and the classroom teacher to be able to provide this resource when the classroom is built to facilitate 30 students, most of whom are socially built to learn through exposure and experience,” stresses Ms Man.
Like other educators in the SEN field, Ms Man recognised trends among the 33 students who left Aoi Pui School to transition into mainstream settings.
The students that have left Aoi Pui School and returned to mainstream education share few common threads in their profiles. Firstly, they did not have a long-term plan to stay at the school. Programming wise, there was a much stronger emphasis on emotional regulation and social skills training, and application of general knowledge, as well as reasoning skills and abilities. Students ready for transition to mainstream education also tended to be more socially motivated.
Pamela Kwok, primary teacher and school leadership representative at Korean International School (KIS), has also witnessed successful transitioning of SEN students to mainstream curricula. “This has happened many times at our school. We currently have students that have come through the SEN programme (Springboard) and are now independently accessing the KIS high school curriculum and will be sitting the IGCSE and A Level exams. In the initial phase of integration, the support of an assistant teacher is usually required. There needs to be a structured plan on how this support will be faded out, so the students will gradually be able to join these lessons independently.”
Emily Kwan, clinical director and behaviour analyst at Kids Connect, advocates clear and comprehensive planning once the decision has been made to transition.
“Transitions are always tough, no matter who it is happening to. The process of transition for SEN students into mainstream classrooms is a precarious balance of strategy, planning and communication. It is always on my mind how to prepare our students in the best possible manner to succeed in the mainstream classroom. I strongly believe there are many benefits that mild to moderate SEN students can gain from an integrated setting, and there are many contributing factors to their successful integration.”
Ms Kwan is sceptical about recent Education Bureau (EDB) data suggesting some 85% of international schools in Hong Kong are able to accommodate SEN students in mainstream settings.
“With such a positive outlook, we are almost led to believe that laws and regulations exist to fulfil these responsibilities, as well as legally mandated educational requirements for those school personnel who support children with SEN in the classrooms. In reality, however, most parents of this population struggle to find a school to offer a placement for their child. Also, relevant information does not seem to be readily available or accessible by the parents.
“In the case that a family is fortunate enough to find such a placement, as anyone can imagine, transitioning into a mainstream classroom can be reasonably overwhelming. The transition often means entering a bigger school with bigger classrooms and more students per class, many new faces, more teachers to know, new school routines and rules, more complex social systems; not to mention the increasing academic demands and expectations.”
Yet, despite the challenges, Ms Kwan is unashamedly upbeat about the potential for SEN students to transition into mainstream schools, and the positive influence it can bring to a school community.
“On the other side of the coin, integrated settings provide ample opportunities for observation learning in group settings – it is best to learn to swim when you are in the water – and there are steps that can be taken to facilitate a smooth transition into the integrated setting and for mild to moderate SEN students to continuously thrive. And who says an integrated setting only benefits the SEN students? SEN students often bring a unique component to a classroom and enrich the classroom dynamic. This can turn out to be incredibly beneficial to the rest of the students!”