Teachers want more support for special needs students


Teachers want more support for special needs students

Senior staff reporter

Friday, February 28, 2020

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TEACHERS are clamouring for more support for special needs students and those who educate them. The problem, they say, is especially noticeable at the secondary level which does not effectively cater to the needs of these children and offers inadequate support for teachers.

“Sometimes I'm just watching the clock; not because I don't care but because I can tell they're not learning and the support I need is just not there,” said one teacher who asked not to be identified by name. She said she does her best to meaningfully engage a group of grade seven special needs students, some of whom are unable to recognise letters of the alphabet.

She was one of two teachers from secondary schools in St Catherine who told the Jamaica Observer that the education being provided to special needs children is nothing but a “pretence” given the myriad challenges they face in the school environment as a whole.

President of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) Owen Speid agree that there is a problem. He estimates that more than a fifth of students need specialised care.

“I would say more than 20 per cent of our children who are in the mainstream of the public education system should really be at some specialised institution... [Teaching them] is a difficult task, especially when some teachers have over 30 children [in a class]. Some of those children are slow learners, but in addition there are also children with maladaptive behaviours,” he explained in an interview with the Jamaica Observer.

“The secondary school system doesn't cater to the needs of these children, in the strictest sense. For one, we don't have [an] adequate number of teachers and we don't have specialist teachers to work with these children. Also, we don't have the physical space so that you can take them aside and treat with them,” he added.

Speid also stressed that the challenge is amplified for both educators and students at the secondary level, noting that administrators such as vice-principals and guidance counsellors have to leave their substantive roles in order to supervise some classes. The migration of specialist teachers has also contributed to the problem, he maintained.

“Many, many of them have gone. The Government needs to do something,” said Speid.

The education ministry concedes that there is a shortage of special education teachers but says it has tried to address this deficit through various initiatives such as scholarships for pre-service teachers who are pursuing special education, and also the upskilling of in-service teachers.

The mninistry says that over the past five years general support for these students, particularly at the secondary level, has been beefed up.

The JTA head acknowledged the attempt to address some of the issues through the Alternative Pathways to Secondary Education (APSE), which provides resources for secondary schools to engage trained special education teachers as support coaches. There are currently almost 200 APSE coaches engaged at the secondary level, according to the ministry.

But Speid insists that while this is well-intended, the initiative has been all but neutralised by the extent of the shortage. “Many schools don't even bother with the pathway segmenting of the children, so that is not even working,” he argued.

He added there are numerous students in need of special attention but far too many are not diagnosed in the early stages.

“There is too little assessment being done, and [I am also concerned about] the length of time it takes to have children assessed. There are very few facilities across the island to even provide that service of assessment. And then by the time some of them are assessed, they have passed through the primary school system,” he lamented.

“I commend the ministry for putting in additional resources to deal with assessment, but it is just not enough, and some of them still fall through the cracks without being assessed. But based on our knowledge we know [when a child has special needs] based on the learning pattern,” he said.

Speid is also concerned that even where assessments are done, there is a gap in follow-up.

The ministry pointed to facilities which it now uses, such as Mico Care, which is the main location for assessment of students, along with others at Churches and Sam Sharpe teachers' colleges. It said construction has started for another centre at the College of Agriculture, Science and Education in Portland.

The ministry said it also engages the services of the University of the West Indies on a yearly basis to conduct assessment of over 5,000 students on Pathways two and three. It said these reports are provided to schools each year to enable teachers to design programmes to support these students.

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