Relocating abroad when your child has special educational needs
I’ve published several pieces in the past about choosing the right schools abroad, how to help your child prepare for the transition and how to settle in to your new home. For many families this advice is sound but what if you have a child, or children, with additional needs? What extra measures can you take to make sure that every member of your family can cope with the move – including those who need some extra help?
The range of additional needs experienced by children and families is enormous, ranging from mental health complications to difficulties with mobility and medications. Every child is unique and to try to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution would be arrogant beyond belief. Instead I hope that some of these general suggestions might prove helpful.
Do your research
Yes, sorry, that old chestnut again but it’s really vital and this time it’s even more important.
Not all countries have the same provisions for children with extra needs and you need to know what will – and won’t – be provided. You need to find out about various aspects of your child’s life and needs: education, medical, physical, therapies, counselling, and so on.
Other expats are a valuable source of information and you’ll find them all too happy to share their experiences, good and bad! Network, connect and reach out to find what you’re looking for.
Key obstacles you may face:
Not all medications are available or even permitted in some countries. ADHD meds, for example, are illegal in Japan and the UAE have many restrictions on medicines. Even carrying an Epipen can be problematic in other countries. Do your own personal research depending on your situation.
If your child needs a specific type of physical therapy, will your medical insurance cover this? Are facilities even available in your new country, and preferably near your home? How easy is it to get around? It’s quite hard to find this out but do try… Some countries do not have public transport that is wheelchair-friendly. Some countries have a poor infrastructure meaning walking is difficult and dangerous on pavements in a state of disrepair.
Just because a school says it accepts children with special educational needs, it doesn’t mean a) they will, and b) they are able to accommodate your child’s particular needs.
To look at just a few examples is scratching the surface but gives you an idea of the diversity you are facing…
- In South Africa, the provision for SEN support is inconsistent but there is better support available in urban areas than rural ones.
- In Oman and Saudi Arabia there is very little in the way of SEN provision but Dubai is much better. A caution though – the specialist schools there can be difficult to get into.
- Hong Kong is very good, as is The Netherlands, with specialist provisions on hand for a wide range of difficulties including hearing, visual, physical and learning.
- In the UK, France and Germany support is variable; some mainstream schools have dedicated break-out areas for SEN children to access, and there are some dedicated SEN schools with specially trained staff but many schools are lacking in a clear support structure; the system in all of these countries can be difficult to navigate.
You also need to know that International Schools are under no obligation to accept children with additional needs.
Reach out to the schools as soon as possible. I’ve known at least one family who discovered almost too late that although a school promised SEN provision, their child’s place was withdrawn at the last moment. The family cancelled their entire relocation a month before moving.
Once you’ve identified a few options for your child’s education find out who to talk to at the school regarding their special educational needs provision. Share detailed information about your child’s needs and see how they propose to meet them. Find out how their support is delivered; ask how many SEN staff are available and explore their qualifications and experience.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this but don’t settle for second best; keep pushing! The right school will do everything possible to help you with the transition, sending you a welcome pack with pictures of teachers, classrooms, toilets, cloakrooms, playgrounds…everything that will help you to give your child a sense of familiarity.
Breaking the news
Many children can be engaged in your plans by pitching it as a great adventure; something exciting to tell their friends about and a chance to explore the world with you. However, children with additional needs may not be so easily persuaded, so you’ll need to start well in advance and explore the topic a little bit at time.
If you think about it, the concept of moving to a new country contains a lot of different elements and you may find it useful to tackle each one separately:
- Moving to a new house
- Travelling by plane
- Moving to a new school
- Making new friends
- Learning about a different country
Social stories full of bright and engaging pictures can really help as they provide the child with a visual aid rather than just a vague concept. Give your child plenty of time to explore each idea and revisit it daily; make a wall display of each social story and familiarise your child with the characters. Keep it simple and positive.
Get other people involved
Everyone that your child has regular contact with can help you; their teachers, SENCO, classroom assistant, grandparents, aunties and uncles – anyone and everyone! Ask them to help by reinforcing the social stories, by being positive and upbeat about the move and by listening to your child’s concerns and feeding back to you. It may be that your child will tell each person something slightly different, so a collaborative approach is essential.
You can contact the airports too and discuss your child’s needs. Some airports have special waiting areas that are quieter than the main concourse, some have provisions for ‘jumping the queue’ to avoid anxious waits. Some will be happy to host pre-flight visits and most have special provisions for mobility needs. Whether you do this with, or without the support of the airline, visits are essential. Airports are terrifying places and if you rock up on departure day with all your luggage and it’s the first time your child has experienced the bustle and the noise, you will be in for a tough time.
Make as many visits as you can, to see planes land and take off (have your social story with you and talk about your character’s adventure), to visit the airport shops, to explore the concourse and to generally take in the atmosphere. Make sure your child has the right tools each time to facilitate calm. Keep the visits short and focused to avoid overwhelm. Explore one thing at a time and then spend time at home recapping what you saw, drawing pictures and talking about how exciting it was.
Use familiarity to facilitate the unfamiliar
If your child has a favourite cuddly toy, wears ear defenders to visit the supermarket and has a fidget cube to help them concentrate in class, then make sure these things are packed and ready to go – not just on departure day but on all your visits too. There is comfort in familiarity and your child will cope better if those favourite items are easily to hand.
It can be helpful to give other people a visual clue too, not because it’s any of their business, but because it will help them to understand that your child needs space, quiet and extra time. There’s nothing worse when you’re anxious already than some well-meaning passer by staring at you, or even worse, trying to initiate a conversation! A simple t-shirt or badge that helps your child to stand out can prevent a potentially difficult interaction.
There is no right or wrong, only different
What works for one child may well be a disaster for another. As parents of a child with additional needs, you’ll already be used to shouting the odds, planning meticulously and pushing hard to get the best outcomes; well, this is the time to let rip and put all those skills to good use. You know your child best, you know instinctively what they need to make transitions easier and if you leave yourself enough time to plan and prepare you can make your adventure work for all of you.
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Choosing the right school for your child is one of the hardest decisions you’ll make as an expat parent when moving abroad. There are many education options around for expats, and so much depends on your individual family set-up and child that there is no ‘one-school-fits-all’ solution. Each child is different and each country’s school system is different, even within the ‘generic’ international schools. Also, families differ in their requirements and aspirations, and even relocations vary greatly. What worked well for you all in one country won’t necessarily be replicated in your next move.
It’s easy to get very stressed at this point. Don’t panic! I’ve put together this book to help you kick-start your search for the best type of school for your child. Now available on your local Amazon.
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