Strategies for children with special needs
Her recent academic accomplishment was an action enquiry, which means a hands-on approach to change and learning. Her study focused on Inclusive Education for SEN (Special Educational Needs) children that attend main-stream schools in Yemen.
“The study process was challenging as you are constantly measuring the current best practices in IE (inclusive education) for SEN in more advanced countries and comparing it to a more fledgling practice in Yemen,” she explained about her thesis.
The neighbors were shocked when they saw the coffin of a teenage girl they never knew carried on the shoulders of the girl’s male relatives.
Now that she is dead the family admitted that they had a disabled daughter amongst them whom they hid from the world. She had lived for nearly 18 years locked up inside the house never seeing the outside world.
“Many Yemeni families feel ashamed to have disabled children so they decide to ignore them and pretend they are not there,” said Diena Murshed.
Many Yemeni families shy away from disability thinking that having a disabled child would make others refuse to marry into the family. In some instances, families refer their children whom may be suffering from seizures to ‘spiritual doctors’ even before a medical doctor and thus often go without the required medication for sometime while under treatment by the ‘spiritual doctor’.
Due to social stigma, the figures of how many Yemenis suffer from educational disability are not clear. However, international standards state that there is at least 10 percent disability in any country. Moreover, the Yemeni Ministry of Education reported in 2010 that at least 25 percent of Yemeni students suffer from dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
Today, there are over 200 inclusive education schools in the country that provide for SEN children.
“Although this is a great start, Yemen will not reach its Millennium Development Goal in education for all obligations before 2015,” explained Murshed.
Moving towards full inclusive education has been a slow process as this concept was introduced officially in 1998 through technical assistance provided to the education ministry by Save the Children.
An Inclusive Education department with a dedicated team has been established within the ministry, however, its internal structure and by-laws still need to be approved to receive funding, according to Murshed.
“My concern is that if the department does not receive sufficient financial resources its sustainability and scalability will be in doubt,” she said. “I am also concerned that many families are unaware of the opportunities that exist from the inclusive education policies in place which really suggest the needs to communicate this in Yemen.”
Diena Murshed believes that some educational professionals and donors in Yemen may say SEN education is a luxury and the Yemeni educators should focus on education for the majority of children who are not SEN.
“This thinking is not inclusive, so to overcome these issues is a challenge,” she said. “My study helped to explore these issues as well as others towards developing simple class strategies for more inclusive education and the key strategies that I have experimented with.”
Some of those strategies include, peer tutoring to support SEN children through support provided by ‘class peers’, parent Involvement which focuses on providing parents with basic reading building skills to help their children at home, and structured reading sessions which focus on assisting resource room teachers (SEN teachers) on structuring classes for reading.
The third strategy was the basis of her thesis in which she believed a more structured approach to SEN teaching in resource rooms, which were typically unplanned sessions, would improve quality of education resulting in improved reading skills of the children involved.
Structured reading and education quality
One of the main issues Murshed investigated is the link between structured reading and the quality of learning. Her discoveries reveal that when teachers develop skills and are able to plan lessons they become more assured and empowered, or as said by one resource room teacher, “A better sense of mission.”
“This has a rub-off effect on the child who has a better understanding of what the teacher is expecting or targeting so they are better able to respond,” she said.
The practical nature of her study recommends simple strategies that cost very little yet with huge impact. Most donor attention to education has been on infrastructure (i.e. building schools), and government as well as donor indicators have focused on number of classrooms available and the number of teachers.
“I hope to meet with the Education Unit of the Social Fund for Development to present possible areas of intervention for them to invest in that may broaden the kind of practice we are now seeing in my research school to other schools across the country,” she said.
The crux of the issue
With small practical steps, Murshed believes huge differences can be made. As a consequence of her work, her research school is witnessing a paradigm shift in teaching practices. Children with special educational needs were previously referred to the resource room teacher to help them memorize a passage. Now the children are taught, in a structured way, skills for life.
“I have introduced popular children’s literature such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears translated into Arabic by Ladybird into a resource room where children now love to read,” she said. “The children in small groups share stories and discuss what is happening in their stories in an atmosphere of fun and learning.”
She believes that now the seedlings of a reading culture are now in place. Before the reading exercise all children stated their various anxieties towards reading including fear.
Now they all state with full confidence that they love to read. One young girl proudly with a strong air of self-belief states she is now one of the better readers in her regular class.