Customised programmes preparing children with different requirements for mainstream education are a stepping stone to a richer learning experience.
Increase in private school acceptance of special needs children
DUBAI// Khalifa Al Ali will be able to join in regular classwork and playtime when he starts school next week, to the relief of his mother.
Khalifa, 5, will be in kindergarten at the Mirdif Private School in Dubai as one of a small number of children with special needs who are being integrated into mainstream schools.
He was diagnosed with autism last year and began a course of behavioural therapy at home to help his behaviour and speech.
For Khalifa's mother, Fouzia Al Hamdan, his going to school will be a big leap - and a relief.
"Not many schools are open to taking children with autism because they have high energy and are often seen as disruptive," Mrs Al Hamdan says.
"Last year I approached many schools and most of them refused to admit him."
Many parents of children with learning disabilities have struck similar problems and some of them are still searching for a school.
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which oversees private education in Dubai, found many schools refused admission to children with special needs.
The authority's report last year said that while most schools claimed to be inclusive, parents of special-needs children were repeatedly rejected while trying to place them in a good school.
Many of the mainstream schools that take such children do not have a well-developed special-needs department or qualified teachers.
For Mrs Al Hamdan, the ray of hope was provided by an inclusion programme at the Mirdiff school set up by Stepping Stones, an intervention centre in Dubai. The scheme began as a pilot this year, placing a few special-needs children in a normal school environment, while ensuring they had support to address their specific needs. This year, the scheme will be expanded to accommodate 40 children.
Khalifa's behaviour made him unfit for school.
With most of them not equipped to deal with special needs, sending him there would probably have set him back further.
"His behaviour was unlike other children," she says. "He would never call me mummy and he would walk around in circles and get disturbed by sounds."
Stepping Stones customises programmes to prepare each child for the mainstream.
"We develop an individualised plan for each child and mark what their strengths are and define the goals they need to achieve," says Berna Bouwer, an education psychologist and inclusion teacher at the centre.
"Our staff work on those areas while adopting the curriculum followed by the school to provide a more inclusive education to the child."
The children are divided into two classes according to age and degree of disability.
For younger pupils, the programme provides more academic support, while for the older children it aims to develop social skills such as making friends and working with others, as well as offering vocational training.
The pupils have six hours of special classes a day and are integrated with others for daily extra-curricular activities.
They are offered speech and occupational therapy, and their parents are given guidance.
This approach has already helped Khalifa.
"I had issues like he would never sit down, and they helped me," says Mrs Al Hamdan. "He has improved a lot."
But the next few days will be crucial as he acclimatises to the new environment.
"I will be working with his therapist to chart out a schedule because we cannot just push him into it," says his mother.
"We will create a routine and I will revise his alphabets and letters with him. He likes to write so I do not think it will be a problem for him at school."
Khalifa will be assisted by a shadow teacher in the classroom until he is fully ready to learn independently.
Not all parents have been so lucky. One mother from Pakistan whose son, aged 2, attends the Child Early Intervention Medical Centre in Dubai, says: "I know I will have a problem finding a school that will accept my son."
Dr Hibah Shata, the managing director of the Child Early Intervention Medical Centre, says many schools find excuses, such as a lack of space or facilities, to turn down special-needs children.
"Many parents e-mailed us with reasons given to them by the school for not accepting their children," Dr Shata says.
But she found some cause for optimism in the KHDA's new inspection guidelines, which place an emphasis on special-needs education and have already led some schools to take the initiative.
"We are trying to work with the authorities to develop a committee to look at how integration can be made possible in schools," Dr Shata says.