Insufficient training for teachers in how to handle special needs children is setting back efforts to integrate them into mainstream schools.
Research finds pupil integration flaw
ABU DHABI // Efforts to integrate special needs pupils into mainstream schools are being hampered by teachers who in many cases have little idea of how to deal with them, a researcher in Al Ain has found.
Since 2006, 173 children with "moderate to slight" disabilities have been moved into mainstream classes in government schools.
Such integration is the "preferred model" for the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which has put specialised teams in place to help with the pupils' transition from special care centres.
According to Adam Hughes, the head of disability education at Adec, they have "all been very well accepted".
Adec has been working with special care centres, including the Zayed Higher Organisation (ZHO), to train teachers to accommodate special needs students in their classrooms. It also prepares parents and other pupils for their new classmates.
"We ensure and put in every effort to support our schools to help each person succeed," Mr Hughes said.
Kathleen Austin, a special needs adviser at ZHO, said teachers were given six weeks of training before their summer holidays, and children had six weeks of "circle time", where pupils would sit in circles with their teachers and special needs specialists to discuss the inclusion process.
Despite this, a study by Rafik al Zainobi at Abu Dhabi University found that while schools in Al Ain had "sufficient material resources", they lacked "properly trained" staff. The research was conducted earlier this year and last year.
Many teachers were still "not aware of the inclusion method and what it entails". This, warned Mr al Zainobi, could have negative effects on the newly enrolled special needs students.
"There is a need for more professional teachers with experience," he said. "Most teachers in Al Ain don't have educational background or experience [in this area]. We need to focus on the teachers.
"We need to rethink the structure and curriculum - they need more help in the classroom, they need a new design."
Bridin Harnett, a guidance councillor at Al Nahda School in Abu Dhabi, suggested that classes that included special needs students should be smaller.
Silvia Norton, the British mother of an eight-year-old boy with learning difficulties in Dubai, and formerly a teacher in Dubai, said Adec was expecting too much from teachers.
"Teachers are not miracle workers," she said. "No matter how well trained and experienced teachers are, such expectations are fantasies at best, not just too optimistic.
"Children with special needs need specialised expertise to deal with a mainstream classroom. In the UAE, you are faced with the difficulty, and often impossibility, of finding such expertise and skill."