Thursday, 3 June 2010

Special needs in mainstream classes

I'm by no means an expert, so I hope I don't offend anyone with my meandering musings.

In some of my classes at both schools I've had some special needs students. Apparently in Japan it's up to the parents as to whether to put these students into regular classes at mainstream schools or not. This year at Kagikou I have one class with a student who has ADHD, and another with a student who I was told was autistic. So far, lessons have gone quite well in both classes. The ADHD boy has difficulty with English, but there are many students who have similar difficulties and aren't said to have special needs. The autistic boy is very friendly and, while he has a tendency to ask questions more than other students and says things that make the others laugh sometimes, he's very bright and is better at English than most of the others in his year.

But things aren't always this harmonious. Two years ago, in the last year before Higashi Kougyou closed, I had another student with autism. This student was not friendly or outgoing like the one in my current class, and he was the repeated object of mockery and bullying by his classmates, at whom he would lash out verbally and physically. Most of the teachers treated him like any other student, and punished him accordingly. I remember one stand-off in the staffroom, where he had been told off repeatedly for playing with his phone during class, and the teacher told him they would be calling his parents. He wailed repeatedly at the teacher, trying to persuade him out of this plan, shouting loud enough for the whole staffroom to hear. The other teachers whispered to each other about how ill-mannered and selfish the boy was. I was quite surprised to hear them talk that way. Before that point I had assumed there was a level of understanding among the teachers about what it means to have a condition like autism, one that was clearly lacking.

Two years later, I'm no longer teaching his class, but I was made to think about the situation when I spotted him on my way out the school gate yesterday. It was lunch time, and most of the students were either in their classrooms or in the cafeteria. He was standing by himself behind the sports clubhouses. I watched as he wandered around a little, grabbed a tree branch, let it go, wandered around a little more. It made me sad to see him so isolated. If it really was his parents' decision to put him through mainstream school, I'm sure this is not what they imagined. It's so understandable to want a normal life for your child, and you would think by letting students have contact with a student with difficulties and vice versa, you would foster an environment of mutual respect and acceptance, but clearly this isn't always the case.

I'm beginning to think that it's not always in the child's best interests for the parents to decide what kind of school to attend. Parents are always going to want the most normal life for their children, and while mainstream education can work out for the best in some cases, in others it leaves special needs students isolated, vulnerable, and unready to challenge the next stage of life. High school is the time when everyone is worried about fitting in. Those who don't are bullied mercilessly. Why would anyone subject a vulnerable person to that?

I don't think special needs children should be excluded from mainstream education. However, I think there should be advice for parents from experts in the field before any decision is made. Moreoever, in cases where a student with special needs is put in a mainstream class, his classmates should be educated about it.

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