Special needs schooling in Dubai

Finding the right school is a headache for every parent, but it’s made doubly difficult if your child has special needs

The Knowledge
The Knowledge

Discovering your child has special needs is tough anywhere, but particularly in the UAE, where there is little official support or understanding. Expat families often come from countries where a full range of services are available. Arriving in Dubai, they find themselves frustrated, disappointed and with nowhere to turn.

‘I just assumed that, in a booming city like this, I would be able to find a good school for my son, who has autism,’ says Enid Bachman, who moved to Dubai from Canada two years ago. ‘While we had Jared in a regular Grade Two class back home, we found that none of the private schools here seemed able to offer anything similar. In fact, many of the admissions staff would tell me there were schools here for “children like mine” and that they couldn’t have him because he would distract other children. I felt so angry hearing these kinds of comments because Jared is a quiet kid and doesn’t have a behaviour problem at all.

‘He was used to the routines of a regular class, so I panicked when I thought that he wouldn’t be able to go to school – that he would have to sit at home with me every day, like he was shunned from society. It actually made us think that Dubai wasn’t going to be the place for our family.’

Enid’s situation is not uncommon. While some schools are open to including children with disabilities, most will say they lack the services or trained staff. However, the situation is improving. Francesca McGeary, a UAE-based educational consultant with Phoenix Consulting says, ‘Three or four years ago you didn’t see many children with special needs around the community. Now, more and more, you can find schools beginning to accept these students, which then helps to raise awareness.’

Things to consider...

While the situation in Dubai is fast improving for special-needs children, parents should still consider the following points:

Provide assessments to the school
Any psychological reports or assessments related to your child’s disability should be presented upfront. Resist the urge to hold back information – you want to see how the school reacts.

Be ready to provide a shadow teacher
Shadow teachers usually work one-on-one with a child within a mainstream class, helping the child follow lessons and learn at their level. Many schools only accept children with special needs if parents pay for a shadow teacher (costing Dhs3,000-5,000 per month). Some schools hire shadow teachers themselves, while others prefer the parent find someone they like.

Ask for an individualised programme
Once the child is enrolled, they should be working at the grade the teacher is delivering to the whole class. If that is too advanced, ask for an individual programme based on their current ability. Teachers may develop an individualised education programme (IEP), which sets three to five targets for the child to reach within a specified time.

Inclusion is not for everyone
Some children with disabilities have very complex needs that require highly trained staff. This type of programme would not be available in a mainstream school here, but centre-based programmes do exist.

Get support from others
Finding resources and support is often half the battle. This can be found in friends and family as well as in community clinics and parent groups.

Keep open communication with the school
Parents know their child best and can help staff understand what works and what can be challenging. Be supportive, but also give the school room to discover the child and their needs using their style and approaches.
Thanks to Alison Scholfield, of Dubai Education Oasis (www.education-dubai.com).

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