Most schools in Hong Kong have special educational needs (SEN) students; however, it can be hard for other students to understand what they’re going through. This can lead to misunderstandings between SEN students and their peers.
In hopes of encouraging a happier and more cooperative learning environment, Young Post spoke to Kit Chan Pun Kit-ling, a lecturer from the Division of Learning, Development and Diversity at the University of Hong Kong, about SEN students to get a better understanding of them.
The types of SEN students
There are eight types of SEN students in Hong Kong, according to the Education Bureau. Among these, the most common are those with “specific learning difficulties”, which include dyslexia (reading and writing disorder), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
One of the reasons students with these learning disorders are so common in mainstream schools is because they are just as intelligent as non-SEN students , Chan said. “The idea of including SEN students in mainstream learning environments is so they can benefit from social interactions, learn from their counterparts, and [receive] an education like everybody else,” she added.
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Cause of misunderstandings
Chan said that, ironically, it is because SEN students’ disorders are less “obvious” than disabilities such as visual impairment, that makes them easily misunderstood by their non-SEN peers. A lot of the time, non-SEN students are unaware of another student’s SEN status. “There are no clear guidelines on whether schools should talk about the diagnosis of SEN students,” explained Chan. “Sometimes, schools are not prepared to identify SEN students to avoid confidentiality issues or violating the discrimination ordinance.”
In addition, many SEN parents are hesitant to let schools know that their child has a neurological disorder.
There have been many cases in which teachers have had to discover students’ learning disabilities themselves, Chan said. In some cases, the parents themselves are unaware of their child’s special educational needs.
Sadly, this limited understanding from both parents and students can cause them to “develop a negative impression” of SEN students.
Understanding our SEN counterparts
“It’s important to understand that most SEN students were born with their neurological disorder,” Chan said. “A lot of SEN students’ behaviours that are considered ‘unusual’ come from an impulsivity that they cannot control, not deliberate action.”
Chan said it is important to remember just knowing about SEN students’ diagnoses is not the most important thing. Rather, “it’s to look at how we can actually help [them] with their specific characteristics and learning needs.”
For example, since ASD students have difficulty understanding other people’s feelings and emotions, and are more likely to take a “very strong interest” in specific topics, Chan said they are “more likely to talk about the topic of their interest, rather than be actively involved in the actual focus of discussion.” In this situation, she suggests gently reminding the SEN student to focus on the topic of discussion by asking their opinion about it.
ADHD students, on the other hand, have trouble focusing, and tend to have a lot of energy, and be highly impulsive. Chan suggests supporting them by involving them in group activities. “Let [ADHD students] take up small, but active roles during group discussions,” she said. For example, they could be responsible for collecting opinions in a survey; this way, they can walk around, ask questions, and use up energy.
Finally, Chan said that dyslexic students’ needs are overlooked because they do not exhibit behavioural or social problems – their disorder only affects their reading and writing abilities. It is important to realise that giving them more time to read and write, especially during exams, is a necessary measure to support them.
According to Chan, parents and students complaining about SEN students getting more time for assignments not only hurts their confidence, such complaints may discourage teachers from giving them the time they need.
Think a little deeper
Chan told YP readers to “step back and think a little deeper ... before we judge others’ behaviour”.
“If there is a reason behind [their behaviour], which doesn’t come with a bad intention, then we try to help rather than bully or negatively comment on it,” she said.
Her final message is to “accept that everyone is different”, adding that we should have this attitude towards all of our peers, whether they have SEN or not.