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Early intervention is the key

by Annette Nelwan 15 Sep 2011
Early intervention is the key

It is not easy for parents to hear that their child has a special educational need (SEN); a ‘catch all’ term used to describe a wide range of learning difficulties ranging from poor short-term  memory to the more severe disorders such as autism. There are a multitude of reasons behind SENs: genetics, physical disability, emotional issues such as stress and anxiety, illness and trauma can all play a role.

Most SENs have early tell tale signs that are normally picked up and diagnosed by the school and help sought. In some instances, parents will have also noticed the signs of slow or laboured learning, but may be unsure of its significance and of how to proceed. 

A child is considered to have a special educational need if they have a learning difficulty that calls for ‘special educational provision’: meaning the school will assess the child’s individual educational needs, perhaps with the assistance of a child psychologist, and with parental input design a tailored educational program that might also involve assistance from external agencies and support centres.

Diagnosing a child with a SEN can be extremely complex as it can be difficult to place a child under a specific SEN category. Quite often, a child will display related needs, which may include two or more areas. For example, a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may also have a moderate learning difficulty—discussed below—and significant emotional needs. A summary of the most prevalent special educational needs, accompanied with tell tale signs follows, falling into four main areas:


Children with behavioural, emotional and social diffi culties can involve a wide scope of abilities and severity. Any number of the symptoms listed below might be displayed, accompanied with or without impulsivity or hyperactivity. A common example is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Signs to look for

  • Difficulties with social interaction 
  • Find it diffi cult to work in a group or cope in unstructured time
  • Poor concentration
  • Temper outbursts and be verbally aggressive to peers and adults
  • Provoke peers and be confrontational or openly defiant
  • Display low self-esteem
  • High levels of impulsivity and hyperactivity


Specific Learning Difficulty

Children with specifi c learning diffi culties have a particular diffi culty in learning to read, write, spell or manipulate numbers so that their performance in these areas is below their performance in other areas. They may also have problems with short-term memory, with organisational skills and with co-ordination.

Signs to look for

  • Have a marked and persistent difficulty in learning to read, write and spell, despite progress in other areas
  • Poor reading comprehension, handwriting and punctuation
  • Difficulties in concentration and organisation and in remembering sequences of words
  • Mispronounce common words or reverse letters and sounds in words (dyslexia)
  • Diffi culty in acquiring mathematical skills and understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers and have problems learning number facts and procedures (dyscalculia)
  • Impairment or immaturity of the organisation of movement, often appearing clumsy 
  • Poor balance and co-ordination and may be hesitant in many actions (running,skipping, hopping, holding a pencil, doing jigsaws, etc.)
  • Poor awareness of body position and poor social skills (dyspraxia) 

 Moderate Learning Difficulty 

Children with moderate learning diffi culties will have attainments signifi cantly below expected levels in most areas of the curriculum, despite appropriate interventions.

Signs to look for

  • Have great diffi culty in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills in comparison to their peers
  • Associated speech and language delay 
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low levels of concentration 
  • Under-developed social skills


Children with speech, language and communication needs may have diffi cultyin understanding and/or making others understand information conveyed through spoken language. Their acquisition of speech and their oral language skills is often signifi cantly behind their peers and their speech may be poor or unintelligible.They may also have a severe stammer.

Signs to look for:

  • Find it hard to understand and/or use words in context
  • Use words incorrectly with inappropriate grammatical patterns 
  • Have reduced vocabulary or find it hard to recall words and express ideas 
  • Hear or see a word but not be able to understand its meaning or have trouble getting others to understand what they are trying to say

Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Autistic spectrum disorder is a relatively new term; it recognises that there are a number of sub-groups within the spectrum of autism.

Signs to look for:

  • Understand and use non-verbal and verbal communication 
  • Understand social behaviour—which effects their ability to interact with children and adults 
  • Think and behave fl exibly—which may be shown in restricted, obsessional or repetitive activities. 

Asperger’s Syndrome

Children with asperger’s syndrome share the same triad of impairments as autism but have higher intellectual abilities. Their language development is also different from the majority of children with autism.


Refers to a range of conditions including visual and hearing impairments, and a number of medical conditions associated with physical disability that can impact on mobility. Children with physical disabilities may also have sensory impairments, neurological problems or learning difficulties. Sensory and physical needs can include conditions such as:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Heart disease
  • Spina bifida
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Muscular dystrophy

School Intervention

In Malaysia, international schools usually have an inclusive policy, which means, as far as possible, children with special educational needs still access the school curriculum and are  fully integrated into classroom in the conventional way. SEN children make progress at varying rates and may have different learning styles. Teachers can accommodate these factors by thoughtful organisation of lessons, classroom, learning materials and teaching resources. They also adapt their teaching style and strategies to match the needs of the child, taking  into consideration the child’s individual strengths and weaknesses. This is commonly  referred to as a ‘differentiated curriculum’.

If a child shows signs and  symptoms of a SEN—parental instincts are key here and should not be ignored—there are a number of steps that can be followed. Parents may well be the first to notice signs  of learning difficulties in their child. Experience in Alice Smith School’s learning support unit has shown that early intervention is crucial: a timely diagnosis will activate appropriate support and  school intervention, paramount for a child’s educational progression.  

A good Starting point is to talk to the class teacher: have they noticed your child has difficulties working at the same level as other children in the class of a similar age? What action the  school takes after this parent teacher discussion depends on the concerns raised and how serious the problem is. But in any event, it is usual for international schools to use something called the ‘code of practice’. This code sets out a graduated approach and recognising that children learn in different ways and can have varying levels of SEN. So, in a stepby-  step fashion, specialist expertise can be brought in to help the school address the difficulties that a child may be experiencing. 

In Alice Smith School the first step in the code is called ‘school action’: meaning the school provides support for the child in the form of small group work or through use of specific teaching aids or equipment. But, if specialist support from outside agencies is necessary, like the use of educational psychologists, behavioural therapists, occupational therapists etc., this level of support is referred to as ‘School Action Plus’.

When a child is at ‘school action’ or ‘school action plus’ level, it is common practice for an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to be written. This details what special help is being provided. An IEP should state how often the child will receive the help, who will provide this help, the targets set for the child, how and when the child’s progress will be checked and what parents can do to support the child at home. Malaysia has several outside agencies and support networks for parents of SEN children. The latter, mostly exists in the form of tuition or private tuition centres. Schools should be able to advise which external agency might best suit a child’s needs.

On a final note to parents: never be afraid to raise concerns if you suspect your child may have a special educational need. After all, parents know their child better than anyone. A child’s early years are a very important time for their physical, emotional, intellectual and social development. Early intervention is the key.

Click here for a complete list of SEN institutions.


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