Dear Parents of Hong Kong,
Seeing children succeed is every parent’s dream. Securing and paving that path is every parent’s mission. As a parent myself, I am no different. Seeing my baby grow up – taking her first steps, speaking her first words – gives me tremendous pride in her. And as a parent, I am constantly concerned with her development, whether it is her education or her health.
But often times, we are all reminded of the fact that the world is not perfect and neither is life. When we find children having “learning differences” or see them falling behind other children, we can only imagine how difficult it must be for their parents. The sleepless nights and the endless worrying are only part of their pain.
Students with “learning differences” is not a academic term.“Learning differences”, in general, refers to students who are unable to perform and benefit optimally in the classroom. The causes include autism, hyperactive disorder, or speech and language disorders. So students who “can’t sit still” or “can’t follow instructions” are often signs and symptoms of “learning differences”.
In a recently released “Pre-school Education for Children with Diverse Needs” study conducted by education specialists and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong – the DAB – 70% of teachers indicated that they have two students with autism, two with hyperactive disorder, and two with speech and language disorder in their schools. Given the numbers reported, children having learning diversities are at around 5% in Hong Kong. The figure is consistent with figures of other countries.
“Early identification, early intervention” is the consensus among education and academic communities around the world to provide for children with diverse needs. But the current special education policy in Hong Kong is divided into two stages: primary school and pre-school. A more comprehensive structure and related assistance are provided for primary schools. For pre-schoolers with special education needs, however, it is up to teachers and parents to discovery these “special needs”, leaving a lot of room for improvement in the area of policy and support with regard to pre-school education.
Though the Social Welfare Department has set up “Special Child Care Centre ” and “Integrated Programme in Kindergarten-cum-Child Care Centre”, the children are confined to five clearly-defined groups of disabled young children who are either mentally disabled, physically disabled, auditorily impaired, visually impaired, or autistic. Also, confirmed assessments from the Child Assessment Service of the Department of Health are required if they can be admitted to these centres. Those children who are outside of this scheme but have diverse learning needs are not included in the government subsidy’s coverage. That leaves parents with the need to seek treatment and help from non-profit or private organizations, where the charges can be very expensive in general.
The current system has major deficiencies:
Parents must first take their children voluntarily to the assessment centres. But once parents have taken the initiative, the “waiting period” is, on average, one year, which means the special needs are not attended to for another year. One year in a child’s development is significant and leaving children with diverse needs in the waiting lines for one year can be detrimental. Once the children can be assessed, the assessment period is limited to the children’s situation at the time of the assessment, or at best, for a short period. Long term assessment, which is essential to shed light on the children’s progress, is unavailable.
Our study shows that teachers find public policy on pre-school children with diverse needs is far from sufficient. This includes the lack of school policies, facilities, special education training for teachers and curriculum. All in all, support for pre-school children with diverse needs is basically non-existent.
However, overseas experiences have shown that “early identification” and “early intervention” are critical and have proven to have positive effects on children with diverse needs, and thereby reducing the future difficulties of these children if intervention has taken place at pre-school stage. Britain, the United States and Taiwan have incorporated pre-school children with special needs into their education systems systematically and provided comprehensive support and guidance, by way of legislation, resources, teacher training and culture-building in schools.
The government must begin here in Hong Kong by lowering the age limit for children with diverse needs to three years of age, so that a complete support policy can be integrated into the education system. This will allow teachers to properly identify and interfere at an early stage, so that these children’s right to learn is no longer further impeded by insufficient education policies.
Kowloon West Legislator