The Call for Universal IEPs
Public school service runs deep in my family, with ten of my family members either being teachers or married to teachers. Because of this, I've had the opportunity to see how schools work all over the globe, and one thing I've learned is whether it's in a public, private, or international school, students moving to and from schools is inevitable. I've seen students move across town, across state lines, and around the world. In most cases, the narrative of students' needs is often erased, and the communication necessary for creating smooth transitions sounds more like a busy signal.
Supporting Neurodiverse International Students
These transitions are especially fraught for students in international schools. Many public school systems around the world provide a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to students of all ability levels. International schools, on the other hand, operate similarly to private schools — they can accept and reject whomever they choose. In addition, they are not required to provide special education services and can transition students out of their school if they decide they're no longer a good fit. Unfortunately, this approach leaves neurodiverse students — and their families — in difficult situations.
Organizations like SPAN are researching and implementing transition supports at international schools in an effort to simplify and streamline moves from one school to another. However, these transition supports are focused on students that fall within the general education bubble. To make this research completely comprehensive, neurodiverse students, gifted children, and their families must be kept in mind as well.
A Growing Problem
As the number of globally-mobile families increases, so will the number of students with needs outside the general education bubble. Some international schools have begun to embrace students' unique abilities and needs by developing learning support departments and creating educational opportunities for all students. Yet, these few are a very small number out of the 12,000+ international schools around the world. These schools alone serve over six million students.
If we conservatively estimate that 10% of those students have additional learning needs, we are talking about 600,000 students. These numbers simply cannot be ignored.
Here in Switzerland, a few schools such as the Inter-Community School, International School Basel, and The International School of Geneva provide services to students of varying ability levels. Unfortunately, space is extremely limited and the criteria to be admitted into these programs is rigid. We need to call for additional schools in the international community to admit students of all ability levels and help create meaningful educational outcomes.
So, where do we go from here? To promote the growth of learning support services in the international school community, we need to ensure that schools are not operating on their own islands. Creating system-wide standards for learning support departments and communication between teachers will help establish a solid foundation for the successful inclusion of students with unique educational needs. These goals can be met by completing the following steps:
Step 1: Create a Universal IEP
First, all international schools worldwide must agree upon a single Individual Education Plan (IEP) format. An IEP communicates agreed-upon goals and objectives for a school year, progress monitoring methods and timeframes, and other related services. This would provide a universal format everyone agrees to and understands. It would also ultimately decrease the possibility of losing the student's narrative and wasting time when trying to create programs for students in transition from one school to another.
Let me tell you a story about a client of mine that is just starting her first year of the Diploma Program, or eleventh grade. Let's call this student Ebony. Ebony's father is in the American Foreign Service and has changed posts every two years since Ebony was in preschool. Her family has just made their seventh move to Japan. Ebony is a very strong student academically, but she struggles with anxiety and feeling comfortable once they have reached their new destination. Thankfully, the family has been able to keep her within the International Baccalaureate® (IB) system during these moves, but the transitions are still a long process.
Let's assume that, on average, Ebony needs three months to transition well into a new school and for her teachers to learn how to best meet her needs academically, socially, and emotionally. Seven moves with three months to transition in each move equals twenty-one months lost to transitions! That's two full school years of learning!
Of course, those three months aren't always a complete loss. During each transition, Ebony was still able to continue her academic journey, but not at the same pace or the same level as her peers — at least until her teachers learned her learning style, the strategies that worked best with her, and she and the school counselor were able to make a good connection. At one location, Ebony's parents felt like she never did transition properly into the school environment before it was time to move on to the next post!
Step 2: Decide on a Common Language
As with most things in life, little can be done without effective communication. Setting a common language among learning support professionals in the international schools will help not only those working in the schools but also parents. Often, parents are confused by the different terminology used from school to school and are not sure if potential schools provide appropriate services to meet their child's needs. Deciding on an international learning support language will ease these confusions.
A perfect example of this is when a couple I knew was looking for a program for their son with non-verbal autism. They had a wonderful setup at the school he was attending in Bangkok, where he participated in a program called Intensive Learning Needs. When they moved, the school they were most interested in had a different program called the Life Centered Program, and they worried it wasn't what their son needed. This led them to search for other schools, simply because the terminology didn't match up. In reality, the Life Centered Program was exactly what their son needed, but differing terminology led them astray.
Step 3: Create Global, Accredited Standards of Practice
Teaching standards in public schools are commonplace; though they may vary slightly from location to location, they all help guide teachers in what they should know about content and student development, best practices for student success, and other expectations for professional growth. Standards in international schools for inclusive practices are lacking, leaving unclear expectations and varied experiences for students. Furthermore, the needs of international school students, especially those with additional learning needs, are different from their peers and require a distinct set of skills from their teachers.
Creating standards of teaching practices would ensure all international school teachers have adequate knowledge and experience in categories such as programs and services, safeguarding, and pathways to qualification. These standards should be paired with an accreditation process that encompasses the full school ecosystem to uphold accountability and to be clear to families which schools have shown evidence that they are following the set guidelines.
Step 4: Create an Accredited Secondary Curriculum
Once students reach the age of fourteen, their educational journey begins to focus on the future. Some students in this age group may need a pathway that falls outside of the standard IB, British, or American curriculums provided in most international schools. They would benefit from an accredited curriculum that builds life skills as well as a diploma for employable skills.
The natural outcome of these systemic changes will be more time spent planning for the smooth transition of the neurodivergent. Let's ensure that we include all students in our efforts to create safe passages between international schools.
Are you a parent of a neurodivergent international school student or an administrator ready to take the first step to provide more support? I can help — contact me to get started.
April Remfrey is an internationally recognized inclusion consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. April works with international schools to develop and improve their inclusive practices for better student outcomes and empowered educators. In addition, she helps globally mobile families as they search for the best school for their child.
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