Inclusion is Easier Said Than Done: Learning Support (SEN) in International Schools

My First Glimpses into International Education

Before I was aware of resources like The International Educator or ISS that help you find a job overseas I took to using a directory of international schools I found somewhere online, went to each school website for countries where I thought I might want to live, found an admin’s email, and started hustling for a job… not even knowing that they likely had a ‘Current Openings’ section!  And sitting in a coffee shop in Long Beach, California one day I received a response from a headmaster that I will never forget.  She said that her school was a college prep school and that either her students don’t have special needs or they dealt with them outside of school.

I was shocked to hear that because I was coming from a background where we support students in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) which means we aim for the fullest inclusion possible and do what it takes to help the students succeed.  But as I continued to look at schools and learn more about international education, I came to realize that even though it was 2011, the international schools were just seemingly beginning to get in on the inclusion movement and the subsequent need for differentiation of curriculum and graduation paths that comes with it.

That year I donned a three-piece suit, went to a job fair, and obtained my first international school Learning Support position.  The school’s secondary program was developing their service delivery model and I was able to jump in and help move things forward.  Same thing at my next school.  And at the school after that (yes, I’m globetrotting!) where the Learning Support essentially stopped once students hit the IB Diploma Program.

That year I donned a three-piece suit, went to a job fair, and obtained my first international school Learning Support position.  The school’s secondary program was developing their service delivery model and I was able to jump in and help move things forward.  Same thing at my next school.  And at the school after that (yes, I’m globetrotting!) where the Learning Support essentially stopped once students hit the IB Diploma Program.

This is a picture of Beckett Haight wearing a grey 3 piece suit with dress shoes, but the arms are cut short, and the pants are cut short. It's crazy.
Fashion not Function!

First Experiences with Learning Support in International Schools

I got there and immediately had students who were technically on my caseload and were struggling in the IB DP with all the writing, the foreign language, some extended essays were way behind deadline, and the history of Learning Support at the school led to people expecting that my push-in and resource support should be focused on 10th grade, 9th and Middle School.  Thus I had to work my way into an IB system that wasn’t always used to working with learning support teachers in the same way that non-IB teachers increasingly are. Here’s a LINK to article I wrote about that: HERE

One aspect of the rigorous IB that I had to contend with is that teachers felt that accommodations and differentiation of the curriculum were a crutch that would inhibit the students from passing the IB world exams.  But with many of the teachers who graciously and energetically gave up their planning times to discuss assessments, projects, concerns, etc. we were able to understand that we could do a million adjustments and supports in order for the students to learn the content and skills, and then when it came to the final high-stakes exams, while the students wouldn’t have most of that support (i.e. lowered reading level or audio of a text in English), they would have learned the skills and the content in order to pass the IB exams.

This is a picture with a quote that says that special education is not a watering down of the content...it's a distillation

Where Inclusion in International Schools is Going

Just in the short time I’ve been teaching abroad it is evident that international schools are quickly moving in the direction of making sure we are supporting students wherever they have needs.  Just because a student is in a college prep school, or has been accepted to be full IB doesn’t mean that we should not expect co-planning between the HL Chemistry teacher and Learning Support (as needed!), or push-in support in the AP Euro class, or collaboration with the TOK teacher to come up with ways to support students with executive functions challenges, or anxiety in the Socratic seminar, or who are struggling with research skills.

With RTI and MTSS steadfastly becoming part of how we approach student differences in our international schools, and with increased rates of special needs such as ADHD and Autism, we need to keep ensuring that we incorporate inclusion best practices and have high expectations for not only the students, but for the Learning Support and general education teachers who work with them.

When I first started my international learning support journey I found that if students weren’t able to keep up with the demands of the school they would be “counseled out” (or not let in in the first place).  And if they were lucky enough to have Learning Support services they still could end up on academic or behavior probation, or would reach a certain milestone at the school like the high school level and then move on to another less challenging school.  But now things are starting to change.  Where I currently work it is an expectation that we are going to do whatever we can to keep a student on our campus.  It is commonly said that we do not want to split families up.  At a previous school I worked at, in Ethiopia, they have steadily been developing a program for students with developmental delays, and in addition, our special needs services in general bring embassy workers to Addis Ababa who have been rejected from other posts (or fear rejection) due to their child’s special needs and schools not being able to support their children.  But ICS Addis will most likely become the norm, not the exception.

This is a picture of Beckett Haight wearing an Autism Awareness shirt outside his classroom in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Repping Autism Awareness in Ethiopia!

Things are changing globally.  And as teachers and schools get more familiar with the best practices of differentiating content, and having multiple graduation paths, and improve the learning support delivery model, we will continue to see more families kept together, more happy students and families, and students that are able to do far better than they did in the days when it was sink or swim. 

Not every student will be successful in full IB.  Not every student will be able to handle the rigor of an AP class.  But it’s our job to make sure that we do everything we can to give our students the opportunity to be successful in the most challenging setting that is appropriate for them.


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