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Schooling the Learning-Disabled Child Abroad

By: Sally L. Smith

"The teachers are telling me he's lazy and won't try hard enough. They say we have spoiled him in America."

"There was no way he could exist in any school in Burma so I had to home-school him."

"My hyperactive twins were kicked out of play group in Tanzania at age three for being 'too immature.'"

"My husband couldn't leave his station in Africa so I alone had to take my two children under three years of age to London for a week of testing."

- comments of American parents who have lived abroad with learning-disabled children

Sally L. Smith

For parents of children with severe learning disabilities, dyslexia, problems with their own language and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), moving abroad causes great difficulties but can, at times, also bring unexpected gifts. Families have to assess what their child's strengths are as well as areas of weakness - usually well ahead of when they would need to acquire that knowledge in the States. Frequently they unite behind this child and find ways for him or her to succeed in some activities, be it in the arts, physical activities or in some area of the new culture. Diversity can be an attribute, not just a nuisance. Still, the tribulations of parents overseas should not be underestimated.

To begin with, 85 percent of the children with learning disabilities and ADHD also have problems in speaking, reading and writing their own language. Therefore language abroad causes problems for them, because the intonations and pronunciations, even in English, can be so different..

Coping with change is a big problem for children with these difficulties. They are fragile and respond adversely to different settings, to surprises, to sudden changes in plans. They crave familiarity and sameness because they suffer from a neurophysiological-based disorder, and have a fragile sense of order and organization.

Learning disabilities and ADHD are intrinsic to the individual. Parents and teachers can't cause them but they can make the condition worse or better. The problem lies in the neurology of the brain. It's as if the switchboard of the brain interferes and short-circuits some of the information coming in, or as it's getting organized, and interferes with some of the information coming out. These youngsters are easily confused and overwhelmed.

Many of these children are impulsive and hyperactive. This causes embarrassing situations overseas if they blurt out what they have heard at home. When a diplomat and his wife were discussing another diplomat who was coming to dinner at their house that night who they felt was a hypocrite, their son asked one of the guests if he were "the hypocrite." On the other hand, this same impulsive hyperactive child was greatly beloved by all the neighbors because he was always talking to them, bringing them flowers he picked from their yards and introducing them to each other.

Yes, there's a naivete and freshness about these youngsters. Frequently they behave younger than their years and do better playing with children younger than themselves. The international community overseas is often more protective of these children than we are here in America.

For the children who have been diagnosed before the family moves abroad, every record, every letter explaining how this child learns, is golden. The school, if it understands or is willing to understand learning disabilities, can help the youngster better with detailed information.

The State Department and the Department of Defense have personnel in Washington prepared to guide families to proper help. They know the independent international schools in each country and which ones are prepared to help children with special needs. The State Department's Office of Overseas Schools is an important resource. Also, State or DOD personnel can point a family toward new schools being formed, which usually have very small classes – always helpful to special needs children.

The Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS) are found primarily in Europe, Kola, Okinawa and Panama and have some excellent special. education programs. They are generally open to children of parents from other U.S. agencies. But there are countries where they have nothing.

There are some youngsters who need to attend special needs boarding schools in the U.S. or U.K., but most parents don't take advantage of these facilities until the children are of high school age.

Some parents have had to resort to home schooling and then they find afternoon recreation activities their child can join. In some cases, the State Department cooperates with a school, like my own Lab School of Washington, where a child may come for a six-week intensive summer program plus occupational therapy, speech language therapy and special social skills training. Then the school writes up a program accompanied by the necessary materials for the tutors and parents to follow.

In most cases, the child thrives abroad by remaining a part of the family rather than being sent away to boarding school (though sometimes this is just what the child needs). Overseas, the child may pick up special interests and expertise in animal life, plants, art, music, photography, or shadow puppets, to name just a few.

One student, whose family moved to Latin America, had miserable school experiences, but returned to this country with incredible knowledge of geography, environmental conditions and the rain forest, and had learned to make primitive musical instruments. Another student returned with great skills in mountain climbing and kayaking. A severely leaning-disabled youngster who had been living in a Francophone African country for several years returned with an art portfolio that was so outstanding it helped him get accepted by a college that had an excellent art program and strong learning-disabled services.

Living abroad, particularly in less developed countries, can be exceedingly difficult, particularly when people there have no knowledge of learning disabilities, language problems and ADHD. Parents receive no help with diagnosis of problems or treatment strategies. However, many Foreign Service people comment on how "child-centered" these cultures are and what wonderful help the caregivers they employ give to their children, especially to those with special needs. However, the major burden of living abroad falls on the parents, most often the mother. Parents must:

  • educate themselves to understand fully the nature of learning disabilities, language problems and ADHD in order to become strong advocates for their child;
  • must coordinate everything from doctors talking to each other, to educators sharing reports with tutors, to specialists sharing information with baby sitters;
  • must attempt to satisfy the special needs of this child while not losing track of the other children;
  • must keep their marriage alive, despite the stress and anguish caused by the special-needs child;
  • must become to some extent teacher, recreation worker, coach, guide, cheerleader and friend for the child;
  • must become an investigator to find appropriate schools and existing programs; and
  • must become an extraordinarily gifted problem solver.
  • But look at the positive side: Children with learning disabilities build character. They train parents so well that after they make progress, parents find they can create and manage large institutions with ease. They can run anything!

About the author

Sally Smith is a professor at American University in charge of the Graduate Program in Special Education/Learning Disabilities. She is the author of No Easy Answers: The Learning Disabled Child at Home and at School (Bantam).

From the Foreign Service Journal - December 1998