SCHOOLS must accept all special needs students and prepare an individual education plan for every child under the Education Ministry’s “zero reject” policy, which has been made compulsory starting this year.
The ‘zero reject’ policy is to ensure that all special needs students have access to education, the ministry said in a circular issued on Dec 26, 2018, while Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik previously said that it is also an effort to prevent dropouts among students with disabilities.
While the ministry is working towards a more inclusive environment for special needs students, what are the types of training given to its teachers to identify cases of developmental delay, at a preliminary stage, and refer them to medical practitioners?
Education Ministry Special Education Division deputy director Datuk Dr Yasmin Hussain explained that teachers are trained on how to screen and identify in terms of the child’s learning abilities, behaviour and emotion, among others.
Types of developmental delay include cognitive delays, motor delays, speech delays and social, emotional and behavioural delays.
“In institutes of teacher education (IPG), they are exposed to early childhood education in the curriculum; they are also taught how to conduct intervention for children with disabilities.
“It’s a three credit subject, 45 hours per semester,” she shared.
Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin suggested, during a parliament session last year, to train preschool teachers to screen special needs children and refer them to experts for subsequent diagnosis and intervention.
In response, Dr Maszlee said the ministry has been training teachers, including preschool teachers, through a programme called Continuous Professionalism Enhancement Programme for Teachers.
Explaining further on a Facebook post, Dr Maszlee said he has instructed the ministry’s special education division to hold open courses for preschool teachers outside the ministry’s administration.
“We have also worked with the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, and the Health Ministry to set up a Baby and Child Development Checklist to conduct screening for children,” he added.
There are multiple tools the ministry has, Dr Yasmin shared, which teachers use to screen pupils and students.
To keep up with new developments, the ministry reviews these tools regularly.
“The Instrumen Senarai Semak Perkembangan Kanak-Kanak, for example, is an instrument used by preschool teachers to screen children aged up to six years-old, to check on the child’s development.
“They will then refer the results to medical practitioners or doctors (if they have detected a sign of developmental delay).
“Other instruments that we have are ‘Instrumen Pengesanan Murid Masalah Dalam Pembelajaran’ and ‘Instrumen Senarai Semak Disleksia’; the latter screens children with dyslexia.”
The ministry also has a centre called Pusat Perkhidmatan Pendidikan Khas (special education service centres).
There are 13 throughout the country with 28 medical practitioners, five of which are psychologists, said Dr Yasmin.
“Either parents refer their children to the practitioners in our centres, or they will go to schools to identify pupils and students (with possible forms of developmental delay).
“They are also often invited by schools to give talks and training,” she added.
In 2017, the ministry trained 210 teachers, she said, while last year, 52 were trained.
The training sessions are conducted around four times a year, between two to three days.
“Teachers have said that it isn’t enough.
“We try to have as many as we can in a year but we can’t take them away from school for too many days; other teachers will have to replace their classes and (this is tough), especially for special education teachers,” she said, adding that only about 30 teachers can be trained in each session.
However, plans to train more teachers this year are on the cards, she said, involving about 200 preschool teachers.
Dr Yasmin said the ministry has discussed with the Health Ministry, as well as the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and Permata Kurnia, an NGO which provides education for autistic children, on how to best utilise the tools they currently have.
Increasing awareness among parents
While tools and training for teachers to identify, screen and teach students with learning disabilities and developmental delay are provided, parents play an equally important role in accepting their child’s condition.
To push for this, Dr Yasmin’s division conducted a town hall last year where teachers and communities were present.
This year, she said plans to conduct a convention on special education with NGOs are in the pipeline.
Commenting on scenarios where parents deny their children’s condition, Dr Yasmin said some request special services for their child in schools but will not register to receive the Disabled People’s (OKU) card for the child.
“Some do not want their kids to be classified as OKU, although, off late, more parents have been accepting reality.
Often, parents of specially abled children want their kids to be in mainstream classes in schools.
When this happens, Dr Yasmin said schools will not be able to provide special services that special needs students normally receive.
“In terms of providing material with enlarged prints and giving them more time during exams to answer.
“Problems also arise for mainstream classroom teachers - unless this special needs student has been in our integrated programmes where we teach them how to manage their behaviour and learning methods, and they then show us that they are able to (integrate) with their mainstream classroom peers, then it would be easier for teachers to manage,” she shared.
Last year, Dr Yasmin said the ministry trained around 220 teachers in the integrated programmes.
Previously, training were more general so this year, Dr Yasmin said they plan to have it in more focused and specific areas such as autism, Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Often, she said, parents have voiced their concerns over wanting teaching and learning to be more specific.
“We have spoken to different NGOs including Dyslexia Association of Malaysia and Malaysia Federation of the Deaf to be part of the training because they (are the experts).”
Going the distance
Although the curriculum in IPGs are credible and comprehensive, Dr Yasmin said teachers “must learn more on their own initiative after graduating”.
“They must not think what they have learnt in college is enough, as there are new developments within the area every year.”
National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Harry Tan agreed, saying as professionals, teachers must consistently undergo continuous professional development.
“This is paramount for us to teach using the latest methods and understand the developing needs of our students.
“As there are various kinds of special needs, it is up to the teachers themselves to further improve on the basics they have been taught so as to cater to the Zero Reject Policy,” he said.
Tan said teachers also need to have counselling skills, in assisting parents of special needs children.
Special education teacher Dr Muhamad Khairul Anuar Hussin said relying on the basics one learnt in college isn’t enough as under learning disabilities alone, there are more than six categories.
The SMK Taman Universiti 2, Johor Baru teacher often attends international conferences, reads up on latest research in the area and learns from his specialist friends.
Malaysia Mental Health Association president Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj said teachers must be able to detect cases using multi sensory screening material.
“Don’t just focus on behaviour or academic performance.
“In our current culture of being focused on the completion of the curriculum, it leaves little room for personalised and meaningful student-teacher relationships and therefore makes detection and subsequent referral of cases rather challenging and often overlooked.
“Teachers being given adequate training will help in early detection and result in better outcomes for any intervention,” he explained.
While several training modules are used internationally for preschool teachers to detect developmental delay and psychological issues in children, Dr Andrew said the Montessori Multi Sensory Screening System has been a more successful model.
“It’s a teaching system that focuses on all the sensory modalities but in the process, picks up developmental delays and other underlying psychological and psychiatric issues.
“It cannot however be used as a diagnostic tool and only as a screening tool to pick up doubtful cases for referral,” he shared.
As of Oct 31, 2018, the country has 83,598 special needs students registered at 34 special education schools - 2,343 schools with Special Needs Integration Programme and 6,202 schools with Inclusive Education Programme, according to Dr Yasmin.