By Fiona Yapp, Clinic Director

Every child learns, develops and thrives in a unique way, and every child depends on the continuous love and support of family, friends and teachers.  Many children also need other forms of professional support along the way, such as learning support or therapy, to ensure that they have the opportunity to reach their full potential.  In countries such as the United States, it is estimated that approximately 15% of children have special or specific needs ranging from mild needs such as speech difficulties and learning needs such as Dyslexia, to more pronounced conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, global developmental delays and genetic disorders.

Finding Support in Shanghai

When additional support is needed, families living in Shanghai might wonder whether such services exist at all, and whether or not they are accessible for their child. The good news is that there is a strong commitment within the Shanghai international community to supporting all of our children, regardless of their level of need. The even better news is that we are overcoming the barriers inherent within a privatized education and therapy sector, and are finding innovative ways to work together to meet every child’s unique needs.

When families are first planning to move to Shanghai, choosing the right school for their child is often their ‘number one’ consideration.  Shanghai has an extraordinary abundance of high-performing schools in the international and local sector, and the real question is which school is the right fit, based on their child’s unique strengths and abilities. For families who are aware that their child has a need for additional professional support, for attention or reading difficulties for example, the process of identifying the right school is layered with extra complexities.  School places are often in demand, and parents often worry about disclosing their child’s needs in fear of losing out on a place at their school of choice. Parents also worry too that their child’s individual needs will not be sufficiently met, given the limited access to specialized services.  Recruiting a team of internationally qualified and trained Specialists with a broad base of languages is not easy, and at The Essential Learning Group it has taken ten years to build a truly multi-lingual, multi-disciplinary child Specialist team able to support the wide range of needs within the Shanghai international community.  For us, a high level of training and qualification is a prerequisite, but so too is the Specialist’s ability to relate to the child and their families, and put their needs first.

Considering All Your Options

Families from outside of China are often most familiar with having therapeutic and learning support services provided by their child’s school, hospital or other public sector organizations, where resources are often scarce and referrals limited.  Parents of children with special needs are often necessarily skilled in negotiation techniques regarding their child’s access to services.

Here in Shanghai and across Greater China, the field of educational support and therapeutic services is emerging, and resides predominantly in the private sector where the dynamics between the family and the provider are quite different.  Here, families have the ability to choose their provider, and make informed decisions regarding the support that their child receives.  This dynamic ensures that there is a continuous drive for organizations to improve service delivery, maintain high professional standards and engage the child and their whole support system in the process. It also ensures that families and schools can opt for early intervention and support, which is clinically proven to yield better outcomes across all therapy and learning support disciplines.  When early intervention is not an option, concerns and difficulties typically heighten, the gap between the struggling child and their peers widens, and the emotional toll on the child and family often becomes unmanageable. Opting to access professional support at an early stage empowers the child and their support network to learn new skills together, find meaningful coping strategies and prevent what can often only be described as a crisis.

Building a Support System

We encourage families searching for the right school or seeking any level of support to start by considering all their options. Support for a child often starts with those closest to them, such as the child’s parents, teachers and ayi, and sometimes those closest to the child need support too. Parents can reach out to teachers for support, and teachers can reach out to parents for support also; open communication and transparency is key. In Shanghai there are also many community groups such as Shanghai Mamas and Parent Teacher Associations, where peer support and advice is readily available. When more specialized professional support is needed, families and teachers can reach out to professionals within hospitals and community service teams to start the process of working together to create a ‘team around the child’.

At The Essential Learning Group we have developed strong partnerships with schools, kindergartens, hospitals and community groups, so that we can offer seamless, sustainable and coordinated services and interventions including screenings, assessments, therapies and trainings.  We provide services on site at schools and kindergartens, in family homes and at our own therapy center locations, depending on the child’s needs. We also have a full-time therapeutic, special education program for children requiring more intensive support on either a short term or long term basis. They key message is that over the last ten years our community has been working hard to fill the gaps in service provision for children, and to find effective ways of overcoming cross-organizational barriers. Support is here if you need it, and we, along with many of our partners, plan to continue the trend of putting children and families first in our community as we go forward over the next ten years.