When a teacher reports that a child is not progressing or fulfilling her potential at school, the parents suddenly have to face the emotional and turbulent challenge of exploring what the problem might be. Given that up to 20 percent of pupils develop problems with learning, schools have experience year on year with strategies that can help. Teachers also have a professional interest in catering to all the children in their class and over time come to understand each child’s strengths and weaknesses. It should therefore be taken seriously if they express concern, but do not assume your child is suffering – the teacher may be trying to alert you in order to put external support into place, so your child will struggle less in the future.
Many parents hope early problems will go away – “He will grow out of it”; “I was terrible at spelling, too” – or react defensively, perhaps by deciding to change languages or systems to try to find another teacher or school where their child will belong. Before you take such a step, I recommend sitting down to observe or hear what the real issue is in the classroom, and to discuss it, with examples of your child’s work in front of you, in order to understand what the teacher means. Changing classes or schools might only introduce more delay in understanding what a potential problem is.
Children who have a diagnosable learning difficulty are not just facing challenges that require extra help for a short period of time. Some children need specialised help even to really understand exactly how the problem affects their learning. I recommend that parents try to work with people who have experience with the particular problems your child faces. If assessed as having special needs, the child might thrive with an individual programme of learning support and be able to stay in a mainstream school, thereby keeping friends and not having to move schools. One challenge, if you are an expat in Switzerland, is preventing years of struggle and self-doubt while trying to establish an individual programme that will suit your child and that you can afford.
During early childhood, signs that a child is uninterested in learning can easily be attributed to developmental differences or individual character. A good preschool will give you enough information for you to determine whether early assessment is worthwhile. Beyond kindergarten, specific problems with reading, writing, maths or behaviour should be defined and given close attention. This is not so your child can be labelled as “having problems,” but so that a specific issue does not get blown out of proportion or lead to judgements about the child’s intelligence. Building your child’s character and confidence is much more important than agonizing about a specific learning need that he or she has. If it takes too long to decide what to do, or regular reviews are not given to you based on your child’s observed achievements at school, long periods can go by without his making progress, and this can undermine a child’s confidence.
Kind people who get involved without experience or appropriate skills, even with the best intentions, can simply prolong battles and arguments rather than facilitating a supportive process. So choose professionals you respect and who will keep the interests of your child firmly at the fore. Keep your friends as friends, and try to find specialists who will throw light on your child’s problems.
Carmen Crenshaw-Hovey, moderator of Kids with Special Needs in Switzerland, writes:
Begin with your child’s pediatrician. Be firm… insist on your child being referred for an assessment. So far every assessment my two children have had have been paid for by our health insurance. At Klinik Lengg Victoria Reed, Ph.D. does the mother tongue English assessments. At Kinderspital Zürich assessments can be done in the mother tongue language.
Languages can distract from real behavioural issues, so when children might have special needs, it is even more important that the professionals assessing them speak their language/s and of course that you can communicate with the adults involved. One assessment of a five-year-old child by a famous German child psychiatrist reported the problem to be that he spoke English in the session, but this child’s mother was English and his father was Swiss!
If your child has special needs in Switzerland, use your rainy day budget, if necessary, to pay for proper professional help in your home language. At least the language barrier will not complicate the support you arrange. Do not be afraid to ask for the professional’s CV and qualifications! These days they can be sent in a few minutes and will enable you to work out if the person has the right background and membership in the appropriate professional society for the behaviour or problems that your child has.
I feel my child has different needs and know that his or her behaviour is unusual. What should I do?
Answer: Ask at school how your child is doing. Speak up on your child’s behalf!
Parents are the privileged insiders from a teacher’s point of view; we see more of our children’s habits and personality than a teacher of a whole class can. But children do behave differently at school, so teachers also have a privileged insight into a child’s thinking and behaviour, especially his social competencies in groups. For parents of children with special learning needs it is terribly hard to broach the subject and ask the school, “Is my child different to other children, and is this difference affecting his learning?” We do not want to label children prematurely. We don’t want them to suffer needlessly.
It is true that teachers spend a lot of time with your child, every day. But without exchanging perspectives, you cannot build a whole picture of the child’s approach to schoolwork. Informal talks between teachers and parents about children as soon as they start in a new class therefore lay the foundations for understanding later on. Exchanging apparently unimportant information can only take place at pick up or drop off time and at school events, and if your child changes school at the secondary stage, there may not be a good opportunity to establish a relationship with the new teachers for many months. So make a point of going in to meet the teacher/s if you have concerns, because your thoughts, feelings and impressions cannot be as reliable as asking the teachers what is really seen in the classroom. If you suspect your child might need more attention, but the class teacher is not forthcoming, ask if anyone else in the school knows them well. You can also ask to observe your child in class. Stability in schooling is even more important if your child has special needs, as perspectives on one child can lead two people to two different conclusions, so the alliance with your child’s teacher/s needs to be trusting. Asking to observe can make a teacher nervous of your judgement of the teacher herself, so make it clear that you only want to observe your child and how she acts with the other children. Trust and respect can be built, and to this end, try not to withhold any information from your child’s new school, as the teachers may need it to provide the right support.
If other teachers have mentioned that your child might be different to others, then providing this information about how they did in their previous school will make all the difference later on. Dr. Paul Decker from Foundations for Learning, a network of multilingual therapists in Zurich, says: “Trust your instinct. It may be hard to divulge information, but if your child’s behaviour is not understood properly, it could be attributed to the wrong underlying cause and then a remedy is harder to find in the long term.” This means not only giving teachers your child’s previous assessments or school reports, but also keeping in touch with how this information is interpreted and what happens in the new school. International parents in Switzerland have to be detectives, advocates and also coordinators of their children’s care programmes!
Remember, if your child needs help to keep learning or to learn at the same pace as other children, that need won’t go away by ignoring it and hoping for the best. If you have any reports from a previous school, pass them on to a new school right at the start, together with your own opinion about your child’s happiness at their previous school. Did you think they were learning enough?
How can I stop my child being looked down on for being different?
Respect the strength of their personality and ability to form relationships outside the home. Caring, responsible adults are out there and will show you how much they appreciate your child; you just have to find them. Try to find an experienced professional, not just a friend, even though we all need friends to fight battles with. Ultimately, the only battle worth fighting is to get your child’s needs heard and understood.
Bottom line… it is tough having a child with special needs. As a parent you are your child’s advocate and no matter what the school, that can come at odds. The school will always think that they know what is best for your child. Sometimes they are right. – Carmen Crenshaw-Hovey
If teachers tell you your child might need more help at school than other children, you may fear exclusion or discrimination if you do not know the teachers involved in helping him. You could feel isolated, which could lead to your feeling unwilling to accept the teacher’s point of view, especially if you have not met other families in the same situation. But a teacher raising a concern shows that she cares about your child and is open to try to work out problems together. However emotional the subject, you need to discuss the issues with a determination to find a solution that works for everyone concerned.
Extra financial support is not included in private Swiss school fees, and parents are surprised to discover that in order to get subsidised therapy they may have to “go local” and switch to a German-speaking school. This route is not free of its own challenges. Quite apart from the language barriers for both adults and the child, given that most assessments and therapeutic help in the local system are in German, obstacles also arise due to our lack of understanding of the different systems. In state schools here, for example, individual parent-teacher meetings are rarely encouraged. Group events are common, but individual reports, if they exist, may not reveal much about your child’s progress. They tend to contain the results of national or cantonal tests. Therefore, private meetings can make both teachers and parents nervous, if they are swimming in unfamiliar waters.
How can I help my special child achieve his or her full potential?
Some English-speaking parents believe moving away from a monolingual environment with an extensive state system of support is a mistake in the first place. Others see their child grow and develop in the international system here. Wherever you choose to live, it should be a place where you can grow and develop yourselves as parents, nurture your family relationships, and find the support you need. An English-speaking support group ASK (All Special Kids) was created in 2003 by Joy Tong. From their website:
ASK is a one-stop resource for parents, schools and specialists, helping to support children with learning differences and special educational needs in Switzerland.
Coming up soon – the ASK Information Day
Bilingual children and German-speakers can be supported by your local Gemeinde, but as in many state systems, this can be a long process and choices may not be as extensive as in the private system.
Having a child who is different can be so emotional that parents easily feel trapped, isolated, or marginalised. Marriages feel the strain as couples contend with feelings of disappointment and loss, which seek an outlet in a desire to attribute blame. Every step in an assessment process can provoke a renewed fear of dashed hopes. Keep going, because once their care and education has been agreed, children with special needs can be integrated into school communities in Switzerland, so you can enjoy family life with an appreciation of your child’s unique qualities and achievements.
Text by Monica Shah and Carmen Crenshaw-Hovey
Monica Shah worked in educational charities to transform standards at two small schools which became the first special school academies in the UK. In the 1990s she developed school support partnerships to tackle bullying, improve home-school relations and reduce disaffection in inner-city schools. Monica’s School Management Series book Working with Parents (Heinemann, 2001) was published just before she arrived in Switzerland. She founded Children First in Zurich in 2006.
Carmen Crenshaw-Hovey is the mother of two boys who have received various support services in both local and international schools. Her younger son (diagnosed with severe dyslexia and dyscalculia) joined Zurich International School’s Individualized Learning Program in Grade 6 and is currently the first and only ILP student at the ZIS Upper School. He attended local schools for five years before joining the Sprachheilschule Stäfa for three years. His educational future after ZIS contains options of an IV-supported apprenticeship in the Zurich area and/or going on to the U.S. to attend further education in a college/university setting appropriate for him. Carmen is happy to be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about her children’s experiences in the local and international school systems.
Illustration by Laura Munteanu
Laura has studied Journalism and Advertising, and has been working as a journalist and an illustrator. She has been illustrating for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and seven-year-old daughter.
Useful websites and further reading:
Zurich local system (in English): Special Education Needs, City of Zurich
U.S. document on learning disabilities (2014). (If hyperlink doesn’t work, copy and paste:
Yahoo! group for parents of children with special needs in Switzerland:
Kids with Special Needs in Switzerland (If hyperlink doesn’t work: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Special-Kids-CH/info?soc_src=mail&soc_trk=ma)