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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 6: Exceptional Children in Our Schools


by Nancy Robinson, Barbara Keogh & Ochan Kusuma-Powell

Exceptional children are thankfully no longer 'exceptions' in many international and American overseas schools. The globalization of the workplace, the shifting demographics of our student populations and the predominance of English as the worldwide language of business and commerce have conspired to enrich our schools with not only cultural but also learning diversity. Combine these developments with the revelations that the last decade has produced in educational research and we see all important shifts in attitudes towards children who may require specific support in order to realize their learning potential in the regular classroom.

We know that teaching is enormously enhanced by an intimate knowledge of the specific children who inhabit our classes. For that reason it is most appropriate for us to ask: Who are the exceptional children we need to include in our international school classrooms and how are they different from the other children who populate our schools?

In class, Mayumi is a very quiet and reserved Japanese girl. Although she entered our fourth grade at the start of the year almost two months ago, she has hardly said a word. In fact, most of her communication is nonverbal, characterized by nodding or shaking her head, or pointing with her finger. This is apparently very different from her behavior in afternoon Japanese school, where she has made many friends and chatters non-stop. Although quiet in our English-language school, Mayumi has shown herself to be a remarkable student in many ways: her drawings are fine and detailed and while she does not yet attempt word problems, her math calculations are neatly presented and almost always perfectly executed. On the rare occasion when her paper is returned with a mistake marked, she turns away and seems very unhappy. She does not like to make mistakes. Mayumi never asks questions, but follows the rest of the class at whatever activity they have been assigned, and someone, a self-appointed student, always checks to see that she has the necessary materials or that she is on the right page in the book. In that sense, she has been accepted by the rest of the students, who seem to take care of her as one of their own. So far, Mayumi's only written work has been to copy from the board, which she does meticulously. She does not always seem to understand what she is doing, but seems willing enough. Teachers wonder why Mayumi does not attempt to speak more English or become more involved in the academic program at the school, or in the after-school activities program.

Erik is known as "the mouth" among his teachers in Grade 1. Although he only justmade the cutoff date for admission into this year's first grade, he is tall and lanky for his age, no longer cute. He frequently gets into trouble for speaking out of turn; in fact his teachers see him as an "agent provocateur," if such a thing is possible in one so young! Perhaps because of his size and ready mouth, adults think of him as older than he actually is. Erik always seems to be pushing the limits, and pushing everyone's buttons at the same time. In the middle of last week's fire drill, for example, he offered to carry the boy in front of him to the assembly point. These two first graders swayed together, one top of the other, like a single man on stilts, until they both fell over. Erik is the one who always wants to know the answer to "Why?" and "What if . . .?" questions. Despite his curiosity, most of Erik's class work seems to be done in a rush, without much care or attention. And then he moves on to some other activity he's thought up, creative in and of itself, but which usually ends up disrupting the class. Erik obviously has leadership skills, and it is remarkable how he manages to get classmates to join him in his hare-brained ideas! And yet, when this young man is fully engaged, he is very capable. His remarkable vocabulary is immediately apparent and he spends hours developing stories about intergalactic wars or the history of Earth, as he builds with Lego. Erik also has a large fund of general knowledge and seems to have been learning independently for some time. For example, Erik knows more than most, including many adults, about various dinosaurs, their habits and habitats, and what eventually lead to their demise. According to his mother, Erik has been reading since the age of 4, and spends almost an hour reading and looking at books before going to bed at night.

Jonathan is always late for school and frequently arrives looking as though he just made it out of bed in time. Shirt untucked and carrying his shoes, Jonathan is still pulling himself together, finishing the last of his breakfast and getting dressed as he gets out of his car, usually a few minutes after the homeroom bell has gone. In fact, Jonathan's state of dress would seem to be a reflection of his state of readiness for school: he rarely arrives with the requisite materials, including his homework (although he claims to have done it!). Jonathan is a mystery to all his teachers. He obviously has a good facility with language and is a leader in class activities and discussions. He thrives on finding connections between theories, evidence of his wide reading across subject disciplines. But Jonathan drives his teachers mad with his poor organization and resulting lack of follow-through outside class. Very few assignments come back unless Jonathan is repeatedly reminded or nagged. While his in-class writing is imaginative, showing promise in its depth of coverage, it is worrisome to see so many spelling mistakes from a 12th Grader. At the beginning of his senior year, he announced proudly to the class, "I learned how to spell 'beautiful' this summer!" Jonathan would make a great student, if ever he got his act together!

Mayumi, Erik and Jonathan stand out as different from other so-called "average" students in international schools, but we recognize their profiles as belonging to many children who have entered our doorways from Grades 1 through 12. They are representative of children who need specific attention or teaching in order to succeed in our international school classrooms and we know intuitively that they are exceptional- they may come with English as a second language, specific academic talents (the highly capable), learning disabilities or perhaps some combination of those attributes. Whereas in larger schools such children may be served individually or in small groups, in many international schools in Africa such specialist help is unavailable. In these cases, the role of the classroom teacher becomes paramount in creating an environment in which all children feel welcome and can succeed academically.

To ensure a common understanding of the special needs populations in our schools, the rest of this chapter will be devoted to descriptions of the highly capable, children with learning disabilities, and students who have English as a second language.

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