Children’s special needs addressed

Children with special needs are now being tracked as part of a registry which aims to ensure that students who need extra assistance or specialised teaching get the help they need.

The registry, which was completed at the start of this school year in September, shows 185 children with special needs are in the mainstream public school system in Cayman.

Another 71 children attend Lighthouse School, which caters specifically to children with special needs, and a further 120 pre-school children are on the education department’s Early Intervention Programme.

This is the first time a comprehensive count of children with special needs has been made in Cayman.

Brent Holt, head of the Student Services in the Department of Educational Services, said while the registry had information on all the children in the public school system with special needs, he felt it still needed refining.

“We have a good sense now of how many students out there have special needs, but we to refine it further for the most accurate information,” he said.

“We have assessed the children and now we have the right kids on the register… We are now providing the services to the right students,” he said.

The registry contains information on children with physical and mental disabilities, as well as those with developmental problems and learning difficulties.

With the updated registry, Holt said, the department is finding more complex and severe cases. “And we’re going to have more complex cases coming up through the Early Intervention Programme into the school years,” he said.

Although the registry gives education officials a better idea of the needs of the islands’ school children, it does not give the full picture, as it only addresses those pupils in government schools. Children attending private schools are not included in the register, although Holt hopes that will change.

“Some of the larger private schools keep their own registers,” he said, adding that his department would draw on this information to complete the picture of the number of children with special needs on the islands.

Under the Education Modernisation Law 2009, passed by the previous government but put on hold by the present administration while regulations are finalised, all schools must provide a registry of children with special needs on an annual basis.

“We can start complying with that piece of law, even before the regulations,” said Holt, adding that his department was working with the Private Schools Association on this matter.

Holt said that keeping track of children with autism on the register could be difficult because not all were officially diagnosed because there were no permanent resources on Island to make diagnoses.

“Parents have had to go overseas to get accurate medical diagnoses on that ” Holt said.

In the meantime, undiagnosed children are listed as being suspected autism cases.

Now that the children who need help have been identified, the next, and harder, step is to provide that help and to find the resources to do so, said Holt.

In the current economic climate, finding money to provide extra resources will be difficult, but he hopes that by converting certain posts in the department, increased services will be made available to students.

Already an educational psychologist post has been converted into a position for a speech and language therapist.

“Psychologists do more work in identifying and diagnosing. Now we have converted that position so we can offer speech and therapy services. There has been increased demand for that,” he said.

Other posts being filled are for a learning and behavioural disorder specialist and for teacher advisors who can go into classrooms and work with teachers.

There are also full-time special education needs coordinators at George Hicks High School and at John Gray High School.

Samantha Tibbetts opened the Hope Academy in Grand Harbour for children with educational difficulties, special needs and for those who prefer smaller class sizes.

Demand for places in the school is high enough that she plans to expand the school to take in more pupils in the next school year.

“I can say that there has been some improvement in the identification of kids with special needs, which means there is now an increasing demand for provisions. Sadly, since programmes take time and money to be implemented, services are still lacking,” she said.