My long long overdue update from my trip to China. I went to China in August 2010 intent on finding a special needs school or any public school to visit. I was, and am, still curious about the education system in China. However, there is not a lot of research being done on special education pedagogy or policy, a specific interest of mine. On my trip, I really wanted to talk with some local administrators, teachers, and parents, to see what their experience has been like in China. It was not until the last day of my time in China, did I find a school nearby still in session. I was lucky enough to organize a trip to the school Beijing Xing Guang Road Development Center with my friend Xiao Ai.
THE ATTITUDE IN CHINA
From speaking with the parents and teachers, one thing is for certain, China's emphasis on special education is not nearly as strong as in the United States, for various reasons. Disabilities in general (learning, behavioral, emotional, physical, etc.) is very much looked down upon in China. There is a very strong social stigma against people with disabilities. China is a society where guanxi, or who you know and who is in your network, is one of the only ways to climb up the social ladder and get out of your impoverished or difficult living conditions. The rung you step on, isn't made from your hard work, it's the shoulder of another person that you are stepping on. Understanding that Chinese society is structured around relationships of people using each other to gain leverage or benefits in society, whether it means getting a job in government or an inside acceptance to Beijing University, helps us understand why it is that people with disabilities are shunned and literally hidden from view in society. It is a prevalent idea in China that people with disabilities have no immediate benefit to society; it is argued they harbor no political connections to let people in on certain jobs or positions and thus, people see no use in getting to know them or understanding/improving their conditions.
Chinese people with disabilities from an early age have grown up with this idea that they do not belong in society, that they should stay hidden if guests come over. This marginalized reality, I'm sure, is not just isolated to China. Depending on how society is structured and the openness of that society to talk about disabilities regardless of stigma can affect policy and how families get services.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
In China, there has been some improvements in helping finance the education of kids with special needs, according to the administrator I spoke to at Beijing Xing Guang Road Center. There is not enough funding, however, to support para professionals, social workers, physical therapists, and other various support staff at special ed schools. Much of the 1-1 individual work that students benefit from in the United States from social workers and physical therapists, is work that teachers have to do in the classroom in China. The teaching responsibilities are much greater in China because there is less staff to help.
Parents want to be proactive and improve, so many families have been reaching out of their shell to help their child. In a society where disability is rarely talked about, the government is at least issuing disability certificates that will allow families to get some special services for their kids. According to the administrator I spoke to, most special ed schools are in the form of after-school programs or all-day schools.
These classrooms, though, are not integrated with the mainstream population of kids. In other words, they have no inclusive classrooms where both special ed and general ed students work side by side. Taiwan and the United States have integrated classrooms, but it is only slowly getting started in China with a special needs class visiting a general ed classroom once per week, at best. I asked how the general ed students reacted to new students coming into their classroom and the administrator said that although their aim was amicability, there were some hostile reactions by both groups of students. As you can imagine, many students did not know how to interact with students who were very different from them. I hope that the teachers held discussions with the students about different and inclusion that would have eased misunderstanding, but it's very hard to operate in a society that still holds a strong stigma against people with disabilities.
TEACHING AND PEDAGOGY
Eventually, after touring the school and having long discussions with teachers and administrators, I gave a presentation on teaching methods that I have observed as a teaching assistant in a Kindergarten CTT (Cooperative Team Teaching) class in New York City.
The teachers were particularly fascinated by the "body breaks" and "use of pictures" as strategic tools for helping students. Body breaks, which I will also include in the "Teaching Special Education" part of my website, are essentially 2-10 minute breaks that students can take out in the hall where they do three physical activities like pushing a heavy object up and down the hall, a hand stand, crab walks, or pushing against the wall for ten seconds. These "body breaks" let students release the extra energy they may have. Body breaks interrupt the classroom and are seen as ways to help a student's body calm down.
Pictures are used in special ed to help the student identify with either themselves or friends doing the activity. By visually seeing themselves and others doing the task, they are more able to identify with doing it. There are many activities that can be constructed around this idea, which I will write about more later.
The presentation was informative to the parents and although I do not consider myself an expert on special education, an ever changing dynamic field, I told them what my experiences have been with special ed and teaching techniques I have seen work.
The teaching at Beijing Xing Guang Road School is primarily 1-on-1. The school is primarily geared for the younger grades, Pre-K to first grade. As such, parents will spend either the morning or whole day with their child, teaching them how to write and how to behave. Most classrooms have a 9:1 student to teacher ratio with parents allowed in the classroom. Many of their students need support (hence the presence of parents in the classroom), especially since there are no extra support staff. One area the school would like to improve upon is professional assessment of students, or writing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for their students. The next time I return to this school, I will bring sample templates of IEP reports for them.
The families, teachers, and administrators were very curious and it was interesting to see what their opinions were on special ed. Despite their being an even bigger challenge and hurdle to overcome in a country that does not support financially or philosophically people with disabilities, everyone at that school was hopeful. Hopeful that things would change and hopeful that a better future could be built that improves the education of their students, an under-served and alienated group.
I am currently in Beijing and just had an interesting conversation with a local family regarding the education system and parenting practices in China.
The family I spoke to has one daughter who is currently 3 years and 8 months old. They told me that as parents in China, they are pulled in two different directions regarding what is best for the education of their child. In one direction, they are pressured by the test- oriented society to place their child in cram schools, or "buxiban." These cram schools, or intense after-school programs where students study one subject intensely for at least three hours, give students the opportunity to get ahead in society by learning the material (arithmetic, algebra, biology, English, etc.) earlier. Unfortunately, so much time spent studying hardly gives the child time to explore, create, and play on their own accord--skills crucial, I argue, in developing their motor control and social skills. Playing and being able to have good hand-eye coordination is not only important in learning how to throw a ball, but also in being able to hold a pencil comfortably to write, using scissors to cut, coloring pencils and markers to draw, etc. Being able to use and manipulate these tools require control of the mechanics of your body that are developed in child's play where they are uninhibited and free to explore their abilities and push their limitations. Eliminating play from a youngster's childhood not only severely limits their potential to grow and understand their body, but it also stunts their growth as social beings who need to learn how to negotiate, play fair, and peacefully resolve conflicts. Additionally, isolated in a room to study hour after hour, day after day, is not conducive to a happy childhood.
The family I spoke to was well aware of these issues. On the one hand, they wanted to preserve the happiness of their child and allow her to naturally develop an understanding of her abilities. However, in an ever mounting competition amongst Chinese families to let their child be number one and improve the family's social standing, it is hard for a family to go against the norm and not give their child the opportunity to "get ahead" by going to the cram schools. The pressure to succeed is so great that parents are willing to sacrifice the happiness of their child just so they can get into a top elementary school.
The top elementary schools in China are feeder schools into top middle and high schools. It is quite sad that a student who has a lower entrance exam score at eleven years old cannot go to a good school down the road. Their life trajectory is mapped out just by how well they score on their exams. Furthermore, without money you cannot have access to the cram schools, which cost a tremendous amount and without "guanxi" or connections, it is very hard to get ahead politically and socially. To climb the social ladder is to step upon the shoulder's of another.The pool, then, to obtaining a good education is already sharply downsized.
As parents who have their daughter's happiness in mind, they tried to give her time to do what she wishes, to explore her own interests to maintain an inner drive and motivation. But in the end, they had to succumb to the pressures of society and family to give their child opportunities to succeed.
The family said that China is facing a shortage of school facilities to house their already bulging population. Attempts to control the population like with the One-Child Policy have only caused more of these families to spoil the one child. As the only child in the family, they also face overwhelming pressure to do well. Such pressure undoubtedly is not good on the psychology of the child.
So, as a working parent, what do you do? You know the benefits of a happy childhood, but the entire society is participating in a race to get ahead . Do you pay additional fees to give your child the rote memorization and practices he/she needs to quickly learn the material before others? Or, do you let them play, daydream, imagine, create, and come to their own independent thinking free of at least some pressure from you and wider society?
What would you choose?
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and do not reflect those of institutions, organizations, or employers associated with me, past or present.