Dubai special education needs centre teaches life to young students

Skills for Kids offers a day programme for children aged five to 15, as well as one-to-one speech, behaviour and occupational therapy, all in a typical school classroom setting.

Special education teacher Nikola Vujosevic reads to a pupil in the library of Skills for Kids, a centre newly opened in Dubai. The centre aims to better prepare children with special needs for mainstream education. Pawan Singh / The National
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DUBAI // A centre for children who have special education needs has opened with a mission to send its young clients to mainstream schools.

Skills for Kids, founded by clinical director Francine Luthi Haddad and director of education Karen Vantilborgh, offers a day classroom programme for children aged five to 15, as well as one-to-one speech, behaviour and occupational therapy for children as young as two.

“Our mission is to have the kids here that cannot go to mainstream school but our goal is for the ones that are mild to go back one day,” said Mrs Luthi Haddad, a Swiss who has worked in the special education field in Dubai for eight years.

“We are working with schools,” she said. “Every time we can put back a child we go, we advocate and then we give the support to the school.”

The centre focused on inclusion by involving the children in field trips and teaching independent life skills.

“We are very lucky because we are in front of Sunset Mall and opposite to the beach, so we try to take them to the beach, we try to go to the mall,” said Mrs Luthi Haddad.

“For the ones that are most able, and the older ones, we try to make these outings as functional as we can.

“For example, we go to the supermarket to buy something if we are talking about money, so it becomes more real. We try to base our teaching on something true, real.”

Life skills classes teach the pupils how to get dressed, go to the toilet, wash their hands, brush their teeth and other daily practices for independent living.

“These kind of things appear to be very easy or we take for granted but, for the parents, it’s very important because at home then suddenly it’s a different life when the child can be more independent,” said Mrs Luthi Haddad.

Each pupil also takes part in at least two therapy sessions per week, depending on their learning plan.

The therapy sessions, classroom programme and outings are included in a monthly Dh10,000 tuition fee.

Any special education needs child between the ages of five and 15 who can work in a group setting can qualify for the classroom programme, said Ms Vantilborgh.

“Which means, if they have big behaviour challenges, or behaviour issues, then we prefer to take them in a one-to-one therapy until they are ready to go into a group setting,” she said.

“So we have an educational day programme but we also have behaviour therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, so one-to-one.”

The founders said they wanted to keep the school small so that each child could get the attention they needed.

Classrooms have no more than six to eight children and the centre’s maximum capacity is 40, though places were available. The teacher-to-pupil ratio was one-to-three.

Rhian Clarke, a British mother of a three-year-old girl who has delayed speech, said the centre was recommended to her by her daughter’s school.

“I’ve been to see some other places, which were more like clinics, felt more like clinics, were set up like clinics,” said Mrs Clarke.

“What I immediately liked about Skills for Kids was the fact that it was set up like a small school with a classroom environment, where the children are able to have one-to-one therapy as needed, plus they get the benefit of having group play, PE, sports day.

“They eat their snacks together, they have their lunch together, and so it was, to me, much more preferable.”

Mrs Clarke has noticed tremendous progress in her daughter’s ability to communicate since enrolling her in the classroom programme.

“She’s been there since October and we hope to transition her back to mainstream school to repeat the nursery, the FS1 year, in September,” she said. “That’s what we’re working towards at the moment.”