Unqualified staff may hinder special needs children, UAE expert warns

Studies show assistants in many private schools in the UAE are poorly trained and ineffective in their role, prompting experts to caution its impact on the development of children.

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DUBAI // Parents of children with special needs are worried about the standard of classroom assistants being hired to help teachers.

The assistants are responsible for modifying classroom activities and assignments to meet the goals of children with learning difficulties, manage their behaviour and build their social skills.

But the 2012 annual education report by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) confirmed that assistants in many private schools were poorly trained and ineffective in their role.

"They mostly lack experience and qualifications in relation to the specified field of special needs in which they work," read the report.

A recent study of 35 assistant teachers by a researcher at the British University in Dubai echoed those findings.

"I have had parents complain that shadow teachers are not appropriately trained," said Dr Eman Gaad, dean of the faculty of education.

"In the interviews and observations, I found a majority of the teachers were not qualified."

She said it was alarming that some schools were hiring housewives with no specific training to assist children with special needs.

"Schools neednot pay them a lot and it was working out well for the mother who could be close to her child at work. It is a matter of convenience, not qualifications."

One mother of a child with dyslexia was sending her son to a British curriculum school, but moved him because he was making no progress.

"The assistant teacher was not addressing the needs of my child at all," she said. "They were not qualified, but then the school never claimed they were."

In a KHDA survey, one parent said the shadow teacher was caring but did not know anything about the child's condition and that she had to give her all the information.

"With more children being accepted in schools now, every day we have request from parents that they need a shadow," said Carolina Tovar, executive director of Child Early Intervention Medical Centre.

Ms Tovar said untrained teachers can jeopardise the development of the child. "If you do not have the right person assisting the child you are wasting his or her time as they are not gaining anything out of the school environment," she said.

Ms Tovar acknowledged there was a shortage of trained aids, but said it could be overcome with an appropriate training programme.

Maureen Bismack is an applied behavioural analysis therapist at the centre, who also who works as a shadow teacher. She recently went through training for the role.

"It was necessary because it is very different from a one-to-one setting at home or a centre," she said.

Jumeirah Primary School is one of the few examples of a private school that is getting it right. The Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau's report said the school had a wide range of skilled support staff who ensured pupils with specialneeds received outstanding support.

Philippa Bodien, an inclusion researcher and trainer for Gems Education who worked at the school, said they hired teachers with certain qualifications to work with children with special needs.

"But the applications are not always from people who hold a formal qualification in the area," she said.

"They aren't many around. So we are careful when we interview them to ensure they have some background in the field."