The snooker champion of Chachoengsao Province is a fourteen-year-old boy with a learning disability.
“I played against Joe, but I couldn’t defeat him,” Principal Tongchai Sukpongthai of Wat Lang school said of his ninth grade student.
Despite Joe’s prowess at the billiards table, his razor-sharp ability with the cue does not translate naturally to literacy and math. Facing difficulty parsing out formulas and word problems, he can grasp mathematical concepts when explained through tactile objects. By grade 9, he had fallen years behind in conceptual learning whilst sitting in front of a blackboard.
Janitchaya Siripun, a science teacher known to Joe and her students as Mrs. Yui, summarized the mindset of more traditional teachers: “I was taught in this way, so I teach this way.” However, Mrs. Yui noted, “the content doesn’t reach all students.”
In an education system as rigid as Thailand’s, what happens to children who cannot reach conceptual understanding through traditional lectures?
Students diagnosed with learning disabilities (LD) in Thailand have been left behind. Socially stigmatized, and with little exposure to teachers or experts trained to provide the education they need, LD students are often passed over in the classroom. Unsurprisingly, some students would rather stop coming to school at all than sit at a desk in quiet confusion day after day.
That’s what happened to a student at Wat Lang. Mrs. Yui recounts how the student’s “crazy” questions convinced some teachers that he had an attitude. “There were too few people who believed that the child had the ability to learn.”
Mrs. Yui sighs. “It hurt when the student left the school.”
There are over 300,000 students classified as “learning disabled” (LD) in Thai schools.
However, in a recent nationwide examination of 400 students, the Independent Committee for Education Reform found that only 37 percent of students diagnosed with LD actually have a genuine LD.
“A teacher once told me that she thought all 20 students in her class had LD,” said Thanyaluck Ingkavara, a master’s student at Mahidol University’s Institute for Innovative Education who focuses on special needs education.
Some schools are incentivized to declare large swaths of their students to be LD, because LD students are exempted from school O-NET scores and the funding per head for an LD student is higher. At Wat Grog Gaew Wong Prajan, very few students, one to two percent, are classified as LD.
“Here, we avoid labeling,” said Mrs. Yui, whose principal discourages the practice of teachers taking students to the hospital to obtain an LD diagnosis. “The student might stress over it because they don’t want to be marked as LD. They can learn.”
“Learning disability is not real—there is only learning differently,” concluded Mrs. Yui. “It also doesn’t mean learning more slowly. Maybe slower in your way, but maybe quicker in another way.”
In most cases, the best way to engage a student with special needs is to engage them in an ‘inclusive classroom’ with other students, as well as in an additional special education class, in which trained teachers can work closely with individual students.
“Instead of leaving special needs students in normal classes and ignoring them, or separating them forever in special needs classes, students can take the time to learn and then rejoin others, and have life skills to live in society as well,” said Principal Pongrapee.
However, teachers currently receive very little training to address special needs students in their classrooms, and extra classes are still a rarity.
August 5, 2019