Can we move abroad if my child has special needs? 5 Key questions & ANSWERS to help find out.
Advice from Dr Christina Limbird, international school psychologist & director of Linden Global Learning
There is an easy answer to this big question: Yes!
There are some great schools for children with special needs out there in the world. But… there is also a much more complicated answer: It depends. It depends on a whole lot of factors. These include the type of disability or learning needs your child has, how well things are going in your home country, how long you plan on being abroad, what your budget is like, and most importantly what kinds of schools are available in your new country. For you and your child to have the fabulous, horizon-expanding, enriching experience you are probably hoping for, these five aspects have to align. So let’s take a look.
QUESTION #1: What type of disability does your child have?
A) A mild learning disability
If your child has minor disability like – a reading/writing disability – mild speech and language difficulties – slow processing speed – some form of attention deficit – difficulties with mathematical concepts or operations …your chances of finding a fitting school are pretty good (depending what schools are available — see Question 5).
According to a recent study 67% of international schools aim to accommodate children with some level of learning disabilities.
You may be surprised at this relatively low percentage if you currently live in a country with a well-functioning inclusion system. Not every country has particularly well developed cultures or structures for inclusion even though most are working towards inclusion and it has been declared a vital human right by the United Nations. Furthermore, because international schools often run quite independently, the amount of resources they allocate for student support varies greatly.
Finally, it is important to note that we are only referring to English-medium *International* schools here. If you are planning on sending your child to a local school, this question will depend completely on how much inclusion is practiced in your new country (see Question 4 regarding resources). Do NOT assume that all countries view mild learning disabilities the same as yours does. There are vast differences in inclusive education out there in the world.
B) A moderate to severe developmental disability If your child has a moderate to severe disability, you will want to consider a move abroad very carefully. Few international schools have or allocate the resources to accommodate children with more debilitating learning difficulties. That is not to say there are none, but the 2016 study by The International School Consultancy (ISC) Next Frontier Inclusion found that only 9% of international schools aim to support children with moderate to severe learning difficulties. And even if they aim to support children like yours, their systems may be quite different to what you are accustomed to. If you are lucky enough to be moving to a city with one of these schools, you will want to have extensive communication with them beforehand. Your child’s current teacher or case manager should speak with the new school to ensure that they can really support your unique child.
Moving your child with more severe difficulties into a local school is a whole different issue that will require you to do thorough, in-depth research into the local school system, ideally including school visits with your child. Equally importantly, you and your current support team will need to determine your child’s capacity to acquire a new language.
QUESTION #2: How well are things going in your current school setting?
A) Really well If you are happy with the progress your child with special needs is making in their current school, great! That means you and the teachers can begin writing down all the things that are making that learning environment work. You may have an excellent Individual Educational Plan (IEP or ILP), you may have a great psychoeducational report, or some detailed learning plans from your current teachers, doctors, counselors or therapists. If not, collecting this information in a structured way will be important. With that information in hand, you are well-positioned to re-create “what’s working” in your new school. Of course, this depends on the school (see Question 5).
B) Not so hot If things are not going particularly well with your special learner right now, this may not be the best time to move abroad. A whole new country, culture, home, school, and language are likely to compound whatever difficulties you are experiencing now. Not only will your child have to navigate this new world, you will also have to start from scratch looking for specialists, therapists, doctors, or counselors to help you piece together a new plan. Starting from a weak position in a new country may be anywhere from incredibly challenging to near hopeless.
QUESTION #3: How long do you plan on being abroad?
A) Just a few years This is an easier move to make with a special needs child. If your family is considering a posting for just a couple years, your child should be able to reintegrate into your local support systems again without much hassle. Before moving, speak with your school administrators about what you should consider to make the transition back home as smooth as possible. What documents will they need? Is there any particular materials your child should keep working on while living abroad for a short time? Would the learning support teachers like your child to continue on the same IEP goals?
B) Possibly a long time This question is hard to consider if your child is very young. But if you think your move may be permanent or quite long term, you will need to find out everything you can about what support systems exist for young adults. Are there special vocational programs for children with moderate to severe learning difficulties? These systems vary immensely from country to country. Compared to your home country, you may have far fewer opportunities for your “future” young adult with special needs. On the other hand, some countries, like Germany, have excellent vocational training programs for young adults of all abilities after high school. However, this will likely require your learning challenged child to become proficient in the host country’s language. Is your child up for learning a new language? These are essential aspects to consider even though imagining your child as a young adult may seem impossible now.
QUESTION #4: What’s your budget?
A) No problem, we/our employer can cover whatever we need Fabulous. As long as the other factors look good, this puts you in a good position. Inclusive international schools can be costly. Also, most international schools do not offer speech therapy, occupational therapy, or other special services like dyslexia training programs or 1:1 educational aides. Many families who are moving abroad with diplomatic jobs will have a budget for these services. With an “unlimited” budget, you will be able to enroll your child at the best inclusive school in the region as well as pay for any additional support services that your child needs.
B) Quite limited/none This is problematic and will require a lot more research and resourcefulness on your part. There are some local or affordable international schools that may offer the support you need, but they are not always easy to find. Before you move, do your homework, make a lot of phone calls, and communicate with everyone you can to figure out how you will continue to offer your child the support they need in your new country on a tight budget.
QUESTION #5: What schools are available?
A) We are looking at moving to a big modern city with several of great international schools
An association called Next Frontier Inclusion has pledged to ensure that at least one inclusive international school exists in every major city in the world. They currently have hundreds of members and continue to train and support schools in this endeavor. Furthermore, most international school accreditation bodies require schools to at least be working toward inclusive education programs. If you are moving to a bigger city with well-established international schools, you have a good chance of finding a school to support your child with special needs. Look for schools who advertise being “inclusive”, having strong “Student Support Services” or “Learning Support” programs. Schools who pride themselves on their special needs programs and expert support staff such as school psychologists are a good bet. Still, the only way to know for sure is to have extensive honest communication with the school about your child’s needs. Their systems of support will almost certainly be different from what you are used to.
B) We are considering a small place with few/no international schools This is much riskier. If your child has mild needs and you think you can support them at home or with online services, you will need to be extremely careful in selecting your school and possibly even creating a DIY support system. It is certainly not impossible, but will require keen detective work on your part.
The good news is that international schools are moving more and more towards inclusion and some support services are now available online thanks to advances in technology and video conferencing. So what now? Just the fact that you are reading this article shows that you are taking this big decision seriously.
Here’s our final advice when considering the big move:
Take your time and always check your assumptions.
Be totally honest with your new school and
Always look for people and organizations to support you and your family as you leave your home “village”. No matter where you live, it will still take a village to raise a child — especially a special one.
About the author: Dr. Christina Limbird is an international school psychologist and director of Linden Global Learning Support, an agency devoted to helping diverse learners reach their potential, no matter where their travels may take them.