Special Needs Education in Hong Kong

    Are there schools providing Special Needs Education in Hong Kong? If your child has additional or special educational needs (SEN), can these special needs be met by the schools here? Playtimes uncovers some answers to this question.

    Finding a school that is a good fit is especially important for parents of children with additional learning needs. Keeping in mind that children with special educational needs may benefit from a teaching approach that can be tailored to their way of learning, finding the right school can be tricky.

    special educational needs classroom

    Finding a Suitable School Environment

    Often, to meet their full potential, some children require extra help in the classroom. This could take the form of tutoring or short-term focus on an area of difficulty. Or it might be a long-term supportive approach to learning. Teacher-student ratios are also important, and the best-funded special needs places offer more teachers per child.

    One of the first things to consider is whether your child will benefit from a mainstream classroom setting. Integration into a mainstream class for children with mild to moderate learning difficulties is the goal for most educationalists and parents, and it may take different forms.

    Trisha Tran, a parent and advocate for Special Needs Education in Hong Kong for non-Chinese speaking children, suggests some questions that parents should consider when looking for a suitable school:

    • What level of need does the child have?
    • What specialist help is required?
    • What structure and approach to learning is offered by the school, academically and organisationally?
    • Is there clear leadership support and vision, for both educators and parents?

    Levels of integration

    Some children learn well within a mainstream classroom with ‘pull-out’ or ‘withdrawal’ support into small groups. This is the approach of most schools in Hong Kong offering integration for children with additional needs.

    Others may benefit from an alternative ‘small classroom’ setting where children with special educational needs (SEN) are taught more intensively, spending some of their time in joint activities with mainstream classes.

    Some children with a higher level of need may benefit from a ‘shadow’ or assistant, working with them one-on-one to guide them through the curriculum. However, some educators discourage ‘shadow’ support over concerns they may present a barrier to a child’s learning.

    Levels of Support

    The approaches and levels of support offered for children with additional needs varies within Hong Kong’s schools.

    While all parents should aim to select a school with provisions that match their child’s needs, Hong Kong presents some challenges, especially if your child would struggle with a Chinese-language curriculum. As Trisha says: “It would be wonderful if we could choose from any one of the schools that provides SEN places. Sadly, many schools catering to non-Chinese speaking children are full and we tend to be stuck with whichever institution offers us a spot.”

    Monitoring Your Child’s Progress

    For those lucky enough to secure a school place, the journey doesn’t end there. Parents of a child with learning difficulties will need to keep a close eye on the child’s experience and progress at school, asking: are expectations for your child being set high enough? Might the school be focused too much on ‘limitations’ rather than ‘expectations’? Sometimes inclusion may be offered but not extension.

    An individualised education programme (IEP), which is offered for all children with identified needs (and may be called a ‘student support plan’ in some schools for interim provision), becomes crucial in monitoring your child’s progress. It sets out both short-term and long-term learning targets for your child.

    Creating and working with an IEP is a great opportunity for parents to be involved and encourages frequent dialogue, given the need to revisit the plan throughout the school year and implement strategies at home – since learning doesn’t stop in the classroom.

    Therapists working with your child (for instance, in speech or occupational therapy) may be invited to contribute to the IEP and, in some instances, an individual behavioural plan (IBP) may be drawn up.

    Needs Arising

    If individual needs are only identified once a child is enrolled in the school, communication between teacher and parent is very important. Flexibility in learning approaches may be needed and ongoing dialogue with the school is critical to ensure progress is being made.

    Parents of children with special needs speak of the importance of working closely with the school to ensure teaching staff are adopting the right strategy to help your child learn. There are certainly no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to special educational needs (SEN) and a school that embraces this should be a good partner.

    Grace Bolger, whose daughter has Down syndrome, talks enthusiastically about how well her daughter integrated into a small primary school in Discovery Bay. Grace worked hard to find the best approach and sought out, hired and managed a number of ‘shadows’ over the years to provide one-on-one support for her daughter in the classroom, with inclusion being a priority. As a result her daughter was treated like any other child.

    child asking for help with school work

    Keeping Up on Progress

    This is a full-time job for the parent as well as assistant. Daily reports and regular meetings with the school are integral to the approach. Finding the right balance is important, with the assistant needing to know when to back off and encourage independent learning, and when to step in to help interpret teacher instructions. Grace says a smaller school community is preferable as it allows for close contact and enables a ‘team’ approach to learning, with teacher, assistant, principal and parents all playing a role.

    Parent involvement and ability to advocate constantly for your child is crucial to progress, and Trisha Tran advises staying connected, being observant and watching for signs of real learning development.

    The ESF Approach

    As well as local government-funded schools in Hong Kong, a number of private international schools offer places to children with special educational needs SEN.

    The English Schools Foundation (ESF) offers the most places for English-speaking students across its network of 22 schools, with 105 primary and 120 secondary learning support (LS) places currently. In addition, there are 70 places at Jockey Club Sarah Roe School (JCSRS), the ESF’s dedicated specialist environment and one of only a few English-medium-of-instruction schools in Hong Kong that cater to children requiring higher levels of intervention.

    Learning Support at ESF

    Nicki Ward, Head of Student Support Services for ESF, explains the Foundation’s six levels of adjustment for learning diversity: support at levels of adjustment 1-2 is within a mainstream classroom setting and with some additional intervention to meet a specific (and sometimes temporary) learning goal, while levels of adjustment 3-4 learning support places provide more significant, daily support within the classroom to help children reach their full potential. Children assessed at levels 5-6 have the most complex needs requiring a highly individualised programme, and are suited to the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School.

    Schools in the ESF network each take their own approach to structuring support for learning diversity in the classroom and responding to the individual needs of their students, inline with Foundation-wide guidance, according to Nicki.

    The number of learning support places available varies, with Bradbury School and Beacon Hill School offering the highest numbers of primary learning support places across years 1 to 6. An ESF LS place comes with additional funding and staffing, with typically one learning support teacher plus educational assistant per learning support class. This teacher works alongside class teachers to plan for differentiated and personalised support for each child. Parents can expect their child to have a combination of mainstream class time as well as some small group or one-on-one focused teaching, depending on the individual needs of the child.

    For one parent of a child with an LS place at the ESF’s Kowloon Junior School, integration into the mainstream class has brought real social benefits while providing additional academic support. The LS teacher worked closely with her to learn about her child’s strengths and stretches, decide on strategies and ways of learning to suit her child, and also incorporate input from an outside occupational therapist, which was really beneficial.

    Applying to ESF for a Learning Support or Jockey Club Sarah Roe School Place

    • Applications are separate from mainstream applications.
    • Applications are assessed by the moderation panel (which includes Student Support Services advisers, educational psychologists, school based learning diversity managers and principals).
    • The child is visited in his or her current setting to determine the level of support required, in line with the ESF Levels of Adjustment.
    • Once the level of provision is agreed, the child is put on a waiting list for their year group.
    • The application is processed as a place becomes available.
    • Children who have gone through the moderation panel will stay on the waiting list until a place opens up.

    Special Needs Education in The Early Years

    With integration in the classroom, as well as in social and extra-curricular activities, being something of a mantra for many of Hong Kong’s schools that provide for children with special needs, Bridge Academy in Sheung Wan is one place that provides a first step. Its goal is to prepare preschool children to integrate successfully into a mainstream classroom once they reach primary school age.

    Using an ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) approach, intensive therapies and small-group teaching are offered to children aged between two and six in an environment that simulates a mainstream classroom. The goal is to nurture skills and an academic approach that can be practised prior to school application, setting a child with learning challenges on a stronger path to mainstream schooling. Bridge Academy works on the basis that the preschool years are crucial in a child’s development and ABA, with its focus on breaking down skills into very small steps, can make it easier for children to learn and be better prepared to pass that all-important primary school interview.

    Special Needs Network for Parents

    Applying for a primary school place can be a time of anxiety and uncertainty for parents as they grapple with their child’s learning difficulties and are unclear about the consequences of the educational path they choose for their child. Connecting with other parents of children with SEN can provide perspective, understanding and much-needed support.

    If you are interested in meeting and engaging with parents of children with special educational needs, Special Needs Network Hong Kong (SNNHK) offers support and information, as well as informal meetings and talks. To contact or join SNNHK, please email [email protected].

    Related Articles


    Subscribe to our newsletter!

    Stay up-to-date with all the latest news, views and giveaways in Hong Kong