Sentres of Attention – Expatriate Lifestyle Feb. 2014

When you speak to Hilary Craig you realise, very quickly, that you’re speaking to an expert. You realise that you’re speaking to someone with a very rare understanding of and sympathy for an education segment that is rarely allowed the attention it needs and deserves. The founder of Hils Learning Centre in Solaris Mont Kiara, Irish national Hilary is the go-to lady for special educational needs in Malaysia.

Hilary started Hils Learning to help children not with “disabilities” but who “learn differently.” The classification is important. At supportive learning centres, learners shouldn’t be negatively labelled. The objective instead is to create an encouraging, comfortable environment in which the different learners—and they vary greatly—can relax and develop at their own pace. That environment is noticeable as soon as you step into Hils. Found unassumingly in a first and second-floor lot off a side street in Mont Kiara the centre has a no-shoes policy that seems fitting for a place treated by many as a second home. Inside, children from primary school all the way up through secondary level are making use of the workstations and learning materials and resources.

International schools from across the city are represented by students still in uniform after a day’s classes. You’d expect them to resist extra lessons, to want to be in the park, in front of the television or playing with the computer—anywhere but in another ‘school’. But they don’t want to be there; they want to be here, working through homework with the support of Hilary’s incredibly enthusiastic team and working to progress across all subjects. That, Hilary says with a smile, is one sign that she has got the formula right.

Hilary is at ease here, relaxed in a room overlooking the noisy street below. But her domain is out with the kids and teachers. As she walks around the centre she stops to check on the progress of each child she meets, checks in with staff on matters of administration and flicks through proof pages of her latest project—a book on learning differently complete with exercises, tips and lessons for children and students. Hilary is of course central to this centre, but it would be inaccurate to call it a one-woman show.

On her desk sits a piece of A4 paper. Scribbled on it is a list of qualifications, programmes, workshops and seminars held or attended by every member of the team here. It’s hard to believe the entire list of further learning has been compiled in just one year but Hilary explains that she pushes her teachers and staff to develop and to continue to learn themselves. The philosophy is simple. “If you’re not learning yourself, if you’re not passionate about improving your own skills, how can you be effective at getting others to learn?”

It means teachers here spend evenings, weekends and public holidays not relaxing, in the malls or in front of the television but in the classroom, at tutorials and at professional workshops across the region. Is it really such a surprise then that the students show a similar level of commitment in their young lives?

AMERICAN SARA BRENNEMAN is another expatriate who set about helping children with special educational needs in Malaysia. A long-time teacher, she had worked in schools in the US and Africa before moving to Malaysia to take up a place at an international school in Kuala Lumpur.

It was there that, with the help of a lot of questions from concerned parents, she began to see the need for a centre that helps children with “moderate to severe learning disabilities.” “I came to realise that local families really had limited options for their kids,” Sara says. “They usually end up home schooling and doing the best they can.” That, of course, is far from ideal, and Sara set about establishing a small dedicated learning centre for those that require specialist help. In her third year at the international school she had the vision, but the details required fine tuning. Sara wanted to create a holistic centre that would provide education in a number of different fields, all delivered by a team of teachers sharing the same goal: “to work together for the benefit of one student.”

The result of Sara’s work is The Learning Connection, a specialist education centre also found in Solaris Mont Kiara. Utilising Individualised Education Programmes (IEPs) that can be tailored to each student’s very specific needs, the centre focuses on development at suitable levels and rates for individuals rather than forcing on the students a set curriculum and the pressures that come with such rigidity. Class sizes, too, are carefully monitored with a cap at seven students per qualified teacher with an additional teacher assistant in the classroom. Students then get the critical dedicated assistance that they require from a special educational needs school.

Such programmes and initiatives are often the very reason students and parents look to centres like The Learning Connection. They require more than a mainstream school can offer. Often left behind, struggling or not fitting in at a regular school, children with special educational needs require a different approach, be it in teaching style, class size, peer groups or even the basic learning environment. At TLC that means learning is divided into four main components: numeracy concepts; communication and language skills; social skills and movement; and sensory issues. Individual areas of development are led by different teachers, each with a specialisation in that area.

It is agreed that even the most established of the high-performing international schools struggle to deal with children that learn differently. If they don’t fit into the mainstream, Hilary says, it is hard for a regular school to cater to them. Hilary points to a fundamental flaw in the
education system that is built around the ‘neurotypical’ child. Of course this is very subjective and such a system will always have its share of imperfections when it comes to those that fall outside of the norm.

Though Hilary has worked with and alongside many of the international schools in Kuala Lumpur, she explains that it is hard to maintain long-term relationships and programmes with the institutions. “I have had some good connections with individuals at some of the international schools,” she says, but with the inevitable changes in staff that the schools see, the relationships often vary from year to year. “You might get a teacher at a school that is really proactive,” Hilary explains, “but then they leave and the initiatives, for whatever reason—lack of interest, or time, or other responsibilities—may not be picked up again by the next teacher.”

That said, Hilary is now well known among the international school communities and Hils Learning is not short of students and parents seeking assistance. Not all cases are suitable, however, and Hilary must be realistic with what the centre can take on. Hils has worked with children with a huge range of learning differences, from children struggling with self confidence to those with dyslexia and dyscalculia, to those on the autism spectrum.

Often parents arrive at the centre for an initial interview (Hilary likes to connect with all learners and their parents) not fully understanding the difficulties their child is having. Identification of the learning difference or of what is affecting the child is the most important step. Once you understand that you can start to develop methods of teaching and learning that will resonate with the child.

Sometimes this process takes a long time; sometimes, to an experienced teacher like Hilary, the issues or differences are apparent almost  immediately. Hilary explains that she has seen children that simply cannot concentrate or learn in a regular classroom and, in more serious cases, cannot relax and settle in any busy environment. The cause of the anxiety, Hils has found at times, is simply the noise. So the solution is surprisingly basic: let the child learn in a calm, controlled, quiet environment where outside noise is kept to an absolute minimum. In a regular school, with classes of 20 or 30 students and only one teacher, such requirements could cause issues. At Hils, with various different learning spaces, fi nding such an environment is no problem at all.

So what is stopping a boom in special educational needs learning in Malaysia? Prime among the inhibitors is cost. Offering this form of specialist, high teacher-to-student ratio schooling is certainly not cheap. A look around Hils reveals bookcase upon bookcase of storybooks and learning materials, many of which come from Hilary’s personal collection. Students are taught and led by a team of qualified experts. There are computers, classrooms and specialist equipment. None of this is inexpensive but all of it, for Hils to offer the level of education that it does, is essential. And though the centre was started out of a love for teaching, the hard truth is that not all parents can afford such an education for their children.

The Malaysian Government Transformation Programme includes a scheme to provide fee assistance for children with special educational needs from low income families, and the National Education Blueprint 2013–2025 promises to change specialist education in Malaysia in three waves—and these are both potentially positive movements, but whether they make a signifi cant impact is yet to be seen.

One day perhaps children with learning differences will all be given the quality specialist assistance and attention they require to excel within a mainstream institution. Perhaps we will see the ground-up reform of the education system that Hilary hopes for. Until then, specialist education centres in Malaysia will continue to provide a high quality of education for those that can afford it. The goal, Hilary says almost with a shrug, is simple: get the learners to a level where they can move back into the mainstream. “Because that’s what everyone wants.”