SEN around the world: supporting expat children with special educational needs

Picture of children wearing muddied rainboots

Bringing up a child with learning disabilities can be both rewarding and challenging. But the challenges can become greater when you need to relocate to another country, where both the educational system and language are new to you. However, thousands of expat children with special educational needs (SEN) have thrived during their time abroad and there is plenty of advice online – both to prove the point and to prepare first-time expats for the experience.


State provision of SEN support

In most developed countries, state schools are required by law to provide special education services to students with disabilities or other special needs. These services may include individualized education plans, assistive technology, specialized instruction, and related services such as speech therapy or occupational therapy. However, the quality and availability of these services can vary depending on the funding and resources available in different areas.

In developing countries or countries with limited resources, access to special education services may be limited or non-existent, whether this is down to cultural attitudes or simply lack of resources. Students with disabilities may not be able to attend school at all or may be excluded from mainstream schools and placed in separate, specialized institutions.

Carole Hallett Mobbs gives a useful overview of SEN support provision in some of the key expat destinations but – as always – you simply need to do you research into your new host country as soon as possible.


SEN and international schools

International schools are often the first choice for expats. Although they are generally not legally obliged to provide special educational needs support, awareness of SEN teaching has increased considerably according to  Alexandra Plummer at The expansion of SEN resources has also coincided with a dramatic growth in the number of international schools: the number of international schools around the world has grown by 52% in a decade, from 8,700 to 13,190 in January 2023.

Expats may also enlist the services of an educational consultant to help them locate the best school for their children’s needs.  


Be upfront – and be determined

The very nature of special educational needs is that they vary from child to child: there is no single best solution. Children will respond differently to certain schools and environments, so it is therefore essential to be clear from the outset about your child’s needs.

This can be counter-intuitive. Some parents may feel that understating their child’s needs may improve their chances of acceptance: but this is clearly not a good long-term solution and is unlikely to provide the best level of support.

Being frank is important. But, as Julie B Marcus, an expat blogger and parent of two young children with learning disabilities says, you need to be prepared to work hard to get the best outcome. From experience, she suggests:

  • Ask if there is an individualized care plan. This is known by various names, such as IEP (Individual Education Plan) or, in the UK, an EHCP (Education, Health & Care Plan)
  • Ask the school if there are any additional facilities to support your child
  • Enquire if your global or local insurance helps you to fund such support
  • Speak up if you believe your child needs more help or if the school is failing in their care.
  • Take time to get involved in Facebook and social media groups with other SEN parents
  • ...and do not give up!!


Testing and assessing your child

As parents will know, a key part of supporting children with special educational needs is diagnosing precisely what those needs are. In addition, many schools will require retesting every few years to monitor the development of the child and assess whether needs have changed. Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant, points out that it is important to ensure those testing resources are easily available – and in your own language.

Look forward to a positive experience

Older man and SEN child bonding
Image courtesy of Nathan Anderson via Unsplash

The assumption is that moving to another country exacerbates the problem of bringing up a child with special educational needs. But is it helpful to see it as a problem? Despite the challenges, the experience can still be a positive one. Read for example about Linsey’s experience in Paris with her daughter Kezia, who has Downs syndrome, and the excellent progress that she made during her schooling.

In one excellent podcast run by intercultural strategist Sundae Schneider-Bean, three women discuss how there are benefits to bringing up their children abroad. For example, one mother explains how her experience overseas was in some ways better to that in her home country of the US: “In Uruguay, people didn’t know much about autism but they were so kind, curious and thoughtful that the interactions my children had there were more positive than many of the interactions they had in the US with trained professionals.”


You are not alone

Bringing up a child with special education needs may often seem like a lonely challenge, since everything seems to be geared up to accommodate the mainstream. One expat likened her feeling of disconnection with the foreign society she lived in with her daughter’s lack of connection to her environment, a symptom of her ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

However, when you start to get a global perspective, you realise how many thousands of people share your situation – and are willing to help. One great resource is the influencer page of SEN World, where you will find links not only to parents of SEN children around the wold, but also inspiring stories of others and how they are managing their own challenges.

In addition, do not forget that any FIDI-affiliated partner that you work with will always be willing to support. Not only is it likely that they have experience of finding schools for their clients, they will also have first-hand local knowledge, which may be invaluable.

Many families with SEN children enjoy their time abroad enormously. One blogger reports that most parents believe their children “thrived in a nomadic lifestyle”. So it is all possible and positive: just be prepared to do your research and push for the educational support your child deserves, wherever you happen to be living.


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