Special Education: A Parent’s Guide

Every parent thinks his/her child is the most special little person they have ever met, but what if your child is different? What if your child is not developing at the pace you think they should be? What do you do? diGJamaica has embarked on a quest to help parents recognize developmental challenges in their children and where to find help.




Special education or special needs education is the tailoring of the education programme to suit the needs of students in a way that accommodates the students’ individual needs and differences. These differences can include physical disability and or mental and intellectual challenges. Ideally, this involves an individually planned and systematically monitored arrangement of teaching procedures,  equipment and materials, accessible settings and other methods and measures designed to help students achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency and success in school and community than would be available if the student were a part of the general education system.



No one knows your child better than you do, therefore you would probably be the first to recognize that something is wrong. If you do notice that ‘something is not quite right’ bring it to your child’s doctor’s attention. The sooner that treatment starts the better chance you have of minimizing the impact of the disability.

There are some disabilities and challenges that present themselves physically like Downs Syndrome or paralysis but there are others that might be more subtle. Here are some things to look out for…


Preschool Warning Signs

  • Problems with speech including pronunciation or learning new words
  • Problems following simple instructions
  • Difficulty with rhyming
  • Difficulty learning the alphabet or learning to count
  • Problems with motor skills such as walking, skipping, running or balancing
  • Struggles with fine motor skills such as button or zipper his clothes, grasp or manipulate small objects, use scissors, color or paint
  • Difficulty learning colors, shapes or other concepts
  • Difficulty staying focused and paying attention
  • Trouble making friends or interacting with peers
  • Easily angered or frustrated, may throw temper tantrums

For more signs diG here



Chairman of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association’s (JTA) Special Education Committee, Dr Polly Bowes Howell says parents have to know their child and observe when something seems amiss. If parents think that something is wrong they should carry them to the doctor for a medical review, the doctor will assess the development of the child. At this point challenges, such as vision or auditory challenges can be identified. Dr. Bowes-Howell says sometimes the reason for a child’s difficulty at school could simply be poor vision or a build up of wax in the ear, but at other times there could be more serious health complications.

If a special challenge is identified, there is a Referral Process that takes place so that the child can be enrolled in a special education programme.



Under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, to which Jamaica is a signatory, every child has the right to an education, this includes children with varying levels of disability or challenges.

Easy-to-understand version of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child

There are two schools of thought that parents should consider when selecting a school for a special needs child, these are inclusion and exclusion.



This is the practice of teaching students with special needs in regular classes with the necessary accommodations and services.



This is the practice of teaching students with special needs at facilities that only offers special education. The teaching style, classrooms, curriculum is geared towards special education.

Need more terms and definitions diG here



Both methods have their pros and cons and parents must bear in mind which arrangement would better suit their child and their family.





Child will not feel “different” or isolated because of their challenges.

Child can excel in other areas like the arts and music if academics is not their strong suit

Sometimes a child’s academic results are boosted by the competition at regular schools compared to their counterparts in exclusionary schools.

Support from peers. A child who is in a mainstream class will be able to see the majority of her class sitting and listening and try to do the same.

They will learn how to deal in an environment that more reflects society, in that they will have to find their niche and skills adjacent to persons who do not face the same challenges.



Not all challenges can be accommodated. Some challenges are so unpredictable and intense that they need to be handled by teachers and staff that are expert in special education

Incontinent students pose a health risk

School lacks infrastructure to handle special needs students. For example students in wheelchairs will have difficulty at a school that has several floors and no ramps

The financial burden on the school and/or the parent to make the classroom suitable for special education


Inclusion Education Checklist…

If a parent has chosen a school that has an inclusive special education programme, there are certain things they should consider before enrolling the child. Here is a checklist…

  • Does this school have a special education curriculum or a special education unit?
  • Is there infrastructure for my child’s mobility equipment, for example ramps for wheelchairs?
  • Does the school have teaching aids for special needs children, for example Braille computers, special pens, teaching aids on staff?
  • What is the school’s attitude towards special education?
  • What are the facilities in place to deal with medical emergencies?
  • If my child is incontinent can the school handle that?
  • Am I allowed to send a shadow with my child?
  • How will my child get to and from therapy sessions or doctor appointments?
  • How will my child get to school and other appointments?
  • What is the school’s position on multiple or long absences?


Top Challenges Teachers Face in Special Needs Inclusive Classrooms





The cost to send a child to an established special education institution is substantially lower than the cost to cover the adjustments required to send him/her to regular school

Special education schools understand and are sympathetic to their needs and to the family

The relevant support staff is in place as a matter of protocol, doctors, speech therapists, teacher’s aids

School can handle incontinence issues

School will be more sympathetic to long absences

Class sizes are smaller

Intense multifaceted program

Curriculum and assessment is geared functionality and academics



Lack of Community – special education schools are scarce in Jamaica and are not located in the students’ home neighbourhoods. Because of this the child will not get to know the children that live around him/her

Lack of Role Models- all the children in the class will not be around any regularly developing children that could be seen as positive examples on how to behave in class.

Lack of Proper Social Interactions- the opportunities for healthy, positive social interactions with peers decrease because the people around them also have problems with social interactions.

Lack of Electives and Extracurricular Activities- Students in special schools are not usually offered elective courses since the focus of a special education classroom is to provide students basic skills. Students are frequently not offered art, music or dance classes like other children in regular classrooms.

Here is a list of special education schools in Jamaica
diG for more on Special Education Schools 


How long will my child stay in school?

Children enrolled in Special education can remain in school until they are 21. Dr. Bowes-Howell explains that this is because in special education the focus is not on passing from grade to grade but on acquiring a skill set that will allow the child to function in society and earn a living. She says they stay in the programme until they master what they are being taught.


Can my child sit external exams?

Dr. Bowes-Howell says a child’s ability to sit external depends on his/her readiness just like any other student. However in some cases, a child’s challenge might make them unable to withstand the pressure of speed tests, in this case an individual assessment must be made. Tests that are administered in special education must make sense in the context of the child’s challenges. Tests must be able to make a proper assessment of the child’s growth and fit into their learning programme.





Can my child participate in physical activities?

Once the child is healthy and is physically able to do so then let them play. Teachers should allow children with physical limitations to participate in regular school activities like Sports Day, Physical Education and field trips.

Wheelchair bound students can still participate in a game of catch or basketball with a little team work.




How do I help my child succeed in special education?

There is nothing special about what a parent can do to enhance their child’s experience in school. It’s the same formula across the board:

  • Let your child know that he/she is special
  • Take time out to know your child, their gifts and abilities, dislikes and weaknesses
  • Play on their strengths; engage them in what they like
  • Keep abreast with school happenings
  • Engage your child’s teacher and the school
  • DO NOT USE CORPORAL PUNISHMENT ON A SPECIAL NEEDS CHILD. They are not in control of their behavior
  • Don’t call them names like ‘dunce’, ‘slow’, and ‘retarded’ and make sure no one else does it either
  • Take time to investigate what is wrong if their attitude or behavior changes

Find out what to expect from the diagnosis that you are given, and the specific indicators of your child’s challenges


Any advice about doing homework?

Parents of special needs children need to make sure the child has all the materials she needs to complete the assigned task.

Dr. Bowes-Howell advises parents to harness their child’s creativity, make it fun for them. “Give them a start, show them how to get it done and then allow them to finish the task. Do not do the homework for them, the teacher can tell,” she said.

Homework is a chance to reinforce what was learned at school, it will not benefit the child unless they are allowed to do it for themselves





Shadow a behavioral assistant assigned to special needs child while that child attends school.

Dr. Bowes-Howell says the aim of special education is to make the child as independent as possible so he can look after himself as an adult and function in society. A shadow may complicate this process by making the child dependent on the extra help. She says if a shadow must be used it must be done conscientiously. She suggests that shadows be used for a limited time and then draw back.



Child’s doctor/local clinic

School administration

Ministry of Social Security
14 National Heroes Circle
Tel: 876-922-8000-9
Toll Free: 1-888-991-2089

All parents with special needs children must register them at the Ministry of Social Security’s Early Stimulation Programme. If you need financial assistance, the child can be placed on the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH).


More Resources on diGJamaica


Guidelines for Identification and Referral: A Handbook for Principals and Teachers. Ministry of Education.