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Special needs children & schooling abroad

Rebecca Grappo is the founder of RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC, an organization dedicated to helping students find the right boarding school or university for them. Rebecca has worked with many students who have struggled in school. She has given numerous presentations for groups around the United States and abroad about education, as well as written articles for print publications and online sites. She is an expat herself and has an excellent understanding of the issues many of us face with our children. She generously agreed to be interviewed for Parenting While Abroad.

What advice do you have for parents with special needs children who are considering an assignment overseas?

Before accepting any overseas assignment, the parent(s) of any special needs child need to thoroughly understand and accept their child/teen’s individual needs. Then they need to investigate whether or not the new destination offers those services. This could mean learning support in a school as well as other therapies such as speech and language, physical therapy, and/or occupational therapy. Some children and adolescents also have mental health needs that must be addressed, so it is important to know in advance whether or not there are qualified and licensed therapists. A young person taking psychotropic medications also needs a qualified doctor or psychiatrist who is up to date on the latest medical research and can manage the medication. I have also known children with special needs who also have serious health issues. Therefore, it is important to know what emergency as well as routine health care is available. Lastly, it is important to not only identify whether or not these services are available, but also whether or not the education and training of these service providers are up to the expected international standard. In my experience, I have found outstanding service providers – and I have encountered some whose professional qualifications did not meet the standard that I would want for my own child.

In your opinion, is there ever a time that a child with special needs cannot receive the help necessary during an overseas assignment and if so what options does a parent have?

There are many situations in which the child’s needs cannot be met overseas. I have seen some cases where the needs are met beautifully and things turn out fine. But I have also seen many other situations where the needs of the child are not being met, nor could they ever be met in that locale. Or, the service provider is also in country temporarily and moves on, thus interrupting support services. The stakes can be very high. For certain disabilities, early intervention is critical, and if time is lost while the young brain is developing, the consequences can be long lasting. For older students, the effects can be equally devastating. I have seen students become discouraged learners when they are not being taught the way they learn. In some cases, it means they no longer believe in themselves or their possibility of success, and they give up. Some become serial “school hoppers,” jumping from one school to another every year. Sometimes it is out of necessity because they are always asked to withdraw. Lack of success in school can also lead to poor self-esteem, poor peer choices, depression, withdrawal, and poor decision- making. It puts the child at risk for other negative behaviors. In some cases, it can even lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts. Sadly, I have worked with too many young people who have followed this pattern.

What options does a parent have?

First of all, it is important to explore all the options before departing for the assignment. But sometimes problems develop once a family is overseas. If at all possible, a parent should try to find local resources to help support the struggling child and family – but this is where the credentials of the service providers are critically important. I have seen some situations actually get worse when someone without the proper training or credentials gets involved.

That means in some cases, the best solution is to either 1) not go, 2) have one parent stay behind (not ideal for the family, either), or 3) find a solution for the child in need. I work with these situations all the time. When a family’s livelihood depends on the foreign assignment, it’s not always easy to just pick up and move, or have the family breadwinner quit the job. We have to be realistic.

I am a firm believer in the positive outcomes of the right boarding school for a student. There is truly a school for every kind of student – many offer great learning support, or are completely devoted to learning disabilities. There are even schools for kids who are struggling with behavior, mental health, and/or substance use issues. Students can find a loving and accepting community that is specialized in working with their particular needs, and I have seen over and over again how a student can get their lives and dreams back on track. Too many times this option is framed as “sending the kids away”, but I think this has a negative connotation that is undeserved. The right school can change a child’s life for the good. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the student and should be considered as a viable option, especially for families who are living overseas.

What advice do you give parents who suspect their child has a learning problem but they can’t pin-point what it is and don’t know where to go for help?

Many times the learning problem is first thought of in terms of the student “being lazy or unmotivated.” But maybe the child/teen is “lazy and unmotivated” because feeling inadequate and unsuccessful at school every day discourages him/her. Or maybe the child/teen has challenging behavior at school. These are often the warning signs of a disability. When I hear this about a student, the first thing I want to know more about is what’s really going on in school.

If a parent suspects that the child has a learning problem, they should start documenting their observations at home. It is helpful when there is a positive relationship between the school and family so that the teacher(s) can also document their observations. This information gathering is extremely helpful in the evaluation process.

I then recommend that a child get a thorough psycho-educational evaluation from a licensed professional. (I have seen many bogus reports done by unqualified examiners overseas, so I am adamant on this point.) A good psycho-educational evaluation is like a road map to the mind – it shows how the student learns, and illuminates both strengths and weaknesses. A thorough evaluation should also give detailed recommendations for interventions that can be done at home and in the classroom. Hopefully, there is some expert learning support offered in the school so that the recommendations can be implemented. In cases where it is not, then the recommendations can be shared with the teacher(s) in hopes that some accommodations can be made in the classroom.

If the parents and school cannot identify a qualified professional in the community who can do the evaluation, then I recommend that they travel to another destination where there are qualified examiners. In my practice, I help families to identify these professionals around the world. But a bad evaluation is useless – hold out for the true professional. And please note – evaluations should be updated every three years through the high school/secondary years.

Lastly, the parent(s) need to become the child’s advocate. I encourage parents to learn as much as they can about their child’s particular disability or need, as well as identify the child’s strengths that can be built upon. (I maintain an extensive collection of special needs resources on my website at The diagnosis of a disability is really the diagnosis of a “difference”. Every child can learn; every child has a gift. With the right interventions, I truly believe that every child can be successful.

You can learn more about Rebecca and  RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC on her website,, blog at, or you can contact her at

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6 Comments on "Special needs children & schooling abroad"

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  1. Bea Conde says:

    Thank you for this information. I totally agree with you. I recently was assigned to Senegal. The international schools there do not have an adequate program to accomodate my daughter’s special education needs. With the help of the local education division staff in country, I found a school that specializes in intellectual deficiencies. The school curriculum is in French. This was not an issue for us since we speak French. If I did not find this school, she would not have received medical clearance which in turn would have precluded me from accepting the assignment.

  2. I’m so glad that you were able to find an acceptable option that addresses your daughter’s learning needs! I wish her much success.

  3. Tess says:

    First of all I am very confused Rebecca. Because I actually fell upon this page while searching for information regarding Special needs children and military. Are you referring to accepting an assignment in or within the miltary or just accepting an assignment abroad in general? Because if you mean accepting a military position with a special needs child. I was told the military would not station anyone where there were no services for their special needs children and if it was between 2 locales the military would send the individual where it was in te best interest of the child.

    In a situation such as Bea’s am I to assume these schools are private schools the family pays for out of pocket? Or are these schools part of the school system in any given location and are part of every childs right to educate? Thank you


  4. Dear Tess,

    I’m sorry that I did not respond sooner, but as I was a guest columnist, I didn’t receive the email update that there was a comment on the blog. But anyway, in the case of the U.S. military, in theory, you are correct about military assignments. But like everything else, I would confirm that those resources would be in place before accepting the assignment.

    Rebecca (Becky) Grappo

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