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Sweden's Winning Formula For Special-Needs Education

Swedish schools are working hard to make it possible for all children to attend regular classes.
Swedish schools are working hard to make it possible for all children to attend regular classes.
Silke Bigalke

STOCKHOLM — Tove likes math because it's so logical, the sixth grader says. If she doesn't understand a question, the boy who sits next to her, Viggo, repeats it for her. Tove is deaf and wears a hearing aid, though it's not visible under her long blonde hair. But it's the reason that during class everybody speaks into small black devices in front of them that look like iPods being charged.

The teacher draws a family on the board — father, mother, children — and writes their ages under the figures. The class is supposed to calculate averages and means, and they're doing well. Besides Tove, there are two other children in the room, both dyslexic, who require particular attention from the teacher.

A thousand children attend Johan Skytteskolan school in southern Stockholm's Älvsjö district. Approximately one in eight students there have a "psychological diagnosis," says school principal Stig Gisslén. He mentions dyslexia and ADHD, but there are also 11 children with Asperger syndrome and other forms of autism. For three years, the school has been working hard to make it possible for all children to attend regular classes. "We teach our pupils that everybody is different," Gisslén says. Everybody should participate.

Sweden is considered a model for the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream classes. Last year, the German UNESCO commission praised the system, saying that special schools "had been as good as abolished" and that Sweden was "exemplary" in this regard, according to a report in the newspaper Neues Deutschland.

The Swedish school system is very different from the German one because it's based on the ideal of treating everyone the same. Children spend their first nine school years at the same primary school. Parents can choose between public or private schools, both of which are financed by tax money. How the schools want to achieve the curricular goals set by the federal government and how much they want to invest in them is up to individual communities, which sometimes means that there are broad differences between regions.

Whatever it takes

A rule of thumb everywhere is that every student should be able to attend the nearest school. "When the child has a disability, then the school has to do whatever it takes so the child can attend that school," says Adelinde Schmidhuber, who heads state primary schools in Stockholm. That could mean the school principal ordering a wheelchair ramp put in, acquiring some specific technology, or hiring someone to help the pupil. "If a child uses sign language, then the whole class can learn it," Schmidhuber says.

But despite best efforts children with special needs often aren't perfectly integrated. In many schools, there are small special groups whose students are taught separately. "Unfortunately, we did that a lot in the 1990s," Schmidhuber says. "And we unfortunately still do it a lot."

The discrete groups are meant to be temporary solutions. Schmidhuber describes them as a kind of tutoring, often just for specific subjects, until the student is ready to attend a regular class. Pupils who can't manage this can attend one of the 16 permanent special groups in Stockholm. That decision isn't made by the school principals but by city experts. Some 225 of Stockholm’s 60,000 school children attend these permanent groups, Schmidhuber says.

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A classroom in Östra Vram, Sweden — Photo: Hakan Dahlström

The state authority for special education (SPSM) supports communities and cities. SPSM expert Per Skoglund says about 12,000 of Sweden's approximately 900,000 primary school children attend special schools (Särskolan) that only accept mentally disabled children with IQs under a certain threshold. About 10,000 other special needs children attend normal primary schools but in special groups, Skoglund says. When these children attend mainstream classes, they have to be "seen, understood, taught and supported," Skoglund says. Sometimes that works well, sometimes less well.

Deputy Principal Monika Strandberg, who coordinates the inclusion program at her school, explains how it works at Johan Skytteskolan. She often sends two teachers to a classroom at the same time — the subject teacher and one of the school's five special teachers who otherwise would be teaching their students in a special group. There are still a few of these separate groups, but they are being phased out as quickly as possible.

Instead, the teachers pay more attention to seeing that all pupils keep up. To achieve that, they always provide information in various ways. For example, they'll read a text out loud before they hand it out. That proves helpful to those who aren't strong readers. When they explain something, the teachers write the most important vocabulary on the board or work with pictures.

Mirroring society

Asked whether this method makes high-performing students feel unchallenged, Strandberg says she doesn't think so. In fact, she believes that working with classmates with learning difficulties is good experience for the other students. "People in society are different. We show our school children how society is."

And they are apparently meeting with success: Nearly everybody's results at the end of their time at Johan Skytteskolan are good enough for them to proceed to high school. Autistic children arguably face the biggest challenges. Here too every child is different because their daily schedules are different from their classmates. During breaks, some of them don't want to join the others in the playground. Autistic children must also be exceptionally well prepped for excursions and project weeks because they tend to dislike changes in routine.

Today there was an unexpected change for an autistic boy, but it went smoothly. Albert, a ninth grader, normally has lunch with the same person, but because that student was absent today, he simply didn't eat, says his worried art teacher Margareta Kupper. She's afraid things are going to get difficult with him later during class. But Albert waits peacefully with the others by the art room, is the first to enter when the bell rings, goes straight to his place and arranges his things neatly. The teacher has laid out some stuffed birds on the tables for the children to paint. Kupper explains everything slowly and thoroughly, saying many things twice. Albert listens quietly.

Asked what could still be improved, Schmidhuber says this is a long journey that never ends. "Formerly, we were too afraid of these children and just concentrated on making them feel well and somehow a part of things," she says. "They have to learn things, get to high school, think in terms of an occupation."

Just like everybody else.

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