Early Intervention for Children With Disabilities in Saudi Arabia and the United States

Abstract

Early childhood special education and early childhood intervention services in Saudi Arabia and the United Stated were compared based on four criteria: history, legislation, teacher preparation, and early intervention services. The United States has a more complicated history of early intervention, and the challenges the country faces are more advanced; however, remarkable achievements were demonstrated in Saudi Arabia. Both countries have adequate legislation, but both need improvements in terms of training programs for early intervention service providers. Based on the comparison, recommendations were provided; a major one is creating integrated special education programs to include the variety of services that are provided with a lack of coordination and collaboration among different specialists.

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Early intervention services are provided to children with disabilities with the purpose of preventing negative effects of a disability (Hooper & Umansky, 2013). Such services include various types of educational, nutritional, childcare, and family support (“Early childhood development,” n.d.). Early childhood intervention and early childhood special education are closely related terms; in some contexts, the former applies to infants and toddlers, while the latter applies to children aged 3 and more (Deeds, n.d.). In Saudi Arabia, the area is younger and generally less developed than in the United States, however, important achievements and improvements can be observed. To compare early intervention in the two countries, four aspects were considered: the history of special education and early intervention, relevant legislation, teacher preparation, and the current situation with early intervention services.

Early Intervention for Children with Disabilities in Saudi Arabia

History

The history of special education in Saudi Arabia started in 1950 when people with impaired vision were provided with opportunities to master braille (Almalki, 2013). It should be noted that, from the very beginning of the history of special education, the direction of development was integrating programs that met special education needs into general education programs; blind learners were able to study alongside sighted learners, and for this purpose classrooms and curricula were redesigned (Aldabas, 2015) Concerning early intervention in particular, councils for childhood, motherhood, and family were established in the early 1990s; however, widely recognized problems were the lack of action plans and a great variety of nonintegrated regulations (“Early childhood care,” 2010). An important achievement is that it is recognized in the country today that early interventions may be needed for children under the age of three; some existing programs are designed to be applied without the lower age limit (“Early childhood education,” 2016). Also, an important historical shift is from the vision of early intervention as an option to the vision of it as a necessity for the successful development of children with disabilities; this understanding of early intervention is incorporated into the education-for-all framework in Saudi Arabia (Al Shaer, 2007).

Legislation

Legislation is a major consideration in the provision of early childhood special education because it regulates who is eligible for receiving it and what the conditions of provision are. In Saudi Arabia, a crucial piece of legislation in this regard is the Regulations of Special Education Programs and Institutes (RSEPI). The main purpose of the Regulations is to provide free and appropriate education to people with disabilities; it requires educational facilities to deliver special education services, including individual learning plans, transition services, and early intervention programs (Alquraini, 2013). Particular attention is paid in the Regulations to environment requirements: it is recognized that the environment in which people with disabilities receive special education services should not be restrictive; many settings are available apart from general classrooms, including special education classrooms, home instruction, and special facilities. It is important that the legislation does not impose any age limitations, i.e. children of any age can be provided with special education services under this law. It is also noteworthy that developmental delay is not listed among the disabilities to which RSEPI applies.

Teacher Preparation

An integral part of teacher preparation is establishing programs and curricula to train professionals in the area of special education specifically (Hadidi & Al Khateeb, 2015). Saudi Arabia has such programs, and thousands of people hold diplomas in special education (Japan International Cooperation Agency, 2002). Qualifications particularly include working with children with disabilities (“The status of preschool teachers,” n.d.), including hearing impairment, vision impairment, and intellectual disabilities. Requirements for teachers are designed by national agencies, and one of the criteria of the quality of special early childhood education is the child-teacher ratio; there are national standards on what this ratio should be; in Saudi Arabia, the requirement is that there are not more than ten children per teacher (“Early childhood care,” 2010). Another important consideration is evaluation; some differences have been observed between professional evaluation standards and criteria for special education teachers and standards and criteria for general education teachers. Along with improving the quality of education for special education teachers, a major direction of development in this area is raising awareness of special education and attracting more young people to the profession.

Early Intervention Services

Merza (2012) assesses that “[i]n Saudi Arabia, early intervention services that are available to young children with developmental delays and their families are still in their infancy stage” (p. 210). There are many aspects of this situation. First of all, it is acknowledged that the standards of early intervention services in the country are far from best practices. However, there are still initiatives, both governmental and nongovernmental, to address the growing need to provide early intervention services to children with disabilities. A major barrier is the societal situation in Saudi Arabia: families are often unwilling to seek such services because they opt for keeping the disabilities of their children in private. Another issue is that RSEPI does not mention services of full inclusion for students with intellectual disabilities or early intervention services (Alruwaili, 2016). It is recommended to develop better services and service requirement by means of cooperation between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. An important aspect of improving the quality of early intervention services is the establishment of the Saudi Benevolent Association for the Disabled (El-Hazmi, 1997); apart from designing programs and services, the organization was involved in raising awareness about people with disabilities and their needs.

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Early Intervention for Children with Disabilities in the United States

History

Historically, in the United States, the issue of effectiveness of early intervention has been the subject of a debate. For a long period, the area lacked appropriate research findings; particularly, there was a lack of experiments with control groups, i.e. groups of young children with disabilities who were not provided with early interventions services (Shonkoff & Meisels, 1990). Another aspect that was studied insufficiently was parental involvement and the well-being of parents (Crossman, 2015). An important period for early intervention research and practice was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when several initiatives were proposed and conducted to address the needs of children with disabilities (Mattern, 2013). Particularly, the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Program was initiated that encouraged educational institutions to launch programs for early childhood intervention delivery and supported local early intervention services providers. Also, Project Head Start that started four years later included early interventions for children with the purpose of preventing school failure. Today, all the children with disabilities in the United States aged 0 to 21 are eligible for publicly funded special education and early childhood intervention programs.

Legislation

A major law that regulates issues related to special education and early childhood intervention in the United States is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Its main provision is that people with disabilities should receive education services along with their peers without disabilities (Alquraini, 2011); it means that the general direction of development of special education services is incorporating them into the educational system and existing institutions as opposed to creating separate facilities or programs. Part C of the IDEA is dedicated to early intervention programs for infants and toddlers with disabilities, and it specifies the qualifications and competencies needed to deliver such programs (Pang & Richey, 2005). These include a range of physicians, speech and language pathologists, therapists, social workers, nutritionists, and other specialists. A particular part of the law is dedicated to the environments in which young children can be provided with special education and early intervention services; those vary from the homes of children’s families to special facilities.

Teacher Preparation

The area of training specialists to work with young children with disabilities has been going through change within recent decades in the United States. First of all, standards have been constantly raised, as more and more advanced qualification requirements for teachers have been designed (Chang, Early, & Winton, 2005; Maxwell, Lim, & Early, 2006;). This process is particularly associated with legislative changes and such initiatives as No Child Left Behind that pursued universal education and drew more attention to special education for children with disabilities. A major consideration in the development of teacher preparation programs is the concept of “preparedness for diversity” (Maxwell et al., 2006, p. 24). Since the United States has a high level of cultural diversity, it is important that educations are culturally aware and culturally sensitive; particularly so because early childhood intervention programs require working very closely with families, and cultural insensitiveness can create barriers to effectiveness and achieving positive intervention outcomes. Another aspect of teacher preparation is training educators for non-teaching roles, such as educational management; these programs have emphasized the importance of leadership training.

Early Intervention Services

Several areas are identified by researchers and practitioners to provide additional support in terms of delivery of early childhood intervention services; these areas include “training, communication, collaboration, and coordinated service delivery through a service coordinator” (Mattern, 2013, p. 121). An important consideration is that all the listed areas are interconnected. For example, continuous training programs have been implemented in which educators and early interventions service providers are consulted concerning their needs and qualifications as part of their working hours, e.g. while children take a nap. A variety of services and providers implies that different professionals should collaborate, for which a framework should be created to integrate services into multidimensional special education programs. The key role in achieving this goal is played by service coordinators; this is an example of a non-teaching role that is pivotal in improving the existing early intervention services (see Teacher Preparation). One of the major barriers in the provision of such services, according to practitioners (Mattern, 2013), is parental concern. In families with children with disabilities, parents may be unwilling to participate in early intervention programs to a necessary extent or discouraged by the fact that their children do not develop typically. Therefore, more attention needs to be paid to working with parents as part of special education initiatives.

Similarities and Differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States

A major similarity is that key legislations in both countries (RSEPI and IDEA) recognize the need for providing special education services to children with disabilities for free. Another similarity is the general idea observed in the area of early childhood education that children with disabilities should receive education alongside their typically developing peers. A major difference, however, is that, in the United States, there is the age limit (21) for receiving special educations services, while there is none in Saudi Arabia; neither country has a lower age limit in this regard. Overall, it should be noted that early intervention services are remarkably more developed in the United States than in Saudi Arabia; the issues and challenges described above for the former country are more advanced than those of the latter.

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Recommendations

The first area in which improvement is needed is research and training. More attention should be paid to defining necessary qualifications of early childhood intervention service providers. Further, an effort is needed to improve the understanding of effectiveness of such services and factors that contribute to it (Merza, 2002). It is also noteworthy that, in both studied countries, special education programs lack integration (Aljabreen & Lash, 2016), as they are mostly combinations of services (Al-Mogbel, 2014). To address this issue, integrated programs should be designed to consider all the aspects of delivering early interventions, including medical aspect, socialization of children with disabilities, and working with parents.

References

Al Shaer, A. I. (2007). Education for all programmes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Web.

Aldabas, R. A. (2015). Special education in Saudi Arabia: History and areas for reform. Creative Education, 6(11), 1158-1167.

Aljabreen, H. H., & Lash, M. (2016). Preschool education in Saudi Arabia: Past, present, and future. Childhood Education, 92(4), 311-319.

Almalki, N. S. (2013). Professional development needs of early intervention providers of preschoolers with moderate and severe disabilities in Saudi Arabia. Web.

Al-Mogbel, A. N. (2014). A proposal for the development of pre-primary education in Saudi Arabia based on the experiences of Malaysia and South Korea (a comparative study). Creative Education, 5(24), 2071-2089.

Alquraini, T. (2011). Special education in Saudi Arabia: Challenges, perspectives, future possibilities. International Journal of Special Education, 26(2), 149-159.

Alquraini, T. (2013). Legislative rules for students with disabilities in the United States and Saudi Arabia: A comparative study. International Interdisciplinary Journal of Education, 2(6), 601-614.

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Maxwell, K. L., Lim, C. I., & Early, D. M. (2006). Early childhood teacher preparation programs in the United States: National report. Web.

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Merza, H. M. (2012). The Saudi early intervention services. In K. Mutua & C. S. Sunal (Eds.), Advances in research and praxis in special education in Africa, Caribbean, and the Middle East (pp. 210-224). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Pang, Y., & Richey, D. (2005). A comparative study of early intervention in Zimbabwe, Poland, China, India, and the United States of America. International Journal of Special Education, 20(2), 122-131.

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