‘What you guys want to do… It’s a pipe dream.’ This was the response ELG co-founder and speech-language pathologist Shari Rosen often heard when she and her partners Monte Rosen and Andrew Hill first started their special education centre that’s celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
A multidisciplinary social enterprise, ELG set out to ‘impact thousands of lives in China’ by offering kids, parents and educators access to sustainable and innovative special education, developmental, behavioural and mental health services via the original full-time programme and specialist-run clinics and training sessions. The mission? ‘We’re committed to helping our children and their parents get future-ready, preparing them to integrate into mainstream schools by teaching better ways of learning and creating an ongoing support system,’ Rosen explains.
Here, she reflects on the past 15 years and what the future holds for the organisation as it continues its journey to becoming a ‘centre of excellence’.
How have the special education scene and attitudes towards disabilities in Shanghai (and China more broadly) changed since ELG first started? What role has ELG played?
We established ELG in 2006 when there were very few services available to support kids with special needs – and the ones that existed were way behind the times. There was a lot of shame and stigma attached to having a child with special needs or people with mental health issues, for that matter. Back then, barely any Chinese families would come to ELG for services – it was foreign families only.
But things slowly started to change around 2008 when the Special Olympics came to China – awareness was growing and you’d see signs for Special Olympics, taxi drivers wore Special Olympics t-shirts… Fast forward 15 years, and we have a full-day programme in which three-quarters of our children – if not more – are local. Now, I would say 90 percent of our staff is bilingual because the fastest-growing population is our Chinese families. A lot of services have also popped up all over China; although many are still very limited in their scope of practice. It’s not that ELG itself has transformed views, but I believe we’ve had a big influence, especially as we started to work more with the local community. What I also think we’ve been able to do well is to look at children more holistically and talk about the impact on the family. We treat the whole family as a unit, and hopefully what we’re doing is changing mindsets a little bit.
Speaking of treating the whole family as a unit – what does that look like on the day-to-day?
Focusing on the full-time programme, for example, first of all we believe – and the message we give our parents – is that they’re an integral, if not one of the most important factors, in their child making progress. So, we bring parents in on what we call the Independent Developmental Plan (IDP), which outlines all of our long - and short-term goals where we want the child to see development – from cognition, communication and motor skills to independent living skills, like self-help.
On top of that, we bring parents in to observe and make home visits. We provide a lot of hands-on parent training sessions, so we can teach them how to help and integrate the wider family. We send videos home on a daily basis and communicate what’s been happening via WeChat… We also have a parent support group connecting parents to parents, which is really huge and something that had never been done before. My philosophy is that we take care of the parents, they’ll take care of the child.
2020 has been especially tough for many young families. How has ELG felt the impact? How have ELG’s teachers been able to support families during this time?
Our programme was initially impacted because we had families residing outside of China, but as the majority of our families are in the country and we don’t operate as a school, we could – very cautiously – reopen by the beginning of May. However, during that initial period, again a lot of it came down to connecting with parents, because it is an incredibly stressful time – especially when you have a child with more intensive needs, and perhaps siblings, and you’re all home 24/7. Parents had to be a focus in terms of support. Actually, the cool thing that happened is because we did remote teaching – from exercise and art videos to story and circle time – with parents present, they quickly became more heavily involved and felt very much connected to what their children were actually doing in the programme.
Looking ahead at the new school year, what are ELG’s main plans and goals? And then even further forward, over the next decade what do you hope to achieve?
It’s taken time, but we’re really in a sweet spot right now where things are totally blowing up – it’s very exciting, and we’re working with a lot of schools, both foreign and local. Our dream was to meet the needs of hundreds and thousands of families, and we’re right on the cusp. We were able to secure a partnership with local NGO Xiersen and because of that we can seek government support. Since then, we’ve developed an ongoing partnership with a local special education school, Pudong FUDU Special Education. Their teachers have come to train in our programme and we send specialists to their school to train their 100-plus teachers. An example of our sustainable efforts to support the development of comprehensive special needs training, we’re also using this as a model to present ourselves as a centre of excellence from which hundreds of programmes can be developed.
Finally, any expansion plans beyond Shanghai?
Yes, we’re going to expand, but we want to make sure we have a really solid programme here in Shanghai first. We tried to expand early on and kind of failed epically. What we realised is that we have to get really good at what we’re doing here – and that a lot involves training. The more people we can train, the more they can train. So that is the next major step we’re in the process of right now. We’re getting ready, so we’re confident to go, okay, let’s go to Wuhan, Chengdu and all over to China’s major cities. Finally, we’re in a position to reach out to thousands of people – that’s where the dream has been, and 15 years later, we’re there.