We just finished our annual SENIA conference at Hong Kong Academy! Over 300 members (educators, professionals, and parents) from around the world came together to learn, connect with others in the field, and leave inspired.

Since 2010 I ‘ve attended the Special Education Network In Asia (SENIA) conference yearly. After each, I return home recharged and excited about my role as a special education teacher in an international school. From the moment I walked through the doors of Brent, Manila nine years ago, I felt part of something big, and, for lack of a better word, special.

I could title this blog post 100 Reasons I Love SENIA (now called the Special Education Network & Inclusion Association) but will abbreviate it for the sake of time, something all of us seem short on these days.

So, without further ado, here is my list of 5 reasons I love SENIA.

1. I can use what I learned from my peers on Monday

No joke. Every year I come home with something I can try with my students that very same week. This is not the case at many conferences. I ‘ve been to so many where the focus is on the “why” and not the “how.” Now don ‘t get me wrong, the “why” is important, but if we don ‘t pair that with “how,” then we are just as stuck as we were before the conference began. I want the big picture, and I want action to support getting there.

During session one, I chose to attend Leah Llamzon’s presentation. Leah, an SLP from Singapore

Green’s mind is not in the group. Uh oh.

American School, has been trained in Social Thinking and shared her knowledge of the I LAUGH model with us. The “L” in I LAUGH stands for Listening with Mind and Body. Leah showed us how she makes clay figures of bodies and heads and places them in a circle. When working with her students, if one is obviously thinking about something else, she will take off the head to show the student that his mind is not in the group. Alternatively, if her student has her body turned away from the group, Leah will take the body away. This is a fantastic visual representation for our students with social communication difficulties, and right away I thought, “I ‘m trying this on Monday.” I tried it, and sure enough, it worked brilliantly. I now have two students whose minds and bodies are much more focused on our group lessons due to this incredibly simple tool.

Thank you, Leah!

That is just one example. I ‘m guessing many of you who are reading this have more. Feel free to comment here with your SENIA “take-away.”

2. SENIA learning benefits all students and all teachers

When speaking about SENIA with my colleagues, I ‘ve had many say, “Well, I ‘m not a special educator, so SENIA is not for me.”

“Ahhh”¦,” I say in response, “But it really is. SENIA is for all educators. Information and strategies we learn are best-practice for all students.” Kate Balsamo, SENIA ‘s chairperson, explains it so well in this video.

Our keynote speaker this year, Dr. Laura Flores Shaw, helped us to understand that it ‘s not just our pre-frontal cortex which controls our Executive Functioning Skills. Our cerebellum is also very important, and therefore we need to get up and move to maximize learning. It is obvious that it ‘s not just our diverse learners that need support with Executive Functioning, and adding movement to our day will benefit all learners. While working with one of my students in a 3rd-grade classroom today, the teacher, who attended SENIA, stopped the class to tell them about how important movement is for their learning. She then did a mindfulness lesson focused on movement, preparing her students for the next task at hand. You rock, Caryn!

So much of our learning at SENIA focuses on universal design. If we create systems and design learning to meet the needs of our exceptional learners, we are helping all of our students. When we scaffold our lessons, we help our students work within their zone of proximal development (ZPD) which helps all experience success. Who doesn ‘t want that for their students?

If you ‘ve had a conversation with a colleague similar to mine above, why not encourage him/her to join us next year?

3. Traveling to another country is cool

Something unique about SENIA is that each year the conference is held in another country. This year our host was Hong Kong Academy. (Thanks so much to Kristel Solomon-Saleem and Jennifer Swinehart for all the hard work they did to put on a seamless conference). Not only did this enable professionals from all over Asia (and beyond) to travel to Hong Kong, but we also got to see how Hong Kong Academy works with a managed number of students with special needs to make their school truly inclusive. I think all of us would say that it is more than obvious that HKA cares deeply for their learners and has created an environment which many of our schools aspire to.

Since its inception, SENIA has been all over Asia; China, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Next year we ‘ll be heading back to the Philippines. The conference will be organized by the Manila local chapter of SENIA and hosted at International School Manila. I can ‘t wait to learn from this wonderful group and see inclusion at work in another country.

4. I find myself in awe of others

As a special educator and a mom to a child with special needs, I tend to think I work pretty hard and that I ‘m a strong advocate for our kids. And then I come to a SENIA conference and am blown out of the water by what our students with needs are doing to advocate for themselves and others and by how adults all over are advocating for those with needs in unique and exciting ways.

This year SENIA awarded Seferina Engen from Taiwan the SENIA student award. When Seferina gave her acceptance speech, there was not a dry eye in the house. What a true inspiration! Seferina has a rare genetic disorder which makes learning difficult. Thanks to some incredible teachers and Seferina ‘s self-advocacy, she has gone on to do remarkable things.  She organized over 100 volunteers to run the Hero Games, an Olympic event for children with special needs in Taiwan. She also founded “Make it Shine” in partnership with a local NGO to help kids with special needs explore their creativity through art and sports.” Wow! This is a high school student. I ‘m in awe of Seferina. And, quite frankly, I ‘m in awe of all of the honorary award winners. Each featured was absolutely remarkable.

K.A. accepting her award

Our Advocacy award winner, K.A. Razhiya started a spa training center and business for people with needs. She was such a fun speaker; so full of energy and true passion for what she does.  Max Simpson, an honorary award winner, has opened a vocational training center in Bangkok called STEPS with Theera, which as many of you know, my son Braden attends. These advocates inspire me to think, “What more can I be doing to advocate for students with needs at my school and in my community?”

Therefore, my SENIA word this year is MORE.

5. Networking with like-minded individuals is a gift

Perhaps my favorite part of attending SENIA is meeting other parents, educators and professionals who are passionate about helping all children be successful. Through the years, I ‘ve met so many people who have helped mold me into the professional I am today. The conversations held during coffee breaks, lunch and happy hours are some of the most significant and rewarding parts of my time at SENIA. I learn so much from each person I speak with. I love running into SENIA friends. I first met Donna Bracewell, Reed Rhodes, Tanya Farrol, and Ericson Perez at Brent in 2010 and we have attended many SENIA ‘s together ever since. This is what makes SENIA fun; seeing old friends and meeting new ones each and every year. SENIA friends are forever friends.

+1 Lots of laughs

One of the funniest memories from this year ‘s conference was the bus ride back to the hotel after the happy hour. Watch out, people, I have video proof of the shenanigans going on during that bus trip!

Who knew a bus ride could be so fun?

So those are my top 5 reasons for loving SENIA. Do you love SENIA? I ‘d love to hear why. Share your blog or your experiences and help spread the word.

See you all next year in Manila!

Listen to Kate Balsamo, SENIA Board Chair, as she shares her progressive views on special education in international schools.

Full interview here.

Congratulations to Seferina Engen from Taipei American School as this year ‘s recipient of the SENIA Student Award. This award recognizes a student for advocating awareness for differently abled individuals.

At a young age, Seferina was diagnosed with a rare genetic syndrome. As the doctor explained her diagnosis, she listened to him talk about neuroplasticity and her brain. He explained that with the right strategies and a lot of effort, there was nothing she couldn ‘t accomplish. Teachers supported her by teaching strategies to become organized and how to break down any problem into smaller, more manageable pieces. They taught her to have faith in herself and the learning methods that were successful for her.

Through learning more about herself and advocating for her needs she began to realize that she needed to celebrate her differences and wear them with pride. She set out redefining what is “normal.” She realized long ago it is not enough to hope society changes; she needed to bring about the changes herself””or at least try her best to help others in any way she could. She organized more than 100 volunteers to run the Hero Games, a Special Olympics for special needs children in Taiwan. She also became President of Operation Smile, an association which raises money and awareness for kids with cleft palate. Finally, she founded “Make it Shine” in partnership with a local NGO to help special needs kids explore their creativity through art and sports.

Next year she will be attending university in the UK and she will continue to pursue her passion for advocating for children who are different. In her own words: “I reject this whole label ““ “˜disability. ‘  We are not disabled and we are not dumb, we just think differently. Neurodiversity is a gift to the world, not a problem to be overcome.”

K.A. Razhiyah

Congratulations to K.A. Razhiyah from Panji Secondary School in Malaysia as the recipient of this year ‘s SENIA Advocacy Award.  This award recognizes professionals whose mission is to advocate and provide opportunities to differently abled students.

K.A. has done just that!  As part of the special education branch of her school, she championed the development and training of her students in Teratak Spa.  The idea of Teratak Spa is to provide differently abled students with the transition to work skills in providing spa type treatments ““ facials, scrubs, massages ““ as well as developing SPA products to be sold.  The students go through challenging coursework to register for their Malaysian Skills Certificate based on Modules of Spa Therapy.

The impact on the students in this program has been life-changing. “Practical, work-based learning alongside professionals and being treated like an adult can transform the motivation and aspiration of people with disabilities who have struggled in school, helping them to achieve more than they ever thought they were capable of,” says K.A.

The Teratak Spa began in the local community with students providing services for teachers, parents and fellow students.  Word began to spread about the amazing services offered by the students and soon the invitations began to pore in!  They began with providing services at the Mydin Mall, then they were encouraged to open a SPA booth at the Teacher Training College, Tesco, Balai Islam and on a Teacher ‘s Day Celebration for their state.

K.A. has written many articles and presented at numerous conferences about the benefits of providing students with the life skills necessary to become contributing members of society.  She has received many awards both nationally and internationally for her continued work on providing students with special needs an opportunity to be employed.  To this day, she continues to encourage the spa industry to find a place for her trained students and develop inclusion for all members of society.



This article is reposted from Vanessa’s own blog.

You can never be overdressed or overeducated. – Oscar Wilde

April 2, 2018

I am so eager to reflect on my first EARCOS/SENIA conference that instead of laying by the pool, I’m blogging on my last day of Spring Break. That says something. If it wasn’t obvious before, I am a self-proclaimed education nerd. I just spent half of my Spring Break at a teachers conference (but it was in Bangkok, Thailand!), waking up early, taking rapid notes most of my day, and networking with other educators. I also had an opportunity to share my own passions at a workshop I led entitled: Promoting Self-Advocacy for Students with Learning Differences. Overall the conference was phenomenal, so I’m going to do my best to share the highlights by gleaning my top 4 best take aways.

1) A Takeaway in 5 minutes flat…. A return to “Nothing about us without us”

Within the first minutes of the conference, several “best practices” I learned in graduate school were questioned. Norman Kunc and Emma Van der Klift, the first key-note speakers were captivating. Norman has cerebral palsy and Emma is autistic. That’s right – not a person with autism, but she’s autistic. She reminded us that this is a disability that she can not simply check at the door, but a huge part of who she is, therefore she prefers Identity-First language to Person-First language (lost with this language? read more here). The idea of Person-First language has been drilled into my speech and practice as an educator, but it occurred to me that I had never asked a person with a disability their opinion on the topic. Norm and Emma kept me questioning my current practices in this same way all weekend. We must stop walking on eggshells around the disabled while we write policies, design educational programs, and even curriculum without them and instead engage in conversation to hear their ideas and expertise. “Nothing about us without us.” I’ve always loved this mantra, but now I’m ready to practice it with even more intention.

You must read more about Norman Kunc and Emma Van der Klift’s work! Visit their website.

2) The Sneaky Takeaway… All teachers should let students choose where they sit.

Day 2 I find myself in Bangkok, Thailand listening to a keynote speaker from Wisconsin…my home state…sneaky move EARCOS. Pernille Ripp is not actually from Wisconsin, but that’s where she moved when she was 18 and has stayed every since. Her life story is incredibly interesting, but I’m going to reflect on what some teachers may have considered her least realistic advice. Pernille has spent the past 8 years surveying her 7th graders with the question, “If you could give a room (or ballroom) full of teachers advice, what would it be?”  We tried to guess what they would say… “Make it fun?”, “Don’t give homework?”, “Listen?”. All wrong. Her students said, “All teachers should let students choose where they sit.” I imagine more than half of the ballroom rolling their eyes thinking, yeah right. But Pernille practices what she preaches, and she is a firm believer in student voice and choice. She let’s her students sit wherever they want. I realized that this was now graduate school lesson number 2 to be challenged. What about flexible grouping or preferential seating??? Of course, there is value in these research-based practices, but Pernille convinced me that what is most powerful is listening to students and then providing guidance where necessary. Monday, the seating chart is getting thrown away.

Check out more about this brave educator, Pernille Ripp.

3) My Own Take Away?…What I learned while I was in presenter mode.

Day one. 9:45 sharp. Fifty-three educators, fellow experts, sat blinking at me, waiting for their first workshop of the conference to begin. A quick gulp of water and I’m off ready to show how amazing I am. Then… Slide 4: I talk up Kristen Peltier of Next Frontier Inclusion. Slide 7: I share the words of Paola Pereria, Elementary Principal. Slide 9: Share the expertise of Jerome Lingo, my Life-Skills co-teacher. Slide 10: A video of my incredible student- Nico. Slide 12: Bragging about the support of Dan Kerr, Middle School Principal. Slide 15: More bragging about my most-inspiring student – Paula. WAIT… I thought this was about me?  The truth is every educators journey is just that – a journey. And like most, they are best shared. While presenting, I took pride in talking not about the books I had read, but instead the personal gurus in my life. And that’s why we attend teaching conferences…to meet more gurus. So from the second I arrived, until the last session, I made the most of it. Some attendees may have played hooky by the pool, but I left taking pride in nerding out and meeting more passionate educators. It was the best conference that I’ve ever attended and it was truly an honor to present.

4) My Number 1 Take Away… Educators can be Lifeguards or Swim Instructors

I could not get enough of Emma and Norm, so I attended two more of their workshops. Both Norm and Emma shared stories about growing up with a disability. Norm comically described his speech therapy class that took place in a small closet of a classroom without any of his peers.  He wondered why he was being taught how to properly speak far away from all the peers he regularly spoke with. He made us laugh by saying that we would never teach a child to swim in the parking lot of a swimming pool. Sadly, his punchline is a reality. How often do we still remove students with disabilities from least restrictive environment. Norm and Emma’s experiences served as a reminder that everyone wants to be included and as Emma put it “Segregation is the gift that keeps on giving.” The more we segregate children, the more likely they are to be segregated as adults.

Emma continued with this swimming analogy and pointed out that teachers can either be lifeguards or swim instructors. Educators often want to keep on teaching (oh the seizable teaching moment, how we love those!!). In reality, students with disabilities can have really, really bad days, moments, even breakdowns in which they need rescuing. Educators need to know when to be the swim instructor and when to step in and become a lifeguard. We must “never give swimming lessons when someone is drowning.” Instead, throw out the lifesaver, take pause, and later (even much later) talk about learning from that tough time. As a high school teacher, I know that teenagers are particularly sensitive to this. I don’t want to be remembered as the teacher that just kept trying to provide solutions, but the teacher who listened and heard what my students had to say. The more we do this, the more opportunities students can hear themselves talk and maybe even find their own solutions.

These are just 4 of my takeaways from the SENIA/EARCOS conference. Stay tuned for more reflection as I implement what I’ve learned in my classroom.

What’s happening with SENIA right now? Find out in the SENIA Connection Newsletter!

Check HERE for more information.

Great news! One of SENIA’s Board Members Lori Boll has successfully designed an online class entitled “Executive Functioning and the Teenage Brain” through 21st Century Learning.

Click the video below for an overview of Lori’s class.

For those interested in taking this online class, visit “Executive Functioning and the Teenage Brain” at the 21st Century Learning website.