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Qatar Special Needs Guide: Education

Having explored the healthcare resources available in Qatar to children with special needs in part one of our guide, we turn our focus to education. This guide explores the options that schools, nurseries and special institutions in Doha—both in the public and private sphere—offer to help children and parents overcome physical and learning difficulties.  

Some basic facts to get started 

Qatar's Law n.2 of 2004 provides that people with special needs have the right to education, learning and rehabilitation in accordance with their needs. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE), which is responsible for public and private schools in Qatar, defines individuals with special needs “in a very broad way, as individuals who are overachievers, underachievers, who have physical or mental disabilities”, Emma Higham, Legal Director at Clyde & Co., explained to the Doha Family Guide. “The MEHE also requires that buildings have disabled access for students, teachers and parents.”

Early years 

Some private nurseries in Doha have been striving to take the necessary steps to accept and cater to children with special needs, while not having dedicated medical facilities. 

Giggles Daycare in Al Gharaffa currently has a handful of children with special needs among its pupils and accepts them as long as they are “not too aggressive.” The nursery employs a full-time specialist to assess each child, a psychiatrist, and two staff specialised in working with special needs children. Pupils are divided into groups, depending on their level of learning. While Giggles Daycare does not develop individualised education plans for children, parents who wish to work on one are welcome. If necessary, individual in-class support must be provided by the parents. 

Kanga’s Pouch Nursery in Hazm Al Markhiya accepts children with “broad variances in development”.  Children are assessed in the nursery setting by external specialists either employed by Kanga’s Pouch or chosen by the parents. The nursery does not employ full-time dedicated professionals to shadow children with special needs, but parents can provide one-on-one support to ensure that their individual needs are met. Kanga’s Pouch carries out individualised development and care plans for pupils but also welcomes children with plans already in place. Individual plans are reviewed regularly during parent-teacher meetings.    

TLC Nursery in West Bay Lagoon accepts children with expressive and receptive language delays, learning challenges, ADHD, dyslexia, mild autism spectrum and Down syndrome. Parents must take care of assessing their children’s requirements before applying for a place at TLC. However, the nursery can also recommend a therapist and counsellor to do so. The nursery only adopts already devised individual educational programmes from the children’s therapists, where necessary. TLC does not employ dedicated professionals to support children on a one-on-one basis, nor does it encourage parents to hire external aides. 

Pre-school and kindergarten 

The Child Development Centre (CDC) at Rumailah Hospital—part of publicly owned Hamad Medical Corporation—is a comprehensive rehabilitation unit for children with mild to moderate disabilities that includes a pre-integration programme to prepare children between three and six years old to go to school. To access the Child Development Centre’s programmes, children must have a referral from a physician either within Hamad Medical Corporation or from another public or private healthcare provider in Qatar. 

Part of not-for-profit organisation Qatar Foundation, Renad Academy opened in September 2016 to provide educational services to students with autism spectrum disorder. “Following a rigorous intake assessment, students will be provided with an integrated instructional programme that uses evidence-based instructional strategies, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and adaptive life skills”, according to Qatar Foundation. Renad Academy currently only accepts children from three years old to Kindergarten, but there are plans to add a grade each year, so the school should also accept first graders in 2018. Qatari children have first preference at Renad Academy, which has not yet accepted expat students at the time of writing.  

Some private kindergartens in Doha also accept children with special needs and employ dedicated personnel to meet their individual needs.

Al Nebras International Preschool (The Montessori Way) in West Bay uses teaching materials that engage all senses, which according to Director Lamia Ibrahim is important for children with distinct learning styles. Al Nebras employs a social worker specialised in psychiatry and provides one-on-one support to its pupils to the extent its resources allow. Should additional support be required, parents need to hire external professionals, who will be trained to work in a Montessori setting by the school. Teachers at Al Nebras draft individualised plans for each child, regardless of whether they have special needs. The kindergarten follows an open-door policy, whereby parents can walk in at any time to observe their child in their classroom. 

German Kindergarten Villa Kinderwelt in Al Mamoura accepts children with special needs on a case-by-case basis, following an individual assessment. The German kindergarten employs two special needs teachers and works based on individualised education plans for each pupil, regardless of whether they have special needs. Children with plans already in place are also welcome. The need for one-on-one support will be assessed individually with the parents and must be arranged by the latter. “Should in-class support be necessary, we will find the right person together with the parents”, explained Villa Kinderwelt Principal Ramona Schwalbenhofer. The kindergarten currently has four children with special needs among its students—two in each class—and is accessible to wheelchair users. 

Primary and secondary school

GEMS American Academy in Al Wakra has a Special Educational Needs department that supports students with a range of learning differences, including autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, and general learning delays. The school employs dedicated professionals, including learning support assistants, special needs teachers and a speech therapist. “Some pupils will have a learning support assistant with them all day, while others may only have one occasionally depending on need”, explained Stephen Kellet, Elementary School Principal at GEMS American Academy. Individualised plans for all students with special needs are developed with the involvement of their parents and medical providers. If a pupil has a plan already in place, this will be reviewed and updated upon joining the school. GEMS American Academy is equipped with a lift and wide entry doors, however, most washroom facilities are unsuitable for wheelchair users. 

King’s College Doha in Al Thumama is equipped to receive and meet the needs of students with learning disabilities such as mild autism spectrum disorder, Asperger syndrome and social difficulties, dyslexia and Down syndrome. The school employs full-time learning support assistants who shadow teachers in the classrooms and support pupils on a one-on-one basis. A speech therapist also visits the school twice a week. “Our aim is to ensure that children are cognitively able to cope with being in the classroom, albeit with support from a qualified learning support assistant”, explained Klelia Antoniou, Head of Learning Support at King’s College Doha. “The long-term goal is ultimately to achieve the independence of each child.” The school does not have children with physical disabilities among its students at the time of writing, however, ramps can be arranged to make it accessible if necessary. 

French School Lycée Bonaparte in West Bay accepts children with learning disabilities and social difficulties. It employs several learning support assistants, who are constantly in contact with the parents. From 2017, the French school also plans to add a part-time psychologist to its personnel. Where necessary, Lycée Bonaparte provides in-class support to its students. “A pedagogic team is built for each student with special needs with the teachers, parents, a school director and a coordinator who manages the project and the team in order to build an individual education plan”, Isabelle Hary, in charge of communications at Lycée Bonaparte, explained to the Doha Family Guide. “If an individual education plan is already in place when the child joins our school, the pedagogical team studies it and ponders the possibility of adapting it to the school-specific conditions.” Access ramps and a lift are available at Lycée Bonaparte. 

The Phoenix Private School in Al Mamoura accepts children with mild to moderate learning difficulties, social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, communication difficulties, and medical conditions that may affect education. The school, which currently has as many as 27 pupils with special needs among its students, employs a speech therapist who acts as special educational needs coordinator (SENCO). It is also responsible for hiring and training shadow teachers who provide in-class support. Individual education plans that define specific developmental targets for each pupil are designed and regularly reviewed by the SENCO, the class teachers and the parents. “If a child does come in with a plan, we aim to follow it initially”, said The Phoenix Private School’s SENCO. “Also, if children attend external therapies like occupational therapy or applied behaviour therapy, we will try and incorporate some of the therapy targets into the education plans.” 

Qatar-Finland International School in Al Khissa accepts students with mild learning disabilities such as dyslexia, visual perception difficulties, mild autism spectrum disorder, mild Asperger and some physical disabilities. The school employs two counsellors and a number of special needs teachers. Parents can hire their learning assistants for one-on-one support, however, these must be interviewed and approved by the school. “In the Finnish system, we don't use the term shadow teacher”, explained special needs teacher Meriliisa Heiskanen. In line with the Finnish three-tiered support system, Qatar-Finland International School develops personal learning plans for each student. Should students need additional learning, social or emotional support, an extended personal learning plan will be created. Only when this is not enough, the student’s teachers, counsellors and parents will discuss an individual education plan. The school is equipped with ramps and an elevator. 

Dedicated special needs centres 

The main public institution dedicated to the rehabilitation of children with special needs is the Shafallah Centre in Lusail. Established in 1999, Shafallah offers psychological and educational support, including family counselling and art and music classes, to children aged three to 16. It also aims to “spread disability awareness” in Qatar. The centre has a dedicated autism unit and a job training department that offers teaching, vocational training, rehabilitation, habilitation, employment and post-employment services to young adults aged 19 to 21 “to facilitate a successful transition from school to employment”.  All Shafallah services are completely free of charge and are accessible by both Qatari and expat children. 

Awsaj Academy in Education City provides a wide range of learning support services to all Qatar Foundation schools for students from six months to early adulthood. “Awsaj Academy serves students with learning challenges who are behind academically compared to their peers and need a special programme to catch up,” Admissions Administrator Hana Kamal Salim told the Doha Family Guide. Awsaj Academy gives first preference to Qatari students and, due to a long waiting list, has not accepted expat children for the past few years. 

In the private sphere, a handful of centres entirely dedicated to children with special needs have been emerging in Doha over the past years to support families with ad-hoc services and assistance.  

The Child Development Centre in Al Dafna is a multi-disciplinary centre that provides early detection and intervention for children with developmental delays. "Our overall mission is to facilitate individual development for children through family support and a nurturing educational environment”, Senior ABA Therapist Jenelle Olalo told Doha Family. “We focus on a child’s individual strengths while promoting his or her social, emotional, cognitive, communicative and physical development." The Child Development Centre also advocates support groups for parents and families in Qatar and frequently organises workshops for parents of children with special needs.  

The Mind Institute in Abu Hamour is a new, purpose-built centre equipped to support children from birth to 18 years old with a wide range of developmental challenges. It offers holistic, non-medical daily intervention programmes as well as after-school programmes in English, French and Arabic. “The Mind Institute was created as a catalyst of demonstrable change for children with special needs and their families in Qatar”, said Founder and Director Manal Hassiba. The Mind Institute offers a broad range of services ranging from speech and language therapy to school-based and home-based therapy to music and dance therapy. “Our clinicians have vast experience working with children in a range of different contexts, including establishing and managing therapy services in school settings, which is something we are aiming to introduce and develop here in Qatar”, added Hassiba. All facilities at the Mind Institute are fully accessible to wheelchair users.

The Ontario Center for Special Education in Abu Hamour accepts children and young adults aged two to 25. “As the mother of a 17-year-old boy with autism, I found it scary that the cut-out age for special needs services and schools was between 16 and 18,” Founder Mariam Al Rashdi told the Doha Family Guide. “I wondered what would happen to my son after that.” The Center runs two distinct programmes, located in separate buildings. The first aims at preparing younger children for school and—where possible—at integrating them in mainstream schools with afternoon support. This programme includes classes for nonverbal children who need alternative methods of communication and are not ready for inclusion in mainstream schools. The second programme is aimed at young adults—it focuses less on academic skills and more on vocational training and developing social skills to facilitate students’ independence. 

The founder of Pro-Tem in Duhail knows the challenges of being a special needs student all too well. “As a dyslexic person, I have found my path through the education system stressful, to say the least,” said Amanda Owles, founder of Pro-Tem. “This struggle shaped my passion to support others with learning differences or special educational needs and disabilities. I was fortunate enough to have extremely supportive parents. This support resulted in my completion of GCSEs, A-levels and degrees at university—despite my parents being advised I should only consider jobs that did not need qualifications.” Pro-Tem provides assessments on children’s needs, one-to-one teaching, as well as emotional support and insight into children’s needs for parents and schools.

Step By Step Centre for Special Needs in Al Waab provides specialised teaching in a school setting and individual afternoon therapy sessions to children aged three to 16 with mild to moderate learning, communication and behaviour challenges. Step By Step Centre, which currently works with over 100 pupils, assesses each child and prepares a detailed report for parents with a proposed treatment plan based on the child’s strengths and weaknesses. An individualised education plan is then drawn on the basis of the treatment plan. The centre also provides home training for parents, as well as “drop in” sessions, which are intended to support and equip parents for their role. Step By Step employs full time learning-support teachers, psychologists, special education teachers, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists who support children on a one-on-one basis. 

After-school activities

Freestyle Aquatics offers aquatics classes such as swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving to physically disabled children (over eight years old) and adults.

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