A new law to enter into force on 1 September 2024 will require every child to be given the opportunity to study at their nearest educational institution. This means that children with disabilities will be able to study in mainstream preschools and general education institutions, equally with others.There are currently 47 segregated ‘special needs’ schools in Lithuania, attended by about a third of all school-age children with disabilities. Forcing them to attend such educational institutions leads to children’s exclusion later in life, problems with communication and general development. Inclusive education aims to remove physical, emotional, informational, and social barriers, providing quality education for every child at their nearest educational institution together with their peers, with all the support necessary for their individual needs to be met. Leaders of Lithuania’s political parties signed an agreement on education policy on 1 September 2021, agreeing to test and implement inclusive education measures in at least 5 municipalities and schools by the end of 2023. This will allow for a consistent expanding of the network of institutions fostering inclusive education.
Adapting the Schools
According to the action plan for inclusion, guidelines for schools based on principles of universal design will have to be developed. This means that educational institutions will have to meet the needs of all community members – for example, the place of education will have to be accessible, safe, attractive, functional, with clear visual and audio directions. With financial support from the European Union, 36 pre-schools and general education institutions will be renovated by 2024.
The aim is to adapt the schools both for students with mobility problems and for children with developmental or learning disabilities, who experience sensory and emotional issues, so that they are provided with safe spaces to de-stress and relax. The plan is to procure specialised training and technical aid for schools, and to train education specialists to use these tools.
To implement the project, it is necessary to improve teachers' capabilities. The action plan provides for practical training on inclusive education and on improving the school environment. In addition, there will be training for teams of teachers and education specialists on implementing updated curricula to allow all children to learn effectively. There will also be permanent and mobile specialist counseling teams in municipalities, so that teachers, heads of schools, and education support workers are able to get the needed advice timely.
To provide students with disabilities all the support they need, it is planned to hire additional education support workers in schools every year according to the existing need (and availability). An inclusive classroom model will also be developed and implemented, allowing for several children with severe disabilities to be taught in a regular class. As such, at least two teachers (or other staff providing personal assistance to students) will be working with the class at the same time to integrate general group activities with individual ones.
‘Special’ schools will still be around following the implementation of the inclusion project. At the request by parents (or guardians, or caregivers), they will teach children with severe disabilities, who need constant nursing care. It will be parents who, after having had an opportunity to consult with municipal psychology experts, will decide whether to send their child to a mainstream school or a ‘special’ school.While it is believed that full inclusion will not be achieved due to children’s differing individual needs, it is hoped that the proportion of students with disabilities in mainstream pre-schools and general education institutions will rise gradually. For example, the aim is to have 65% of children with disabilities to be attending general education facilities by 2024, 85% by 2025, and 90% by 2030.
Inclusive Education in Practice
In 2020, the implementation of an inclusive education project started in Plungė (a town in Lithuania with about 17,000 residents). In one of the schools here, it is aimed for children with disabilities to study together with their peers in full capacity. With financial support from the state, the school has set up a special educator's office, where children with reading, writing, attention-deficit, and other learning difficulties are given additional schooling, either individually or in small groups. There is also now a relaxation room with art therapy sessions available once a week.
According to the school principal, the school’s community strives not to make children with disabilities feel different from other students, but to give them the opportunity to become part of the group and class, and to learn together with others. Furthermore, the school’s administration has been working closely with its community – for example, teachers carry out thematic emotional literacy and social education sessions for children, while parents are invited to lectures taught by psychologists. Notably, these activities have positive results – parents are welcoming of the idea of their children studying together with children with disabilities; and levels of bullying have gone down among students.
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