Sarah is our very first Otherwise guest.
Nikki and Sarah covered a wide range of topics around Sarah’s life in Vietnam, how her daughter was diagnosed with ADHD and the supports the school is offering, including the emergence and growth of the Learning Support program in the school over the past 13 years. Sarah also initiated a Neurodiversity parents support group in the school and she talks about the process of how she started it and how she integrated it into the local community as well.
The transcript of the episode is below.
EKLD Sarah Gardner
Nikki: Today, we’re welcoming. Sarah and Sarah is joining us from Vietnam where she is in her second part of the quarantine process. Is that right?
Sarah: The second part, it was seven days, hotel quarantine with a couple of COVID tests, and now it’s seven days home isolation. And so I could probably go out to go to the grocery store, but I’m more comfortable staying at home for another seven days. .
Nikki: Great. Well, and that’s a story that most people will be familiar with or have some understanding of after the last two years of the world. But we just open with a few questions. What are you listening to watching or reading at the moment?
Sarah: I had three books that I was trying to read in quarantine but I found myself staring at the wall more than, than reading them.
And so I just ended up watching a New Zealand show, that’s now an American show that What We Do In The Shadows, the vampire TV series. Yeah. And just laughing.
Nikki: Okay. Yeah. And then other is when’s the last time you traveled, but,
Sarah: well, I actually, I went to Bangkok in the end of January, 2020 for a health checkup, and then we came back and then like the next day they, they started shutting down Vietnam and then I haven’t traveled outside of Vietnam until this August when I took my oldest child for a gap year in the States. And I intended to be in the U S for six weeks or so, but the Vietnamese governments, bureaucracies are very slow turning and it ended up being exactly four months. That I was out of Vietnam.
Nikki: And what’s the last snack you ate?
Sarah: The last snack. I ate some salted licorice that I brought back for my Dutch husband.
Nikki: That’s very European, Danish, Dutch.
Sarah: double salt, double salted.
Nikki: So if you can share with everybody a little bit about what your globally mobile story is. So how it started .
Sarah: We are the story of how my met my husband. I usually do. Do you want the long version or the short version?
And the short version is we met on a sailboat in the Caribbean, and then the long version is that my best friend from undergraduate her stepmother was his boss for an NGO in Cambodia. And they invited us to both go sailing. That was 22 years ago.
Nikki: Wow. Okay.
And so you met and then did you immediately change countries or?
Sarah: No, actually we did long distance for four years. I then after we met, we went on a couple of vacations together and then I started law school and he was working in Cambodia. So he would, and he would work for two months and then take two months off. And so he’d come visit me. While I was studying. And so then I did the three years of law school and then I did a master’s in library and information science. And then after that, we were trying to decide what to do. And he said, I can go get a full-time job in Egypt, but we have to get married to do that. You can’t come live with me. And we said, okay, let’s get married. And that was in 2002. And so then we ended up in Egypt for four years. He was working for a sexual and reproductive health NGO, and then he got a job opportunity in Hanoi and we came here and we kept thinking we would going to leave and we haven’t.
And it’s been 15 years now in Hanoi.
Nikki: 15 years. So where you, where your children.
Sarah: Two were born in Cairo and one in Hanoi. Okay.
Nikki: Wow. Now that’s a long time. You don’t normally hear of people being so long in
Sarah: no, it’s it’s, you’re not, unless you marry a local.
Sarah: That people stay this long. So there’s, there’s a few couples like us, but not many.
Nikki: Yeah. So your kids have being in the same school the whole time.
Sarah: The same school started. Yeah, it was my oldest just graduated last year and they, because it was a virtual ceremony because the city was in lockdown and there’s, I want to say there were 80. Kids or so, and they sort of, they’ve had a nice screen where they showed all the faces and as the kids were there, you know, the people who came in 10th grade, the people who came in ninth grade and it went down to the three-year-olds and there were only three of them.
There were three, there were three
Nikki: That’s a lot like three.
He is a lot from three till, till final graduation. That’s amazing. And so the question would be, did you start your journey before you knew your family had a different or additional educational needs? And the answer was. Yes.
Sarah: Yes, yes we did. And we didn’t, I mean, I didn’t know much about learning differences.
My first child was very neuro-typical. You know, she’s the first born child of two firstborn children and who are very successful. And we, she just, you know, she just got on with things and my middle child , and I think this, our personal family growth sort of coincided with our school’s own educational professional development.
As the school became more aware of learning differences. And we did as well, because, you know, are they in kindergarten or first grade? The teachers would say things like, oh, she’s so high-spirited or she can’t sit still. Or, you know, she has some impulse control issues and, you know, if anyone had ever said, we think she has ADHD at that time, my husband and I would have been doing a lot of research and figuring out how we could support her.
But instead we were. Going down to other avenues because of the words that they used and this, the school just didn’t have the education as well. And that, that has changed. I wanna say at least a decade, maybe 12 years ago, they hired a learning support teacher. The Board that I joined the school board at 14 years ago.
I was on it for seven years and the head of school and other leadership. Were talking about diversity and inclusion. It was baby steps. We were talking about, you know, kids who were blind or kids who are deaf or, you know, making sure we had, you know, elevator access, you know, we didn’t really have the tools to think about what the, the spectrum of learning differences in someone’s brain was.
And that, that just kept. Expanding and growing exponentially over the years. And so the learning support teacher, I think started in middle school and they hired one for high school. Then they hired one for the elementary school. But, you know, there was no speech pathology. There wasn’t a school psychologist.
It was just, they were growing and doing the best they could. And those teachers were then educating all the mainstream teachers at the same time, but in a school I think a lot of international schools outside of Europe, Are similar to ours in that there’s a lot of teacher turnover. You know, I think, you know, 10 to 20% of the teachers leave every two years because they come for the two year contract or they stay a couple more years, but we don’t have teachers who stay for 20 years the way you would in a lot of the European countries.
And so, you know, the school was doing a lot of teaching to their teachers, but then that would be lost as they went to other schools. I mean, the other schools would benefit from that, but trying to keep a critical mass of teachers who were all on the same page, It took the school a long time. I think, I think they’re doing really well now, but yeah.
Nikki: And how did, how did they do that? How do they do that?
Sarah: It just, it’s, it’s a matter of. Having administration who are invested in putting money into personal, into professional development for the teachers, the teachers at our school, this may not be the case anymore. When I was involved, they all had a professional development budget and they could choose to spend that how they wanted to going to a particular conference or taking a course.
And then there were internal professional development. And we had a couple of administrators who were very interested in special education or neurodiversity or whatever the terms they were using. And they would, you know, they would have an entire day where the whole faculty could learn about. And I think in that, you know, once the teachers get ahold of this, you know, then they get excited and they go, oh, I recognize it in that child.
And I recognize it and that children and they have more tools to be better educators.
Nikki: So what I’ve often found is, is that teachers don’t say, they say what your, your teacher said to you, your child is very high spirited, or, you know, they can’t sit still a teacher can’t directly say to you, you should have your child assessed.
Sarah: Well, we did have teachers who said that later if we had yeah. But a lot of them don’t have the courage or the knowledge to, to know necessarily. And so, I mean, it takes, you know, when you have a new, an elementary school kid, a teacher who’s teaching 25 kids and, you know, maybe, you know, it’s 20 different nationalities and some of them are not native English speakers.
You know, there’s a lot to figure out in terms of actual Typical growth of a child’s brain versus what is divergent from that. And so it just takes a lot of time to get to know kids and have the confidence to say, I think something’s not right. And then how do I articulate that to the parents who may or may not be receptive?
I think my husband and I were not necessarily the typical parents in that we were like, yes. Okay. How can we help our kid? We are on the same team. Let’s move this forward. A lot of parents don’t want a diagnosis. They’re scared what that means for their job or that they’re, you know, they’re grieving that their child’s life is going to be different than how they expected it.
You know, there’s, there’s so many different elements and that’s a lot to put on a teacher.
Nikki: True. That’s true. I mean, I had a teacher, a teacher call me and say, yeah, no, this is what’s going on, on the second day of school, you know,
Sarah: That helps so much. If you get someone who’s that direct and that confident.
Nikki: Yeah. It, it, was a lot for me to take because I had no information or, or thought process about it before she made the call to me. So it was a lot, I hadn’t had the gentle lead in at all. I just, it was. Your child’s probably autistic. And so you need to have this assessment done. So that, that was a lot to take on a phone call.
But since then, I’ve been actually quite grateful for that, because as you said, I didn’t get any, I didn’t have years of, you know, this is problematic, you know, your child needs, it has behavioral issues, et cetera, et cetera. It was all straight upfront. And everybody was on the same page immediately, which was really helpful and easy for us.
Sarah: That for me, the number one most valuable thing was the PE Teacher. Because they’re the ones that see the most And so a lot of times when you have the parent teacher conferences, people say, oh, I’m not going to bother with the music teacher, the art teacher, the PE teacher, because that’s not their, you know, they don’t see that person every day.
But for some reason we had a couple of really great PE teachers who would be like, right. It’s not working in these areas. And so I would always meet with the PE teacher first, and then I would have specific examples to go then talk to all the other teachers and say, are you seeing this in your class?
And they’d go, oh yes, actually we are, but it would never occur to them. Point that out. So for elementary school kids is what I mean?
Nikki: No, no for sure. And then there’s the other thing where children are very drawn to music or something. And the music teacher says this child is amazing. They’re very focused and they, and all the others in the class teachers, he just saying the child’s a mess, you know, we can’t finish work.
And so that is a clue like that, that, you know, Be looking at something that you can help or off have the school offer support to your child. And so those teachers don’t necessarily talk to each other either. So about that, and it’s particularly in elementary school. So it’s up to parents to sort of piece it together.
Sarah: Absolutely. And that’s where, I mean, you, you are your child’s greatest advocate. I mean, it sounds like such a cliche to say, but you know, just, you know, document things, keep track of things. You know, in this, remember, you know, you and the teachers are on the same team and the goal is to have your child be happy and successful in school.
And, you know, it’s, it’s sometimes you have to be a bit more of an advocate than you’d like, but you know, they’ve got a whole bunch of other kids, children that they’re looking at. And, you know, we, as the parent are the expert in the child or the child, you know, asking the child, getting the child involved, you know, that that is a whole new, you know, as the children get older and they’re more involved.
You know, that adds an extra thread of how you talk to each other, how you talk to the teacher, how, you know, the three-way meetings are far more interesting when the child has ownership over the process as well..
Nikki: Yeah. Some children don’t feel comfortable being involved in that because they feel a little bit alienated in the school, school community.
Because of their relationships with their teachers and, you know, it’s a difficult, difficult process to facilitate that
Sarah: It’s not the same for every family or every child. Absolutely. I mean, at what I remember at one point we, our child, our middle child was in sixth grade and they wanted to have a meeting with her too, so that we could make some progress.
And I think it was four or five of her teachers came in and they all just repeated the same thing at her. And it was just sitting there and my husband. You know, being more of a direct Dutch person than, than me as an American when, all right, we’re done here because she’s heard the message and this doesn’t have to, you know, you’re sort of ganging up on her and for parents to have the courage to say, you know, this is actually is not in the child’s best interest.
You may think you’re being helpful, but this is not. Yeah. So you do have to always sort of be careful of make sure, you know, protecting your child and their mental health and their self-esteem. Yeah. Along the way.
Nikki: So you’ve talked about how your school has grown from not being easily able to identify things, to having learning support processes in place and teachers in place and then professional development.
So that’s, that’s a huge growth that you’ve been able to observe. And you’re probably able to share that with people that come into the school now. And do you find now that there are more families with children with additional needs then were, when you first started at the school or is it just,
Sarah: I think there are I don’t know if that is an outgrowth of this school’s willingness to take more children. I think in general international schools are very conservative places. It depends on the country that they’re in, but you know, the average international school can be selective in who they admit to their school.. If they say we can cater to this range of needs, and if you fall outside of that, sorry for your luck, you know, the way an American public school has to provide supports to it, to a child regardless of the cost. And so for, for many years, I think international schools had the luxury of saying, no, sorry, too hard. And now, because they are becoming more inclusive, they are investing.
They’re making the effort to. Let kids with wider. They have, they have the supports to actually help more kids. But you know, it’s still not the same as a public school system. I don’t know about the Australian system or European systems as much because as I have been at this one school for so long, and I have my own American school experiences, but they haven’t had to be really good at this.
So it’s, it’s been a. I think continuous progress has been made by many schools and teachers are interested in this. I mean, teachers want to help their students. And so, you know, having this in their, their toolbox of skillsets is something that they’re proud of.
Nikki: And does your school advertise that it, that it takes children with ILP’s or IEP’s…
Sarah: My kids started at age three, so I I’d have to go back and look on their website. They probably do. One of the things that they have done is. And they have created this sort of student. It was called student support team. Now I think it’s called student success team. Some, something like that.
And they, the administration, the counselors, the learning support teachers or academic skills teachers with the names change and the different departments are all together. And they look at each child and some of the children are. Neurodiverse children, some of the kids are they it’s, whether it’s English as a second language, whether it is kids who are really gifted, you know, they’re, they’re catering. They’re trying to make more of an effort to cater to each individual child. I mean, looking at an ILP or an EDU psych report, my oldest. Looked at her siblings and went well, I want one of those. I would like to know my own strengths and weaknesses and, you know, honestly, I mean, if you look at them and you’re like, it is really cool to see how your brain works and you know what, you’re good at what you’re not so good at and, you know, play to your strengths or whatever it is.
But, you know, if you could, you know, if every student could have something like that, but it’s incredibly time consuming. So it doesn’t seem very realistic.
Nikki: No. Did she ever get one your oldest child?
Sarah: No, no, no.
Nikki: No Wisc testing? We met online. And one of the ways that we started talking was that you talked about developing a tool for parents at your school or a group for parents, which was like an official and structured learning support, or I’m not sure what you called it, but Parents Group that we’re able to …. Can you talk a little bit about how that started and how you did it?
Sarah: Sure. Well, a lot of that I had, I had stepped off the board, but I understood how the school worked. And. It was, it was sort of an opportunity to be brave and to start talking to other parents about the challenges that my kid have.
And it started very small with a couple of good friends. And this is, this is one of those things where it’s difficult for ex-pats to be vulnerable and say I’m having a hard time, but, you know, just, just in passing. Oh, you know, you know, I think my kid’s been struggling in school. I think we’re going to look about seeing about an ADHD diagnosis and we’re figuring out how to do that.
And then invariably, if you mentioned anything. The other person often reciprocates with a vulnerable share of their own. And so, you know, a few key people went, oh yeah, my kid’s struggling too. And over the years, you know, informally, we were all sort of supporting each other because things in Vietnam are difficult in terms of accessing support, whether it’s an English language, Vietnamese language, but just, you know, finding, you know, therapists, finding doctors who can dispense medication, finding the Edu psych report people.
I mean, these things that would be very basic in the States or Australia are r eally challenging here. And so just helping parents navigate that. And then, you know, we just started getting together regularly for coffee, a few of us, and then we said, this would just, this would be nice if we could sort of have an actual group where we came together as parents and figured out how we could be better parents to support our kids.
It was never about fixing how the school’s learning support programs go or not even about how to navigate those, but just to talk to each other and say, This book is great, or this pharmacy is closer than this farmer, you know, really basic stuff. And so we reached out to the school and, you know, schools are never really fast moving cases.
So it took a couple of years where we were meeting in formally, but then this, we eventually came under the auspices of the school’s parent teacher association, because their mandate is to provide community. For everybody. And we said it would be really nice to have this parent group. The similar to how you have the, you know, the athletic booster support or whatever, we would like to have a parent interest group.
And so they talked to the school on our behalf and the school and the parent teacher organization sort of hashed out how that would look as a generic parent support group, so that any other parent group that might be interested in creating something similar would have a format to follow whether it was LGBTQIA groups, or, you know, the Korean parents association or whatever it is that they would all have the same access to support from the school and the people to talk about at the school so that things could be institutionalized.
And, you know, we have, we have paperwork that I’m happy to share with anybody about, you know, how, you know, the description of our group, what we try to do with our monthly meetings, with how the school supports us. A lot of this fell by the wayside with COVID in the past 18 months. And so we, we had to be a lot more flexible.
But we’re hoping in the next few months to, to get backward, you know, we’re not allowed on campus. So we’ve been meeting off campus. We haven’t done a lot of zoom meetings cause we, for the most part, we were either able to meet or people were in lockdown and didn’t want to go anywhere, anywhere and had to help their children with distance learning.
So it didn’t have free time to be on a zoom call anyway. But it’s really small things that we were doing, but, and we would have people show up that, you know, out of. You know, everywhere, you know, people that we didn’t know, someone, you know, originally it was supposed to be an ADHD support group, parents of kids with ADHD, but then, you know, some other parents said, you know, my kid has dyslexia or my kid.
And so it just, and so that’s where we changed the name to neuro-diverse families, so that it was sort of an umbrella group that would allow anybody to join. I’m still not sure that’s the best. Solution, but that’s what works in Hanoi at this time. One of the things that we were intending to be just for our school, but word got out through the parent community and parents from other schools wanted to be involved.
And so we have our school group and then we have one for the wider Hanoi community and also in the past couple of years, SENIA which I never remember what that stands for in entirety, special education. Inclusion association, something like that. You know, they have, have a chapter in Vietnam for the past year or so past, maybe two years.
And we’re working to partner with them to get more support from professionals who can come and talk to us at monthly. Yeah. Yeah. And their chapter, did that start amongst the educators? Yes, it’s really focused on the, on the, on the teachers. And they’re trying to find all the, the access of you know, the occupational therapists and the speech therapists and the psychologists.
And they have one member who’s sort of charged with outreach to the local community to try to, to increase information and access for that, which I think is tremendous. Because it’s not just the expats and the foreigners who need help. It’s also local families who may not have, they don’t have this, they don’t have the information either.
We’re all in the same boat. I think more or less..
Nikki: What have you found is as been like what you said, we did some things you had people speak to you. How involved was the school like to the school?
Sarah: The school has offered support. They ended up offering us two or three meetings a year that they would help organize on campus.
And so the very first one that they did really, I mean, it’s, it’s a very basic thing, but it’s, it was awesome to know about what learning support looks like.. From discovery to grade 12. So, you know, the elementary school, the middle school, the high school, all the teachers sort of from a holistic view, what that looks like.
So all parents from all the different sections could sort of hear about what was on offer. And, you know, so, and, you know, just something like that is really valuable to get the information out there. And it was a really well attended meeting, usually meetings aren’t that well attended, unless it’s, you know, related to the canteen or buses, you know, those are the hot topics usually, but this, this, you know, people, you know, and it, it, we’re not requiring people to have formal diagnoses to be a member of this, you know, it’s just.
If you’re you have come some concerns about your child, or you have an interest or whatever, you know, come along. There’s, you know, its membership is open to anybody.
Nikki: You’ve talked about how Vietnam is difficult from a medical perspective or from a support perspective. So were you able to get the support that you needed in country?
Or did you have you had to go externally for that? Obviously you’ve got a little bit of an advantage because you’ve got medical professional in your family.
Sarah: So we are, there are people who can do the Edu psych testing. Most of them are in Ho Chi Minh. Not Hanoi so, but they come up on a regular basis.
COVID not withstanding. And so there are arrangements that could be made that way the school is now able to offer them as well to students through that. Now we have a school psycho full-time school psychologist. We found it easier to not wait because our, our child has moving from elementary school to middle school.
And we didn’t want her sitting around waiting for something that we know could help her immediately. So we paid out of pocket ourselves for, for someone to test her. But if people are more patient, they, they could go through the school route that is available and there are increasing numbers of. Other supports, you know, executive function tutors or the, the speech therapist or whatever.
There are, there are more people coming with skills. A lot of them are, you know, spouses who didn’t come to work or increasingly we’ve been getting more talented south Africans coming into Vietnam. Who have great skills,
Nikki: Executive function coach there that’s external to the school, but this school has a psychologist on staff.
Sarah: Yes. The learn the executive function coach is someone that we hired. Originally. We had been recommended her through one of the learning support teachers and she came and worked with our children, you know, twice a week for an hour, an hour and a half, just to, you know, help them with extra support of figuring out how to do homework or because one of the things that we were told early on is that.
It’s better for us to be their parents than to also help them with school. That home should be a really safe place and that they shouldn’t feel hounded or badgered or bad. And so we made the decision to have someone come help with homework, just to keep that separation a bit cleaner. And that worked out really well for us.
Yeah. I mean, cause I mean she calls, I mean, I mean, do you remember what school was like? It’s not easy for the kids who were, you know, excelling sometimes. And so just to say, you know, home is always going to be a good place. And you’ll only have to have this person come in and work with you for a couple hours a week.
And so our middle child did that for three and a half years, and then they, they, we went from two sessions to one session a week and eventually, you know, they sort of, she, my child said, I think I don’t need this help anymore. The tutor agreed. And that’s that?
Nikki: That’s amazing. I’m interested in the psychologist on staff. I don’t know that many schools do have a psychologist on staff. So it is their time mostly taken up by like this educational psychology and function, or is it, is it they operate in a counselor capacity as well, or ?
Sarah: I’m not entirely certain. I, I think. They were hired to be a full-time psychologist doing this testing.
I think things may have changed during COVID that they ended up doing more counseling as well. And that may, I think things have gone back to a hundred percent psychology. I don’t know what they do besides the testing. But I think there are now separate they’re separate counselors. Again,
Nikki: You’ve had a long history with the school, which is great because that’s continuity and for you and for your children and for the educators, even though there is the staff turnover issue.
So what’s sort of the best school experience that you’ve had for your, what’s been something that’s really delighted you in terms of what surprised and delighted you in terms of school experience?
Sarah: Well, I mean, for me, I mean, for me, it was when, you know, our, our, our middle child was really happy going to school again.
I mean, she really hid how unhappy she was during elementary school years. And I don’t think we understood just how difficult it was for. And then, so having a teacher in middle school who was so clearly a hundred percent behind her thought, she was awesome. Thought she could succeed. You know, that just, that changed a lot.
And then the other part was getting her medicated. She loves her ADHD meds and you know, how they help her concentrate. I mean, that’s not for everybody. I understand with medicine. That just, that was a game changer for us. And, you know, she’s, she’s doing as well as, as can be expected in COVID times, but, you know, she’s, we don’t worry about her anymore. And so that’s the
Nikki: That’s a win, that’s a win
Sarah: I’m nervous about university, it’s going to be different when she doesn’t have two parents and teachers hovering over her. But you know, that that’s a problem for another day. Definitely.
Nikki: Has there been a failure or less successful situation that you’ve learned from?
Sarah: Well, I mean, I think it was, you know, her entire elementary school years and that we just sort of assumed if there was a real problem, the school would have told us about it.
And I really can’t tell other, you know, other parents enough, if you think if something feels wrong to you and your gut or your kid, isn’t happy, you know, don’t stop until you solve it. Figure, I mean, it, it, it can be, you know, it’s hard to be an advocate and, you know, to feel like you’re in confrontation with a teacher, who’s doing their best and thinks they’re being supportive.
But, you know, I mean, for a long time we sat there, you know, one of the nicest things in my parents’ support group, when I was talking to a friend of mine about, you know, I felt so bad that it took until sixth grade to get her diagnosed, as opposed to all these other kids who I hear about being diagnosed in kindergarten or first grade.
And she’s like she said, you know, my kid didn’t get diagnosed until 12th grade. And there’s so many people who have ADHD, who don’t discover it or get diagnosed until their forties and they struggled their entire lives with this. And so, you know, cut yourself some slack, you know, we’re all doing the best we can as parents.
Nikki: Yeah, we hope so. Yeah. I mean, some days it feels harder than others, but yes, no, a hundred percent. Is there anything that’s available to you in Vietnam? Do you think that that wouldn’t be available to you in either of your home countries? Or do you think it’s the other way around that there would be more things available to,
Sarah: There would be more things available in either Holland or the U S I mean, if I went, if I describe what I have to do to get my kid’s ADHD meds every month, You know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a four-hour process, you know, going to the doctor and getting the prescription set, then going to a pharmacy.
Cause if for some reason the ADHD meds are classified under the drug laws that it’s on par with heroin. And so like, you really can’t, you know, you can’t have a lot of it and it’s, you know, it’s like one of the few things we have to show identification for. To get the medicine, you know, it’s just a huge hassle.
And you know, sometimes at the end of the year they just run out of the drugs and you just sort of decide, you know, okay, should you be taking them all the time? Should you just only take them during school days? If I was in Holland, I could get a prescription for a year. You know, and, and, and, and in the states, you know, you’d have to go every month to the pharmacy, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a doctor’s visit.
It wouldn’t be this uphill. I’d like to believe that it wouldn’t be this uphill battle of just basic access to medicine.
Nikki: Yeah. So, so, but in terms of supports and schools and costs and coaching, et cetera, the, the additional things that you’ve been able to do for your children?
Sarah: Well, we’ve been very lucky that, you know, the school does not charge us extra, for our kids to be in learning support. The Board before I joined it had made a decision that kids doing English as an additional language and then event, then kids in the learning program. They added value to the school in terms of the community. And that’s, so everyone should bear the costs. Yep.
And so, you know, that’s something that I, I agree with. I mean, th the, the tuition is high, but it’s worth it. If we were in the states, I think there’d be a lot more support offered and you would have a lot more continuity in terms of teachers. There isn’t as much turnover, and we’ve been fairly lucky that we’ve had the same teacher.
For, you know, three or four years, but you know, that’s not the case for everybody. And, you know, having people have to get familiar with the school, familiar with the students, you know, that takes a lot of time. And there is something to be said for being in a home country where you have the teachers there for a decade or more, that’s not constant change and, you know, explaining things to people.
Nikki: And so how do you, so that’s another thing about transition. So for students in, into the school and out of the school and, you know, children who are neuro diverse that’s can be more challenging for them and for their family. So how do, how do you think your school handles transition?
Sarah: I, I think my school does a really good job of documentation. They’ve put a lot of effort in over the years because. They’ve digitized things. And now, you know, there’s, there’s sort of a portal that everybody has access to. And so things don’t fall through the cracks the way they used to when, when my kids were in elementary school, you know, we’d get a report, but it would be, you know, printed report and the next year’s teachers wouldn’t necessarily have access to it.
Notes from one teacher wouldn’t necessarily be seen by another teacher. And so now there’s, there’s a much more comprehensive. Online system, where if, you know, if there’s there’s an alert, goes out about a kid, you know, the administration sees it, the counselor sees it, the learning support teacher sees it, the home-based teacher sees it, the parent sees it.
And so, you know, everybody, there’s more eyes on kids and less stuff getting missed.
Nikki: And when you, when you go grade to grade, so obviously in high school, Teachers change regardless because of subjects and grades. Do you have a way that you introduce your child to new teachers every year or you trust the school to do that? And the school does a good job.
Sarah: You know, I I’ve, I have tried different methods over the years. It was easier when we were allowed to be on campus or I was spending more time on campus being active and things. Cause I knew a lot of the teachers and if you can develop a relationship and one of the things that I’ve been most successful with, because I’m not great at writing the letter that I think you and other people have described about my child, but a lot of teachers, at my school do ask for that of every kid, not just a kid with in learning support, they want to know, you know, they want to know about your child anyway. So they’re, they’re pretty proactive in that, but I make an effort to meet their home-based teacher who is really responsible for things, or if it’s a new administrator to sit and have a conversation with them.
So we can both see each other as people before there’s any sort of crisis. Not that there have been many crises over the years, but you know, in the past, you know, if you, the first time you meet someone it’s an antagonizing situation or you’re stressed or they’re upset, it’s a different relationship, then, you know, you really have to, I, I really try to trust the teachers and the administrators, and I expect them to do the same for me as the parent that, you know, we’re on the same team and we have the same goal of, of, for the child.
And you have to work on that in terms of relationships. And so you just, you can’t roll up just when there’s a problem and, you know, screaming at it. You know, they’re people too, nobody likes to get screamed at, or, you know, being, and nobody likes to hear that their child is struggling. So, you know, the teachers have to put an effort in how they’re communicating and so do the parents.
So for me, it’s about talking to each other. And so, you know, you don’t have to be friends. You don’t have to necessarily just be professional, but that there’s, this there’s a commonality and you feel like you’re on the same team.
Nikki: That is so true that you don’t want to first meet the teacher in a stressful situation for you or for your child or, or for them, but I mean, pre COVID.
So if we take COVID out of it, I mean, cause with covid it’s almost impossible to, to achieve those things that you’re talking about, but it’s so true because I can’t tell you how many teachers or principals or I’ve met for the first time while dissolving into tears and having to explain something. And it just puts everybody in a defensive position and that’s not the best way.
To support, no support the children and their education. When new families come to the school, is there a information about your group the neurodiverse group that they have it on the website, or, I mean, how would they find you or how do you find them?
Sarah: What I’ve done in the past is I would show up at the parent teacher association, general meeting at their coffee morning. We have a weekly newspaper that goes out to all the parents. I would put information about our group in that. Know, our email contact information you know, advanced notice of upcoming monthly coffee morning topics. And I get, I think we have an internal portal that parents are supposed to be involved with, but we haven’t got that far in, in being active on that yet.
But it’s just for me, it’s also word of mouth. I mean, you know, sitting there and talking in the parking lot or picking up kids, just reaching out to people, making an effort to talk about. And the more that teachers know about it, the more they share that we exist and that we should be someone that parents can reach out to.
Nikki: Right. So it’s a real partnership between the school and, and the PTA and, and your group. Yep. And do you find that the parents come as soon as they join the school because they’re looking for the things you talked about, like the OT support or the
Sarah: Yep absolutely. It’s not some do just, I mean, some do, just because they want to meet people. Some, you know, really feel alone and some don’t know what they want, but are interested in hearing other people’s stories. And so that’s where, you know, I have this core group of members in the group who’ve been here for a long time and, you know, they always come, even if they’re not necessarily getting anything out of the meeting for themselves, but they sit there and they tell their story so that other people feel more comfortable to tell their story.
And that, that makes a difference, you know, just sort of saying, you know, this was hard and this worked and you know, my kid experienced this and this is how I felt about it. It’s always good to hear other people’s parental struggles because you do start getting a little bit isolated sometimes, particularly when you’re not sure how to handle something going on with your child.
Nikki: Yeah. And do you find that there’s a cultural difference between different people from different backgrounds and how they, how comfortable they feel about sharing or,
Sarah: Oh yes, absolutely. I mean, a lot of it is command of English. I mean, you really have to remember, there’s a lot of non native English speakers who want to participate, but can be intimidated just by language alone, let alone stigma.
And so I’ve really. Worked hard to have Vietnamese members and just other friends who are not native English speakers, who are there, who share their stories so that people can see, you know, people like them are participating as well. It’s not just the, you know, the really loud pushy American who has a very specific viewpoint about doing things.
We are lucky in that our parent teacher association also has. Korean Japanese and Vietnamese community representatives. And so they, I can send them a message and then they share it within their communities. And so people have opportunities to reach out privately as well. That’s happened. I don’t know how many times where one parent will say, could we meet for coffee?
And so it happens outside of the meeting and they just, they just want someone to listen to them and maybe offer advice. But, you know, they’re not brave enough to come to a meeting and share what’s going on and I totally understand that. I’m not sure how vulnerable, you know, a lot of people are not willing to, to share their story in front of, you know, 15 to 20 people that they’ve just met.
And, you know, your kid’s issue may not be my kid’s issue. And so, you know, you have to really be careful about some of those matters. And so we tried there’s about four of us that try to be available for private conversations if people want it.
Nikki: That’s really good because I find that as well. And I am, I am the loud outspoken Australian, and I speak Australian’s speak fast as well. And so often you find people who you think that you’ve just shared a lot of information and they haven’t understood a thing you’ve said. Because that’s on you, not on them because, because of your communication style and you know, when you talk about your own children, you also very passionate and, you know, you can get a little bit carried away.
And so yeah, what, what you’re doing by making sure that everyone is included and the whole point of diversity and inclusion, you would think as, as parents. Neuro-diverse children or children with additional needs is that we would be more respectful of that, but that’s not always the case. And people do feel isolated and excluded because of that reason, your experience as a family is sort of tied to your children’s education as well, while it’s there.
Do you think that it’s been an ideal location for your family where you are now?
Sarah: I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s just what we’ve known. So. It’s worked for us. I, again, my husband being a doctor, I felt more confident in figuring things out ourselves. I think it, it is more difficult for people who don’t have that resource in their own house.
Yeah, no, that really helps with a lot of matters of, of medical care in general, in, in, in Vietnam. Yeah. It’s it’s what, it’s just what we know. And so I, it’s hard to imagine being somewhere else. I, I look in just because I’m interested, I’ve joined parent groups in Holland or in America of kids with special needs.
And I just, you know, I learn about their experiences and, you know, they’re just as challenged. And just in different ways, whether it’s trying to get public schools to give you the resources that you’re legally entitled, entitled to, or to navigate another system that you don’t understand. I mean, everybody seems to have challenges.
I don’t think it’s easy for anybody anywhere
Nikki: I agree with that. And I, I have no experience of my home country education system because I didn’t have children when I lived there. So I don’t know how it would be for us there, but I do know when people talk about. You know, when you move to this country, it’s going to be so much easier because these are the laws and the, and I moved to that country and that wasn’t the case, you know, so externally, and then what people think about it, it’s always just, it’s just an individual experience and everyone goes through it differently.
And you can’t tell what’s going to happen. And there’s also personality types. I mean, your your child might be with a teacher that they just don’t have a personality, and that’s not anybody’s fault. That’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s not the child’s fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not the school’s fault.
It just is what it is. But your child can have a really shitty year because. Because of that situation and you know, it can make the country feel worse than it is because, because of what’s happening in your child’s education. So it can be a really tricky, tricky situation.
Sarah: Yeah, I agree.
Nikki: What’s one thing that you’re just thrilled about that that’s happened in your family’s educational journey in journey. Sorry.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, for, for us, it was just watching our middle child finally understand what was going on with her brain and why she thought differently and why, you know, why she felt differently. And some of the reasons, you know, things that had happened to her along the way had explanations.
And, you know, I really just can’t over emphasize the importance of. Telling your child. I, that it’s been a hot topic within our group of some parents who don’t want to tell their child what their diagnosis is. And, you know, I mean, at one point we were like, oh, we don’t need to tell her. It just, you know, now that we know when the school can tell, you know, they, they know what to do now in the middle school learning support teacher went, oh my God, no, you tell your kid right away do it.
And we went, okay, you’re the expert in this. And so we told her and she just kind of, you could just see her shoulders, relax and go, oh, Okay. That’s what’s going on with me. Yes. All right. And she’s taken dramatic ownership over it, you know, she’s, she’s, you know, I don’t say she’s proud of her diagnosis, but you know, she’s confident in explaining it to teachers and explaining it to other students advocating for herself.
Her grade 10 personal project was a presentation to her elementary school teachers, the entire elementary school. That of everyone who was able to attend and said, this was my experience. This is how you could have done things better. This is how you can help children now in the elementary school. And it was so incredibly well received.
And, you know, they asked the best question. And, you know, I think the teachers got a lot out of it. She got a lot out of it, you know, at one point later on she’s like, I think we need to have a student support group for students and, you know, you’ve got your parent group and the teachers do their thing, but you know, how do we talk to each other student to student?
And it doesn’t necessarily need to be peers, but it could be, you know, the 10th grader talking to the third grader because it means a lot to have, you know, we see this in terms of diversity inclusion everywhere. To see someone who looks like you or behaves like you in a position above you, it gives you something to aspire to or feel good about.
And so, you know, she said, if I had seen someone like me in elementary school, I, you know, I would, it just would’ve been a better experience for me. And so that’s one of the things that she’s looking to do with her community service in 11th and 12th grade is reach out to those elementary school kids and, and support them.
Nikki: Wow. That’s amazing that, that I was getting goosebumps when you talking about her personal project, but that is like next level. I’m a little bit teary, you know? That that is, that is an amazing thing. And a gift to, to the students and to the students that come behind her. And I was just thinking, as you were saying that, you know, parents want to see a parent or a child five or 10 years past where they are, because sometimes you just in it.
I see any way out. Not that you can’t see any way up, but you just can’t see how things can be different, but if you see a child like that or other children, it’s no different to having, you know, a GSA group, you know, an LGBTQ group of students, the same thing. This is my experience. It’s exactly the same thing in a neuro diverse way.
That that’s an amazing project for, for you and for her and for the school. Yeah, it is super proud.
Sarah: It is awesome. Really, really awesome.
Nikki: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing all this. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you think that should be shared, that a tip for somebody that is, is moving or dealing with this internationally outside their own culture and educational experience?
Sarah: I guess the only new bit of information for me is this SENIA conference that just happened and that parents can be involved. That would, you know, that’s you know, it’s, it’s traditionally been, I think, just for educators, but if the more parents we can get involved in, the stronger and organization, it will be.
And the stronger the teachers can support the students and the, and support parents and that we can be better parents. And so that’s, what’s new and exciting to me. And so I just recommend to any parent to. You know, reach out to SENIA if there’s a SENIA a chapter in their country, or if there isn’t one, try to start one, you know what I mean?
You know, if there’s a need, we have to fill it. Sometimes you can’t wait for other people to step up.
Nikki: No, I think as parents of neuro-diverse children, we, we do know that and it’s, it’s like the advocacy, you know, if there’s a need, you’ve just got to do it. So do you, you have a chapter in Vietnam, do you belong to it or.
Sarah: I have , I signed up, it was not particularly active cause there was a lot of COVID stuff going on, but they have reached out to ask me to be the parent rep for. SENIA a Vietnam. And so I guess there’s positions available for parent reps, or you can just be a member and just, you know, listen to what they get up to and, and, and their, their workshops and meetings and things, but they have resources and just, you know, communicate, you know, it takes a lot of effort to communicate with other people to set your child up for success, but it’s worth it.
The more you do now, the less it’ll be later on. So just keep trying to get, I guess, just keep trying and. Supporting your child as early as you can, with as much as you can
With the information that you have, we all do.
We all do well when we can. Yeah. Yeah. We were all trying.
Can you tell us a little known fact about a place that you’ve lived?
Well, I am from Storrs, Connecticut, which is the national basketball. Championship of the world. Basically, we have an amazing women’s team at the university level and amazing men’s team at the university level. And I’m always excited that we’re more famous for the women’s team. Yeah.
Nikki: Awesome. I liked that one.
Nikki: What’s a new favorite food that you’ve found in your globally mobile life that you never known, or
Sarah: Well, I mean, all Vietnamese food is awesome. I’m a vegetarian. So that gets a little bit challenging in terms of not eating meat. Yeah. Vietnamese coconut coffee is frozen is one of the best things you will ever taste.
Nikki: Vietnamese Coconut coffee frozen. Yeah. Okay. Yep. Interesting. Yeah. Interesting. What’s something that your family has adopted since moving from your home countries, I guess. Cause you’ve got two that you didn’t do before. And obviously you’ve created your family since you’ve moved. So maybe that’s,
Sarah: That’s a hard one. Cause we, we, we celebrate Tet, the lunar new year. That’s a big part of our family celebrations now. And that would not have been before we came to to Vietnam. But one of my husband’s and our, for some reason, Egypt has a lot of national holidays. Like they’re, they’re really great about these sort of things.
And they had one that was the Shem el Nesseim was just a day to smell the breezes. .
Nikki: Oh, nice.
Sarah: And it’s just, you know, you know, we always sort of look that up to see when it’s happening because you just sort of take the day off and you smell the breezes. And I just think that’s such a lovely thing to do
Nikki: If the breeze smells nice.
Sarah: Yes. Yeah. You have to yes. Smells of Jasmine or something, but yeah, but just the idea of that is, is something that is lovely to both of us.
Nikki: And last question. How long do you think you’d survive? The zombie apocalypse?
Sarah: Oh, a long time. I grew up in New England. I’m prepared all the time, basements and canned food and my kids like martial arts, so we we’d do OK.
Nikki: Okay. Excellent. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. And I know you got a school day, so your kids are online now and. Yeah.
Sarah: And if people want to reach out to know more about the support group, .
Nikki: So where can, where can they find you online?
Is there somewhere, is there LinkedIn or Instagram, or?,
Sarah: I’m on LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and all those sorts of things. I don’t do much, but I try.
Nikki: Okay. So what would be your handle? So what’s your name on LinkedIn so we can find that
Sarah: it would be Sarah Devotion Garner.
Nikki: Okay, great. Yep. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for your time.
Sarah: Really appreciate it. And I know that everyone will enjoy listening to,
this and learning stuff. Thank you.