Helping Special Needs Children

In News, Winter/Spring 2016 by Sally Jongsma


Last spring, at the invitation of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education, Dr. Kathleen VanTol led training sessions to help teachers across the country begin to include children with special needs in their classrooms—students who had previously been unable to attend school.

The story is a bit more complex than that, of course. In 2010, VanTol not only observed Dordt students teaching at Nicaragua Christian Academy (NCA), but she also spent time at Tesoros de Dios, one of the few schools in that country for children with special needs. VanTol offered a day-long workshop, consulted with teachers, and did some testing of students.

“Christian schools were the only ones working with special needs children,” says VanTol. In Nicaragua, many schools do not have enough resources for regular classrooms, much less for special programs. (see Tesoros was founded in Managua, Nicaragua, by Dordt alumna Michelle Adams (’03), who saw the urgent need for such programs while she was a teacher at NCA. It is supported primarily by donors, many North American. For many parents of special-needs children, Tesoros was the only place their child could get an education.

VanTol has been back to Nicaragua every year since that first visit. She returned to offer a week-long workshop the next year, which was attended by representatives of the Ministry of Education. She returned again the following year to train facilitators who could help classroom teachers accommodate the growing number of children they were required to serve after the government began to mandate such services.

Nicaragua is an avowedly Christian country, so VanTol could begin where she begins in her classes at Dordt. Workshop participants eagerly brought their Bibles and started by focusing on the biblical notion that all children are valuable in God’s eyes. It soon became clear to the teachers that not only should they educate all children, but that teachers needed help in knowing how to do so.

“The universities in Nicaragua had no special education programs,” says VanTol. Building on the work she had already done, she and Dordt student Wendy Gomez (’12), from Nicaragua, compiled a manual for teachers that offered a rationale for such programs, shared testing resources, and gave practical help for teachers—“a range of nuts-and-bolts information.”

Fast forward to the spring of 2015. Taking a partial leave from her teaching in the Education Department at Dordt, and at the invitation of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education, VanTol spent the whole semester in Nicaragua. In addition to teaching some of her special education courses for Dordt students online, she worked closely with the NCA school in Nejapa to develop a model for Nicaraguan schools to use in educating children with special needs. Observing in classrooms, training teachers, and evaluating progress was part of each week’s work. But she did more. On Saturdays, VanTol led an eight-hour for-credit graduate course for teachers, administrators, psychologists, and facilitators from the Ministry of Education. For that, she put together a second book in Spanish, providing further practical resources for teachers.

“This has been a real opportunity to influence educational policy and programs,” says VanTol. It’s been a wonderful opportunity for her to teach from her Christian worldview. “In the North American professional special education community, Christian perspective is a liability. There it is welcomed,” she says.

VanTol believes that as a Dordt College education professor, she can make a difference in a way that other professionals might not be able to because she can connect with teachers on a foundational level—beginning with the belief that, as God’s children, these students are valuable. As she does so, she is helping change attitudes as well as practices. Gradually children with special needs are seen not as something to be hidden or ashamed of, but as students worthy of society’s best efforts.

Another reason Ministry of Education officials are eager to work with VanTol is her commitment to what she’s started.

“I asked a ministry official, ‘Why me?’ They said, “You keep coming back.”