Confused About BMLs and Special Educational Needs?

Confused About BMLs and Special Educational Needs?

If you’re working in a state-regulated school, you will typically find all kinds of documentation related to the provisions for students with special educational needs (S.E.N./Special Ed.) and bilingual/multilingual learners.

However, if you’re working in an international or private school where there are no regulations in your region, then this can make your role particularly challenging. Policies and practises in these schools often change with the Head or the staff in charge. This means that procedures can be transient or unclear to teachers from year-to-year; leaving a great deal open to individual interpretation.

Our bilingual and multilingual learners (BMLs, ELL, EAL students) are very vulnerable to being incorrectly labeled or referred to special education services. In fact, many of the behaviours, which teachers might typically characterise as a result of a learning disability or language processing disorder, can actually occur quite naturally in the context of BMLs’ developing language . This makes it critically important to have highly-trained teachers and leaders who have a solid understanding of these issues; since inappropriate policies or decision-making processes can actually lead to students being misdiagnosed. This, of course, can have serious repercussions.

One of the Biggest Challenges Schools Face with their Service Provisions for BMLs

One of the main questions to begin asking yourself when designing your service model for students with special educational needs is – are you qualified to do so?

This is a heavy question to begin with but it really should be. Issues surrounding special educational needs alone can be complicated at best; but extending them to bilingual and multilingual learners can add even deeper layers of complexity to the situation. For example, each and every school needs to have considerations that examine a BML’s language and medical background, if/when any concerns arise. This means that educators must know and understand whether the child in question has experienced a language switch; or whether they have had enough input in one language or another. These instances alone can play a significant role in understanding why BMLs might be experiencing particular challenges in the classroom. These kind of concerns can typically be dealt with effectively without special educational referral – simply by collecting the right information about the student and from the family on admission. Having these kinds of details (as well as other BML-specific issues) clearly written out in policies for all to follow, will ensure there are at least some basic ‘filters’ which prevent the inappropriate referral of BMLs to special educational services.

Designing the Right Service Delivery Model for your School

Another major issue we’ve seen with schools when designing their service delivery models for special educational support is that they create it as a ‘class’ that support teachers actively teach by default on the school timetable. While some of the supports teachers provide will be clearly useful, having this kind of strict model prevents specialist teachers from moving around flexibly to provide observation or guidance to teachers at the earliest stages of concern. Most specialist teachers do not have any flexible space in their timetable to move around the school or plan with colleagues. It’s actually much more advantageous for support teachers to have a flexible schedule where they can liaise with colleagues and plan a range of strategic interventions with identified students.

This kind of consultative model allows for a much faster and a broader spread of expertise to students and teachers, when they need it. However, designing an effective, wrap-around service like this needs careful planning, strategising and expertise.

What Can you Do?

If you are interested in developing a new student support service model or enhancing the existing provisions at your school, feel free to reach out to us. We have extensive experience working in this area and can provide you with everything you need to create sound policies, procedures and supports. Email us at:

Alison Schofield is an Educational Consultant and Co-Founder at the Centre for Educators of BMLs. She brings a wealth of experience from her previous roles as a behaviour therapist and disability support specialist, having worked closely with psychologists and psychiatrists. Alison has also trained as a special education teacher and worked as a Learning Support Coordinator during her time as an international educator. She brings this unique knowledge-base to her work with BMLs.

#ROUNDTABLE: How we Accelerated our BMLs’ Reading Levels in Months

#ROUNDTABLE: How we Accelerated our BMLs’ Reading Levels in Months

In our very first Roundtable Interview, Francesca McGeary speaks to Angela Hollington, Primary Principal from CIS SIngapore and Emilijia Stojanovski, Literacy Specialist Teacher.

She learns how CIS’ recent whole-school initiative to strengthen BMLs’ literacy has led to outstanding results. First, they have appointed Emilija as their new Literacy Specialist teacher this year. She has gone on to focus on supporting and training colleagues who’ve been dedicated in carrying out the new plans. They’ve now tracked and analysed data for their Grade 1 students at the time of the interview and so happy with the first round of results.

At the Centre for Educators of BMLs, we help schools understand how to make actionable changes that help their BMLs thrive. We teach administrators and educators of all kinds how to get real results with their students and accelerate their progress in literacy and vocabulary – key indicators of school success. Click ‘play’ to listen to the Roundtable…

‘Multilingual-Positive Practises’ Replace ‘English-Only’ Policies

‘Multilingual-Positive Practises’ Replace ‘English-Only’ Policies

While a large population of bilingual and multilingual learners (BMLs) in schools used to seem like an issue only for inner city schools in capitals like London, New York, Sydney or Toronto, things have changed dramatically.  Now, even schools in rural areas are encountering more BMLs arriving and making up a large part of their student body. Even within international schools, a growing number of ‘local’ parents are opting to educate their children in English medium private schools rather than their own national systems.  As such, all teachers now need to have the right skill sets to understand the needs of these children and how to help them thrive.

A reality of our time is that school leaders and educators must come to terms with the reality of the changing demographic in the student body. Some schools are still teaching as they have always done, even while the cohort has changed dramatically. Many don’t recognise the urgent need (and benefits) of having fully trained, BML-experienced teachers within their classrooms; and those who do, often struggle to know what to put in place.

However, there are some great schools leading the way in the changes to how they’re supporting BMLs.  Administrators are looking for teachers with more BML experience when they hire, they make PD a priority and they ensure that mainstream teachers have the support they need in their classrooms. Great schools are aware that outdated policies and practises need updating in order to reflect their new teaching and learning approaches as well.  For instance, the ‘English only’ policy used to be thought of as an appropriate policy to encourage learners’ English language development-helping them assimilate into their new community and integrate faster.  We now know that a policy like this actually has negative effects because it devalues the home language and cultures of students. This can have a long-lasting, negative impact. Similarly, focusing on a curriculum which many BMLs cannot relate to, encourages students to look at issues through a ‘dominant lens’ rather than through multiple perspectives and world-views. Some schools are now starting to recognise that they need to adopt new policies and perspectives, going forward.

One of the biggest shifts schools need to make is to encourage students’ home languages as the foundation for learning. This is just as equally, if not more important, than simply having them learn English quickly. Children establish familial relationships through home languages along with a vocabulary base and important cultural knowledge. While many school leaders don’t realise it, they actually play a huge role in determining whether bilingual and multilingual families will maintain their languages or not. If the school gives the ‘English only’ message (directly or indirectly), parents can often switch to English at home, believing this is necessary if their child is to succeed in an English school. They believe that only one language should be prioritised. School heads and principals, like many other educators, often don’t learn the essential knowledge-base about language acquisition and why this is, in fact, a myth.

Another powerful teaching approach that all educators need to implement is making sure their BMLs receive comprehensible input. This means, in practical terms, that the instruction and content need to be made accessible for BMLs to learn and work at instructional and independent levels. This doesn’t have to mean more preparation or work for the teacher. That’s a misconception.  It does mean working smarter and thinking more creatively about how to deliver the learning to match students’ varying ability levels. For instance, a complete beginner in English could research the answers to questions that match the learning objectives or goals set by the curriculum but in their home language.  Then, depending on their ability level, they could demonstrate what they’ve learnt through performance tasks or group work, still benefiting from English exposure. There are multiple ways of adapting lessons and learning assessments. Teachers simply need access to these strategies. Training and support are often needed to be sure teachers are skilled enough to know how to do this.

With the increasing numbers of BMLs entering English-medium schools, it’s even more important to empower educators and school heads with the right knowledge and expertise. When they start to view bilingualism and multilingualism as huge assets and give students what they need to thrive, they’ll be helping BMLs become successful, positive contributors to a multicultural, multilingual world.

Photo Credit: Canadian International School, Singapore

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