Since 2010 I’ve attended the Special Education Network In Asia (SENIA) conference yearly. After each, I return home recharged and excited about my role as a special education teacher in an international school. From the moment I walked through the doors of Brent, Manila nine years ago, I felt part of something big, and, for lack of a better word, special.
I could title this blog post 100 Reasons I Love SENIA (now called the Special Education Network & Inclusion Association) but will abbreviate it for the sake of time, something all of us seem short on these days.
So, without further ado, here is my list of 5 reasons I love SENIA.
1. I can use what I learned from my peers on Monday
No joke. Every year I come home with something I can try with my students that very same week. This is not the case at many conferences. I’ve been to so many where the focus is on the “why” and not the “how.” Now don’t get me wrong, the “why” is important, but if we don’t pair that with “how,” then we are just as stuck as we were before the conference began. I want the big picture, and I want action to support getting there.
During session one, I chose to attend Leah Llamzon’s presentation. Leah, an SLP from Singapore
American School, has been trained in Social Thinking and shared her knowledge of the I LAUGH model with us. The “L” in I LAUGH stands for Listening with Mind and Body. Leah showed us how she makes clay figures of bodies and heads and places them in a circle. When working with her students, if one is obviously thinking about something else, she will take off the head to show the student that his mind is not in the group. Alternatively, if her student has her body turned away from the group, Leah will take the body away. This is a fantastic visual representation for our students with social communication difficulties, and right away I thought, “I’m trying this on Monday.” I tried it, and sure enough, it worked brilliantly. I now have two students whose minds and bodies are much more focused on our group lessons due to this incredibly simple tool.
Thank you, Leah!
That is just one example. I’m guessing many of you who are reading this have more. Feel free to comment here with your SENIA “take-away.”
2. SENIA learning benefits all students and all teachers
When speaking about SENIA with my colleagues, I’ve had many say, “Well, I’m not a special educator, so SENIA is not for me.”
“Ahhh…,” I say in response, “But it really is. SENIA is for all educators. Information and strategies we learn are best-practice for all students.” Kate Balsamo, SENIA’s chairperson, explains it so well in this video.
Our keynote speaker this year, Dr. Laura Flores Shaw, helped us to understand that it’s not just our pre-frontal cortex which controls our Executive Functioning Skills. Our cerebellum is also very important, and therefore we need to get up and move to maximize learning. It is obvious that it’s not just our diverse learners that need support with Executive Functioning, and adding movement to our day will benefit all learners. While working with one of my students in a 3rd-grade classroom today, the teacher, who attended SENIA, stopped the class to tell them about how important movement is for their learning. She then did a mindfulness lesson focused on movement, preparing her students for the next task at hand. You rock, Caryn!
So much of our learning at SENIA focuses on universal design. If we create systems and design learning to meet the needs of our exceptional learners, we are helping all of our students. When we scaffold our lessons, we help our students work within their zone of proximal development (ZPD) which helps all experience success. Who doesn’t want that for their students?
3. Traveling to another country is cool
Something unique about SENIA is that each year the conference is held in another country. This year our host was Hong Kong Academy. (Thanks so much to Kristel Solomon-Saleem and Jennifer Swinehart for all the hard work they did to put on a seamless conference). Not only did this enable professionals from all over Asia (and beyond) to travel to Hong Kong, but we also got to see how Hong Kong Academy works with a managed number of students with special needs to make their school truly inclusive. I think all of us would say that it is more than obvious that HKA cares deeply for their learners and has created an environment which many of our schools aspire to.
Since its inception, SENIA has been all over Asia; China, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Next year we’ll be heading back to the Philippines. The conference will be organized by the Manila local chapter of SENIA and hosted at International School Manila. I can’t wait to learn from this wonderful group and see inclusion at work in another country.
4. I find myself in awe of others
As a special educator and a mom to a child with special needs, I tend to think I work pretty hard and that I’m a strong advocate for our kids. And then I come to a SENIA conference and am blown out of the water by what our students with needs are doing to advocate for themselves and others and by how adults all over are advocating for those with needs in unique and exciting ways.
This year SENIA awarded Seferina Engen from Taiwan the SENIA student award. When Seferina gave her acceptance speech, there was not a dry eye in the house. What a true inspiration! Seferina has a rare genetic disorder which makes learning difficult. Thanks to some incredible teachers and Seferina’s self-advocacy, she has gone on to do remarkable things. She organized over 100 volunteers to run the Hero Games, an Olympic event for children with special needs in Taiwan. She also founded “Make it Shine” in partnership with a local NGO to help kids with special needs explore their creativity through art and sports.” Wow! This is a high school student. I’m in awe of Seferina. And, quite frankly, I’m in awe of all of the honorary award winners. Each featured was absolutely remarkable.
Our Advocacy award winner, K.A. Razhiya started a spa training center and business for people with needs. She was such a fun speaker; so full of energy and true passion for what she does. Max Simpson, an honorary award winner, has opened a vocational training center in Bangkok called STEPS with Theera, which as many of you know, my son Braden attends. These advocates inspire me to think, “What more can I be doing to advocate for students with needs at my school and in my community?”
Therefore, my SENIA word this year is MORE.
5. Networking with like-minded individuals is a gift
Perhaps my favorite part of attending SENIA is meeting other parents, educators and professionals who are passionate about helping all children be successful. Through the years, I’ve met so many people who have helped mold me into the professional I am today. The conversations held during coffee breaks, lunch and happy hours are some of the most significant and rewarding parts of my time at SENIA. I learn so much from each person I speak with. I love running into SENIA friends. I first met Donna Bracewell, Reed Rhodes, Tanya Farrol, and Ericson Perez at Brent in 2010 and we have attended many SENIA’s together ever since. This is what makes SENIA fun; seeing old friends and meeting new ones each and every year. SENIA friends are forever friends.
+1 Lots of laughs
One of the funniest memories from this year’s conference was the bus ride back to the hotel after the happy hour. Watch out, people, I have video proof of the shenanigans going on during that bus trip!
So those are my top 5 reasons for loving SENIA. Do you love SENIA? I’d love to hear why. Share your blog or your experiences and help spread the word.
See you all next year in Manila!