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Something's Strange: Inclusive Education in Japan (4)

Japanese Chinese

In this posting, I would like to start with some odd antonyms. As you know, antonyms are words or expressions that have opposite or contrasting meanings. For example, "entering school" and "graduating" or "exit" and "entrance" are opposites, and words like "application" and "acceptance," and "question" and "answer" are contrasting terms within a temporal context. What would be the opposite of "consultation" or "seeking counseling"? In the case of consultation about a personal problem, it might be "answer" or "advice." In the case of consulting someone about an insurance policy, it might be "receiving information or an explanation."

In this posting of "Something's Strange," I'd like to tell you about a situation in which the opposite of "seeking consultation" (sodan) becomes receiving a "judgment" (hantei). Starting with "judgement" (hantei), if we search in the opposite direction, we come across such terms as "to inspect" (shinpan) or "to screen" (shinsa). These two terms both imply an obligation to follow the law or a formal procedure. In contrast, sodan or "to consult" refers to a voluntary action. When people ask for counseling or advice, they are usually not seeking a judgment that may also come with the obligation or the constraint to follow it.

Let me, however, point out there is one situation where one ends up receiving a "judgment" (hantei) after seeking for "counseling or consultation" (sodan), coexisting in a rather strange relation. That is how we might characterize "Counseling on Entering School," which is our topic today. I have treated many children with developmental disorders, which include autistic spectrum disorder and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Of course, as a doctor, my main aim is to alleviate their symptoms to the extent possible, but I give advice at times when consultation is also sought on daily life issues. (And here we see that "consultation" contrasts well with "giving advice.")

In these consultations, entering school—the issue of which school to attend—is the most serious one that comes up. As I stated in a previous blog post, this would not be an issue requiring consultation if Japanese schools were truly inclusive. I say this because most questions I receive concern whether the child should attend regular classes or special needs classes (school). Nearly all these inquiries occur in the fall before the start of the school year the following spring, because "Counseling on Entering School" takes place around fall. I consider it very important for these children to be with other children who have good social skills and a sense of empathy, and for this reason, I am increasingly recommending that children with ADHD and those with autistic spectrum disorder who are fluently verbal attend regular schools.

Among the parents who go to the "Counseling on Entering School" with my advice in hand (I also write down my recommendation at times), there are some who return with a puzzled look. They tell me that at the consultation session on entering school they were informed that a judgment (hantei) had been made that a special needs class or special needs school would be more appropriate for their child. Once this judgment is made, the child is not allowed to attend any school other than the one judged to be appropriate regardless of parental wishes. This judgment is backed by the authority of the local Board of Education. The Ministry of Education does state clearly that it is desirable to reach an agreement with the parents when this judgment is made, but when that is not possible, the judgment of the Board of Education is given priority. (In the first place, reaching an agreement is not possible unless the Board of Education agrees.)

This clearly indicates that consultations on entering school result in binding decisions that are enforced, and as such, they can be compared to a kind of examination (shinsa) in content. You might think that we should then more appropriately refer to them not as a consultation on entering school, but as a screening or examination for entering school, but I would not agree with that either. The situation has become very strange. Receiving a consultation (sodan) does come with somewhat of an obligation to follow the judgment delivered (hantei), but the decision to have the consultation is voluntary.

This is clear from a letter that the parents of one of my patients received from the Board of Education.

"It is understood that the Board of Education will decide the school to enter, and in principle, the child will enter regular classes from the start of the first school year after his or her sixth birthday. If a request to enter a special needs class or school is made, consultation will be required." "Making a decision (handan) regarding the school to enter will require material on the child's educational, psychological, and medical needs. If, for some reason, the submitted material is incomplete and it is not possible to propose a school or if it is decided in consultation that a regular school would be more appropriate, the child will enter a local regular school." "If the decision made in the consultation is not agreeable to the parents, the view of the child and parents will be given priority to the extent possible, but it is necessary for the three parties consisting of the parents and child, Board of Education, and school to reach an agreement."

In these passages, the term used is not hantei, which connotes handing down a judicial verdict, but handan which refers to making a decision or judgment in general, and the wishes of the parents and child are given utmost respect, but this is not realized unless an agreement is reached (with the decision of Board of Education given the highest priority). Moreover, this consultation takes place when a special support class or school is requested, and the parents who are struggling to make the difficult choice of either a regular class or a special support class (school) are not targeted. Furthermore, this can also be interpreted as a situation in which parents requesting a special needs class for their child (although consultation on entering school is required) must follow the judgment delivered by the Board of Education if it decides on a special needs school.

As seen above, "Consultation on Entering School" is not a time when all children, regardless of their abilities, receive comprehensive advice on education and future options, including attending regular school. Rather, it appears to be simply a system that classifies the child as suited for either a special needs class or special needs school. For parents and children in the grey zone of indecision between a regular class/special needs class or special needs class/school, it is not an accessible or inviting place for "consultation." It is not a place where parents and the child can receive the advice of specialists in consultation, and then consider their own wishes against the advice given, with the parents making the final decision.

For this reason, I recommend that parents and children who are particularly undecided about choosing a regular class or a special needs class enroll in a regular class without consultation. If they do not seek and receive counseling, they will automatically be enrolled in regular classes. If difficulty in following the classes becomes clearly apparent, it will not be too late to consider attending special needs classes/school at that time.

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sakakihara_2013.jpg Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.
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