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Teacher essay: Finland’s broader approach to special education

By Patti White

Special to The Tribune

First Published Jul 18 2014 01:28 pm • Last Updated Jul 22 2014 05:30 pm

Editor’s note: Patti White, who teaches sixth grade at Morningside Elementary in Holladay, was among 32 Utah educators who recently visited schools in Finland with Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Europe. Read the related story here.

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I wanted to know what the Finnish schools were doing to help their students get the appropriate education for their abilities, both in special education and gifted programs. My own child struggled with learning disabilities in a public school, and I currently teach in a school for the gifted.  

The special education program seems to be more inclusive for a wider range of students. My own daughter was turned away from getting help in grade school because she was not two years behind, even though the teachers said she was struggling.  It took my own resources for testing and getting a psychologist to help get my child into special education.

In Finland, testing usually takes place before kids come to school and is usually done by family doctors. Many learning disabilities are also discovered by day care workers, all of whom are licensed and college-educated.

The teachers told us that if they feel a child needs help, they meet right away with the parent and get the child help. The parents can request extra tutoring and it will be provided.

 It turns out that most students need some special assistance at some time during their years in school. It is actually uncommon for students to never utilize any of these services at some point.

I was also impressed to see how many special teachers there are to help any child who is having difficulty in a subject area. Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu, a free private school in Helsinki, has 1,150 students in grades three through 12, and they have 80 teachers and 120 total staff. There are many staff members who help to make sure the students get the help that they need.

I asked about what the schools did with their gifted students, and I received the same answer from each school. They replied that this is an area that they need to improve on. They said that Finland’s focus is on a kind of "No child left behind" but not on providing an adequate education for their brightest students.

It was mentioned in one part of Finland that they would be opening up a school that focuses on math, but they all felt that they needed to do more for these students.  


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Teaching is a valued profession in Finland. Most students go to their local school because all schools are good.  All teachers in Finland must have a master’s degree to teach and it is very competitive to get into the teaching profession.

There are many educational lessons that we can learn from both educational systems to benefit all students. This is why it is important for teachers across the globe to collaborate and continually apply the best practices in education.  



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