More Needed to Support Cambodian Children with Special Needs

Sophaneth Heng is a special education teacher. Photo provided

Special education teacher Sophaneth Heng sat down with Cambodianess to discuss the state of special education needs in Cambodia and why things must change to properly serve those families affected

Sao Phal Niseiy: You have been running a Special Education consultancy, what prompted you to start this journey?

Sophaneth Heng: There is a lot of speculation on social media about individuals with special needs. This creates misunderstanding and confusion leading parents to have unrealistic expectations of their children. As a result, I offer researched-based information that is transparent and straightforward to enable parents of children with special needs to make educated decisions. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: As a counselor, you often provide advice or recommendations regarding children with special needs. Could you tell us your most interesting experience advising those parents?

Sophaneth Heng: Unfortunately, we still have limitations in our community. Some family members have an old-fashioned mindset, restricting the parents from sending their kids to special needs schools because of their community’s point of view. My main advice for parents is to focus on the needs of their kids instead of the opinions of others. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: Do you think Cambodia needs more people who are specialized in special education like you?

Sophaneth Heng: Having proper qualifications in special education is important. We need more qualified people and resources to properly support these children. As special education teachers, we do not just teach, we observe, monitor, and tailor the learning to the needs of the children.  

Sao Phal Niseiy: What do think of special education in Cambodia? Why do we need to pay attention to this issue?

Sophaneth Heng: In Cambodia, we are at a stage where we need awareness and acceptance. The parents need to be aware and to feel accepted by the community to have the courage to come out and face the problem. This will enable children with special needs to be identified and to receive proper interventions based on their needs.

Sao Phal Niseiy: How do you see our people’s understanding of children with special needs such as those who are autistic, have attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, and those with learning disabilities?

Sophaneth Heng: In Cambodia, there is not enough valid information about special needs and special conditions. We do not have specialists to talk about and explain the different types of disabilities. Instead, people are misguided by opinionated people that makes it harder for children with special needs to receive proper interventions. I’ve seen and felt the struggle of parents who have spent thousands of dollars on ‘’traditional rituals’’ holding onto false hopes. That is why it is very important for the parents to get their information from credible and reliable sources. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: What do you think could be done to create a favorable learning environment for those with special needs, particularly in terms of education policy and laws?

Sophaneth Heng: Recently, we have seen great efforts in restructuring the education system in Cambodia, including special needs. A great success story is Hands of Hope, an NGO that has now become a state-run special education school led by Mr. Chan Sarin. 

Equally important, we need to create a favorable learning environment. All professionals that are qualified in special needs must come together to work as one in order to build policies and law that provides health, welfare, and education for individuals with special needs. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: Last but not least, what are your long-term plans or ambitions for the promotion of special education while encouraging more focus is given to these children?

Sophaneth Heng: At the moment, my focus is to raise awareness of special education for parents and teachers, as well as our community to be more open and supportive. 

I want to have direct involvement in the special education field, the goal is to advocate for special education to be aligned with international standards through community acceptance and closer collaboration with the government.

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