by Belinda Breeze

JESS Dubai fosters diverse communities where every student, regardless of background or ability, feels valued and supported. Prioritising equity and adapting teaching methods to accommodate various learning styles and needs, its inclusive environment celebrates differences, promotes empathy, and cultivates a sense of belonging among all students, enhancing overall educational experiences.

Beth Sargent, Head of Inclusion at the school, and Karalynn Thomson, managing director of The Animal Agency, spoke to Education UAE about the support services JESS offers to students who may have special needs, including its innovative Reading Dogs programmeme, which helps to boost confidence, motivation, and enjoyment in reading, creating a relaxed atmosphere where children feel more at ease practicing their reading skills alongside furry companions.

Education UAE: What specific support services does the school offer for students with special educational needs or disabilities?

Beth Sargent: In secondary, we offer a range of intervention groups with focus areas such as literacy, numeracy, and social skills development. We have a team of inclusion support assistants and specialist inclusion teachers with a range of different areas of expertise to support students both in the classroom, in small groups, and one-on-one. We also have a small Essential Pathways class, made up of students in Key Stage 3 who benefit from a tailored curriculum made up of the ‘essentials’ for their Key Stage 4 pathways. Moreover, along with the AR primary school, we currently offer onsite occupational therapy through our school-employed occupational therapist. We work with external speech and language therapists too, but we will be expanding our therapy service next year through the employment of our own SaLT. 

Education UAE: Is there an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a similar personalised approach for each student with SEND, and how are these plans developed and monitored?

Beth Sargent: For those students who require them, we use IEPs to monitor individual targets based on the needs of the student. Targets are developed with the students, their teachers, and their parents. These are reviewed termly.

Education UAE: What is the objective or goal of the Reading Dogs Programmeme within the school?

Karalynn Thomson: With reading sessions, the aim is to build students’ literacy and love of reading by making sessions fun. The dog is a non-judgmental companion that the student can practice their reading and language skills with, building their fluency and literacy. 

Beth Sargent: We have been using the Reading Dogs sessions with our students who are reluctant readers, due to this being an area of continuous struggle for them. In secondary school, we notice that students become more aware of their difficulties and find reading very anxiety-inducing, especially in the classroom with their peers. We use small groups who read texts that are at a suitable level for their needs. We have seen incredible improvement in confidence with reading aloud when our students are reading with our dogs, Hero and Ratty.

Karalynn Thomson: Outside of reading sessions, spending time with the dogs promotes a whole host of social and emotional benefits. 

Beth Sargent: We have students who read with Hero and Ratty who do not face literacy difficulties but who struggle with social communication and/or mental health difficulties such as anxiety. We have perhaps seen the biggest impact on our autistic students. Unlike humans, dogs do not have complex social needs, so for our autistic students, they are a ‘safe’ companion whom they do not need to expend energy figuring out. They are a source of unconditional positive regard, and that is so powerful for our students, who find the social complexities of secondary school incredibly overwhelming. 

Education UAE: How are the Reading Dogs selected or certified? Are there specific criteria they must meet?

Beth Sargent: We have dogs across all three schools at JESS. Each dog has completed training and assessment with the animal agencies’ Reading Dogs Programmeme. Harley (at JJ) and Bugsy (ARP) are staff members’ dogs. In secondary school, Ratty and Hero belong to one of our lovely parents, who has recently also begun working for us as a Learning Support Assistant. 

Karalynn Thomson: All our dogs have to attend an assessment day where they’re assessed by our animal behaviourist and trainer. If the dog passes the initial assessment, both the dog and handler enter a training programmeme. Even once the dog and handler have passed their training, they’re continually reassessed and evaluated throughout the year and are given additional support and training as needed.

Education UAE: How often and for how long do students typically engage with the Reading Dogs?

Karalynn Thomson: A session is a maximum of 45 minutes, with the frequency of the sessions set out by the school based on the learning objectives of that student. Education UAE: Is the programmeme integrated into the curriculum or offered as an extracurricular activity?

Beth Sargent: In secondary, we offer Reading Dogs sessions to students who have a reduced curriculum, who typically are our highest level of need in school. These sessions form part of their additional offerings. The dogs have become so popular that we often have students come to the Oasis department at break and lunch to seek out the dogs. Staff members also often come to say hello!

Education UAE:  What feedback or data has the school collected regarding the programmeme’s impact on students’ reading skills or attitudes toward reading?

Beth Sargent: We gather feedback from the students regularly, and it has only been positive. If, for any reason, the dogs are unable to come to school, the students are always disappointed. Education UAE:  How does the school ensure the safety and well-being of both the students and the Reading Dogs during these sessions?

Karalynn Thomson: All sessions are carried out per international Animal Assisted Therapy guidelines and standards. This includes the length of the session, the frequency of sessions a dog can deliver, and the number of students in a session. Reading Dogs UAE is a full member of Animal Assisted Intervention International and the International Association of HumanAnimal Interaction. We also have an animal behaviourist and a vet on our team who ensure the well-being of our dogs.

Education UAE: How does the school involve parents or guardians in the planning and review of their child’s SEND provision?

Beth Sargent: In addition to the IEP process and regular meetings with individual parents when required, we also have regular parent coffee mornings with a focus on SEND, which have become lovely opportunities for open discussion and feedback. We often invite speakers from outside agencies to speak on topics that have been requested by parents or topics that are pertinent to the needs we are seeing in school. We have a group of parents who have started an ‘Oasis Parents Group’ and they meet once a month outside of school. This group has been incredibly impactful to some of its members, offering a safe and non-judgmental place for parents of children with SEND to support each other. I know all too well from my role in school that parenting a child with SEND can be difficult and exhausting, and I am so pleased that our parents have banded together for support. It really encapsulates the community we have built here at JESS.

Education UAE: What training or professional development opportunities are provided to teachers and staff to enhance their understanding of SEND and inclusive teaching practices?

Beth Sargent: JESS is incredible regarding its support of professional development. We have had staff members complete a number of external courses; for example, both myself and my colleague have completed the CCET course and are registered assessors with the British Psychological Society. This year alone, so far, I have had staff members complete externally provided CPD on dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and autism. We also have external agencies work with us to offer internal CPD sessions for all staff and small groups of staff based on the needs of the cohort. For instance, we started the school year this year with a session from Grainne Boyle from Insights Psychology on Autism in school.