It was about 1pm. We’d been sitting on the concrete floor for over an hour with 30 children, many of them preschoolers with autism. The caretakers were sitting at a table in the middle of the room talking to each other and looking at their phones. There were no toys, no pillows, no distractions. If the kids got too noisy or too squirmy they were harshly scolded or slapped on the hands. I didn’t know how much longer we’d be stuck in here. The scene, after a similar one this morning (but that only lasted about 30 minutes) and some support staff members who were harsher than usual was too much for me. My eyes welled up with tears and I had to run outside to find a secluded spot for a good cry.
When travelers talk about “culture shock”, they go on about the food, the smells, the architecture (or lack thereof), but seriously, unless you’ve been super sheltered or are somewhere extremely remote, those things are trivial.
No, culture shock, the brutal in-your-face culture shock, happens when your beliefs get tugged at. And not your “you believe in God, I don’t really have a religion” beliefs either. Again, as long as your mind isn’t a narrow bridge, those are pretty trivial. I’m talking beliefs like about how life works, which values to prioritize, how you treat others. Controversial beliefs, you know, such as how people should behave according to their gender, how individuals should treat their families, how families should treat individuals, how friends should treat each other. And the biggest, baddest one of all: how children should be raised.
At that moment, my Western beliefs that school time should be structured, that students should be stimulated as much as possible and that they should be able to run around or play with toys during down times were facing the equivalent of a gang of sketchy dudes with baseball bats in an alley.
A bit afterward, I sat with Ed to talk about it.
Ed: So, what bothered you in there?
Me: I couldn’t stand to see all those kids penned up like that. Like cattle!
Ed: Ok. First of all, it was a big room. Second, it was air conditioned. And finally, the kids were having fun! Some of the staff were interacting with them, some were sleeping and the others were playing clapping games.
Me: But there were no toys! Nothing educational! Not even any music!
Ed: Sometimes when I was a kid there were times I had nothing do to do. You know what I did? I used my imagination.
Together, we reframed our observations of how the school worked. (Since we were both raised in cultures different from the cultures of our parents and spent our childhoods switching back and forth between frames of reference, reframing cultural observations is something we do together often, almost as game.)
Bringing up bébé in the West
In the West (Euro-American) culture (or in my perception of the West), kids, special needs or not, are stimulated whenever they are not in bed. Down times are accompanied by toys, playgrounds, TVs and, for this generation, computers or smart phones. Days are tightly structured with school, homework, sports, arts and other hobbies crammed packed into a few hours. (No wonder anxiety, depression and insomnia seem to becoming the norm rather than the exception!) Most parents recognize harm in aggressive discipline, but many don’t understand alternatives so they pass off behavioural education to the school and daycare systems. The ultimate goals for an individual is to be self-sufficient, hard working and able to support a spouse and children. Achievement of these goals is demonstrated by an accumulation of knowledge (not exclusively academic) and material wealth.
Western children requiring a specialized education are expected to work toward the same goals. Their education is based on developing independence and the ability to function within a structured environment. Social skills are important, yes, but they are tool toward autonomy rather than social harmony.
Bringing up bébé in Thailand
When it comes to education in Thai culture, we’ve had to guess.
With no one at the school speaking enough English to explain something as complicated as culture (and even if there had been, I’m not sure anyone had been exposed to other cultures enough to be able to describe their own – it’s pretty hard to name and describe values and beliefs you’ve had your whole life until you’ve had something to contrast them with) we were on our own. Ed offered a perspective based on his Chinese upbringing but while Thai culture is closer to Chinese culture than Euro-American culture, they aren’t identical. As for me, I went home and read everything I could find on raising children in Thailand, but there’s a pretty wide gap between literature and reality.
We figured family is important. I suggested that families here in Thailand might even be horrified to hear how crucial “moving out” is in the West and how most individuals who are unable to live independently live in support homes as opposed to with their families. So while “successful” parenting in the West might translate to raising a child who becomes autonomous and is able to start a new family early in adulthood, “successful” parenting in Thailand might translate to raising a child who participates actively in family life and who has harmonious interactions with others.
From what we can tell, hierarchy based on age and role (such as teacher vs student) is quite pronounced in Thailand too. When reading testimonials from Thai teachers attempting to use techniques developed in the West, though, I realized that this hierarchy isn’t so much based on the desire to dominate (which is how us Westerners tend to interpret hierarchy), but rather out of a “tried, tested and true” mentality. Those teachers were open to trying these techniques but were concerned that if their students stopped being afraid of them, they wouldn’t be able to learn anything. So the need for hierarchy was actually for everyone’s benefit, not just a “power trip” for those at the top.
As for work, it seems that, in Thailand, everyone works. There’s no such notion as overstaffing here. Even if you go to Dairy Queen in the late evening, you’ll still be served by 6 people. This must, I imagine, alleviates a lot of stress in the workplace. Staff take turns looking their phones, answering personal calls, chatting with their coworkers yet still manage to put out pretty good service. (I think this is a little different in tourist heavy areas, but here in Ranong, service has always ranged from “quite good” to “exceptional”) Unlike the West, where work is generally perceived seen as a necessary evil and where getting the most done with the least resources possible is the key to success, work in Thailand seems to be perceived as a fun social activity that also helps pay family bills. And because businesses hire so much staff, I imagine that there are a lot of job opportunities for unskilled labourers (at least in cities like this one), so even the most challenged of children at our school can probably find work and lead a relatively normal life once they gain some maturity.
Adding context to the scene
Back to that room.
We were sitting there because the military was taking photos of the empty classrooms (I’m not sure why they were doing this, but they did make a donation that morning and they are technically the government so who knows.) It’s too hot outside at midday for the kids to safely play on school grounds and being in air conditioned room is actually a treat. They were to return to their classrooms for nap time as soon as the rooms were free. It was just taking longer than expected.
Sitting quiet and still while doing nothing is an obsolete skill for most in the West, but if you consider that many Thai children frequently follow their parents to work, or are expected to attend family gatherings, or go out in public, you realize this skill is probably quite useful for them. And it’s not like they were forced to be statues either, some of the staff were interacting with the younger children, and the other kids were developing their social skills by interacting with each other, using their hands and feet as toys.
As for social skills, we noticed right away how well socialized the kids were. While some of the preschoolers cry for their mothers and the 4-7 year olds struggle with sharing, almost all the kids seem to have above average social skills when compared to their Western cousins. Eye contact is good, communication is effective (I actually had an easier time communicating with the kids than with the adults), fighting is rare and the older kids naturally look out for and help the younger kids. They pick up on cooperative games so quickly that I can’t tell which games are new to them and which they’ve known all along. And yes, this includes most of the kids with “severe” autism.
Somehow those long wait sessions were indeed educational, education being so much more than just learning facts and applying academic skills.
Discipline is probably the most controversial topic in child rearing anywhere. People just feel so strongly about the rights and wrongs in teaching your kids, well, right and wrong.
For me, the constant scolding (in a harsh, shrill voice) got under my skin. It was less about Thai culture, I think, than because of my experience with it back home. I don’t care for yelling. I was yelled at a lot as a kid (by teachers, by my mom – it’s just how things were done back then) and all it accomplished was develop my ignoring skills. Then, when I worked with children, yelling and harshness was seen as a loss of control, as a lack of empathy and as not having the competence to think of more child/situation-tailored solutions. The slapping of children in Thai schools doesn’t bother me as much, mostly because the slapping is very light, pretty much just a formality, but I still saw it as a waste of energy, especially when the child probably doesn’t understand what he’s being punished for anyway.
Ed offered a Chinese perspective: “My mom, my friends’ moms, my Chinese teachers, they all talked to me like that when I was little. With the exact same voice. I think that’s just how Asian women are expected to talk to children.” The testimonials I mentioned earlier suggested something along that train of thought, that teachers were worried that children wouldn’t behave or learn if they were not treated like this.
We can also consider it from the perspective of what earns respect for a teacher in the West. A Western teacher is respected for being empathetic, adaptable and interesting. So a teacher who scolds a lot in an annoying voice is more likely to be disrespected (hence my disdain for yelling). In Thailand, a teacher is automatically respected because they have knowledge to share. They are inherently “superior” in the social hierarchy. If they start treating the children as equals like a Western teacher would, they would theoretically lose their spot in the hierarchy and thus not be able to share their knowledge.
It must be noted too that the certified teachers at school, the ones who went to university (aka were expose to Western teaching techniques) were far less likely to use yelling and scolding to do discipline. (Which is actually not that different from back home – it seems that Western teachers and support staff, and even people like nurses and health care aids, who are older or less educated to tend to be gruffer and resort to yelling more than those with more extensive training.)
Where are the visual aids?
Visual aids have a huge place everywhere in modern Western teaching given that not all of us are blessed with being auditory learners. They are, however, especially crucial with special needs children, particularly with autistic children since struggles with spoken language are, like, a big part of what autism is.
It seems that visual aids are indeed used in some schools in Thailand and are taught in university (one of the teachers, I think she is a speech therapist, mentioned having used them at other sites in the past), but this school doesn’t use them. They also don’t use sign language with non-verbal children (they do use hand gestures for “hello” and “thank you” but because those gestures are part of normal interactions in Thai culture, they don’t think of them as sign language) All of my training has been about facilitating communication through visual aids so I had no idea what do.
I did make some pictographs (cards with pictures that can be used to communicate a need, discomfort or a want like thirst, tiredness, hunger or going to the bathroom) but since I was the only one using them, they ended up being more like fun flashcards or vocabulary builders than communications tools. I use sign language to back what I say too, a mix of Thai sign language and the hand signs I used back home, and the kids are somewhat interested, but again, no point in teaching them if no one else is on board.
I wanted to make visual schedules and timers too but ended up deciding against. After all, these kids were pretty good at communicating already. Thai life isn’t scheduled and timed the way Western life is either. Adults do go to work in the morning, come home at night and have hobbies, but routine, at least in more rural areas, isn’t as fine tuned or as strict as the routine we know. Oh, and nothing ever goes as planned. Some days cars break down. Sometimes there are random holidays. Sometimes people are late. For these kids, I decided, a schedule would be at best a waste of time, or at worst a source of frustration as it would rarely be followed. The notion of trusting one’s superiors makes me cringe, but given the cultural context, these children will probably gain far more by noticing cues from their parents and teachers than from a piece of paper. They would also gain a lot by learning how to deal with things they can’t control than by learning to control as much as possible.
One kid who was especially problematic by Thai standards (his behaviour was pretty average by Western standards) eventually got his own schedule, but he was the only one for whom I thought it might be worth the effort. By the time he learns to use it, I’ll have left, so I doubt it will be all that useful, but at least all the staff are familiar with it and might use it down the road if they see the need.
The ultimate ultimate goals are always the same: happy, healthy kids with bright futures
After taking a step back and putting everything I witness into cultural context, I ended up with a lot of respect for what they are doing at school.
Perhaps these children won’t be pushed to their full potential academically, but they are pushed hard where it matters for them. They’re learning to be good family members (remember that they will mostly likely live with their families instead of in a group home when they grow up), they’re learning patience, they’re learning general routines such as washing your hands before eating and brushing your teeth after, they’re learning table manners, they’re learning how to look after those lower than them in the social hierarchy (the older children comfort and teach things to the younger children), they’re taught how to cope with extreme Thai heat and they are taught some manual skills that will help them be employed later on. Perhaps they won’t have the experiences and resources their Western cousins receive (but they do receive a variety of experiences- for example, just two weeks ago they went horseback riding!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if their adult lives are happier and more similar to those of their peers when compared to Western persons with special needs.
As for how I choose to interact with the children, it isn’t possible for me to let go of my Western training (one of the teachers asked me to slap a misbehaving child once and I couldn’t bring myself to deliver more than a gentle tap. Physical discipline has been drilled out of me pretty hard!) and I turn a blind eye to a lot of behaviours that Thai teachers would correct in a heartbeat. I do have to admit, though, that because these kids are so well behaved and have such good social skills, they learn new games and new skills much faster and have way more frequent positive interactions with me than what I’m used to.
So perhaps there is a method to the madness and it just takes a step back (or two or three) to appreciate it.