As an educator with eight years of experience in working with children with many different needs and ability levels, including special education students, Heng Sophaneth recently began working with an autistic child while employed at one of the largest international schools in Cambodia.
The third grade teacher said that after working with the child, she began to understand the complexities of the condition and tried to find ways to help children with similar special needs.
“His condition made me realize the importance of having university qualifications in special education. Understanding this subject will allow professionals to identify disabilities and develop personal interventions tailored to the needs of specific children,” Sophanet said.
As an English teacher who graduated with a Bachelor’s in education from the Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL) in 2016, in 2020 Sophanet decided to pursue a Master’s degree in special education at the University of Flinders in Australia.
“Special education is a rare subject that is not yet available at universities in Cambodia. Cambodia has identified more than 1,000 cases related to autism in 2023. This shows that the special education sector needs more professional teachers to support these children,” she told The Post.
Chan Sarin, principal of Takhmao Special Education High School and former president of the Hands of Hope Community (HHC) established in 2014, said that special education is definitely a subject that Cambodia is really in need of more human resources to tackle.
Sarin, who provided the figures of more than 1,000 children with autism in six provinces and more than 20,000 nationwide in Cambodia in 2019, said that special education is important and Cambodia does not have enough human resources for this work.
Phok Many, founder of Growing Special Education School, said that when she first opened her school she found it difficult to find professional resources to teach, but one of her trainers graduated with a Master’s degree from South Korea.
Many, who is also the mother of an autistic child, said her school benefits from the support of the Catholic Association and parental contributions. She sees that trainers providing training to special education teachers in Cambodia are still very few in number and there are still very few people who know about special education.
She said that in fact, most of the training of teachers at Chey Chumneas Referral Hospital in Takhmao town was done by foreigners.
“I think it is still limited, although everyone is trying to study sociology and psychology, and as a provider of this special education, I see a lot of shortcomings related to the special education division. If the Royal University of Phnom Penh had a Master’s degree in special education that would be good in order to give the opportunity to those who intend to study this subject locally,” Many told The Post.
The founder of the special education school in Boeung Tumpun area has continued to teach children with autism and she thinks it is necessary to integrate subject into the state education system.
Sophanet, 30, established the Special Education Cambodia SEC website to disseminate knowledge and share information with parents and Cambodians about children with different disabilities.
She focuses on imparting knowledge through the training of teachers and parents who wish to study special education, as well as providing online and telephone counselling with no service charge.
Sophanet said she created it because of misunderstandings and lack of access to accurate information for people with children who have special needs and circumstances.
She said some believe that children with special needs, especially children with autism, can be treated or helped to return to normal by using traditional medicine, rituals, baby formula or even simple methods such as stopping use of electronic devices, none of which is true whatsoever.
“I think it’s important that I can be a source of information for parents and guardians and be quick and easy to understand,” she said.
Now, Sophanet has opened the OrbRom Center, located in Borey Peng Huoth in Boeung Snor to provide counselling and services for ADHD, dyslexia as well as developmental disabilities and slow growth.
“I also provide training for teachers at international schools for children with disabilities, create personal education plans and monitor learning,” she said.
As for the challenges, Sophanet said that it’s not that different from other jobs, though being a special education teacher requires paying a lot of attention to your students. The biggest challenge is keeping up with their tireless energy, which is really exhausting.
Having obtained a Master’s degree, Sophanet is keen to pursue further doctoral studies to raise awareness and help connect the relationship between the community and the government.
“My next project is to pursue a doctorate in psychology in the field of disability. At the same time, I would like to have direct involvement in the field of special education. I want special education to be in line with international standards through community acceptance and close cooperation with the government,” said Sophanet.