Emily Kunze talks about multilingual students with learning differences
Emily Kunze is founder of Diverse Learning, a Foundation set up to support the greater international community of multilingual students with learning differences. Originally from the US, Emily lived in Buenos Aires and in London before settling in Barcelona. She is the mother of three multilingual children.
What was your experience as a mother, living abroad with a child who was showing signs of delayed development?
After my third child was born I took an extended leave from work. My eldest child was already showing signs of global development delay (the first signs were her motor and speech skills, later we discovered she was epileptic). The experience is really hard, your instincts tell you something is off but you don’t know what questions to ask or who to ask. You are navigating in the dark. I remember one doctor told me that I was just pushing my daughter too hard, suggesting that I was a Tiger Mom. Everyone seemed to have an opinion and it was not usually supportive. In the summers I was able to return to the US and had my daughter work with different doctors and learning specialists. I imagine that most people find their home country their point of reference. The US has always been that for me.
Schooling quickly became another monster issue for me. Living in a multilingual environment just adds to the difficulty for many children with any learning difference. I insisted that my daughter learn and speak English because there are opportunities in the US for children with her characteristics that just don’t exist here. I went to the US to do training in special reading programs in order to support her outside of school. I never stop looking within the US for better programs to help teach her.
And as a result of your personal experience you decided to set up Diverse Learning?
Yes, I hope to use my experience to simplify the search for educational support for other families.
You set up Diverse Learning along with Chrissy Bruce, a Speech Language Pathologist. How did you meet?
For years my daughter had been working with Chrissy Bruce. She’s from the US but has been in Barcelona for over 15 years. She is an amazing professional and works in similar ways to the professionals we work with in the US in the summer.
Chrissy and I share many philosophies when it comes to education and children with learning differences and multilingualism. Apart from working with my daughter I have considered her a great friend. We talked about doing something for years, I had always joked about having to clone her. She would spend the day with her backpack traveling on the bus visiting clients and working at the hospital and I would tell her, “you are too valuable to waste your time running around. People need to come to you and you need to develop a team with your capabilities.” That is how Diverse Learning came to be.
What is the mission and philosophy of Diverse Learning?
Diverse Learning has one mission: To be the top learning center in Europe for multilingual children who learn differently. We are dedicated to providing cutting-edge, research-based learning programs that are individualized to the needs of each child we serve. We want to ensure that ALL children can receive our support regardless of their ability to pay.
How have you chosen your team of professionals?
Chrissy has a very specific teaching style which creates a special experience for the students that work with her. We want to make sure that all professionals at our center offer a service of the same quality. Each new hire has to work with us during a trial period before we offer a full time position. Everyone who works with us has to have a university degree and some higher training and experience with supporting children with learning differences. They all also have to speak English as a native language. Growing our team has been the most difficult and we started recruiting from abroad.
Is the assessment process different for a multilingual child with learning difficulties, compared to a monolingual child?
Yes, the assessments are standard international tests. There is so much based on language in these tests that they do not count for the complexities of multilingual brain. Therefore it is fundamental that the professional performing the assessment has the ability to switching between languages in the assessment to test out if the student is processing the same in each language. It is important to determine if the student is having difficulty because of a learning difference or because the student has not yet mastered the language as other children in their age group.
Once a child has been diagnosed how do you create a plan of action?
We meet with the parents and the school and any other tutors helping the student so that everyone involved in supporting the student is communicating and on the same page. It is a waste of resources otherwise. Our professionals speak with the schools and families regularly whilst receiving support at our center. Our methods are designed to meet the needs of each student so we need regular feedback to evaluate what is working and what needs to be changed.
You have created a unique center not just for the child who needs support, but also for the whole family. How will you offer support to parents whose child has a learning or developmental disorder?
We often refer out to medical specialists and psychologists. We invite parents to see how we are working with the children so that they can carry over the support at home. We also offer workshops and talks for parents to meet other parents and professionals so they do not feel so alone in the process.
There is also a social element to Diverse Learning for families with limited income. What social programs will the Foundation offer?
We offer the “The Friends of Laia Scholarship”, a sliding pay scale, for students who come to work at the center whose families cannot afford to pay for the private services.
We are also putting together a Satellite program with other professional groups in Barcelona working in this area to support families who qualify through assessments and support in their own neighborhoods. We don’t expect that these families will find us so we need to find them and make ourselves available to help.
What is your vision for the future of Diverse Learning?
Our goal is to reach and support over 100 children/year by 2020; 50 privately at the center and 50 through the satellite and scholarship programs.