Learning Strategies is Vietnam’s first organisation to provide children experiencing behavioural, developmental or academic difficulties with specialised support. The group’s director Tony Louw explains their origins and aims to Madeleine Adamson.

Like many expats in HCM City, Tony Louw originally came to Vietnam for a short vacation and fell in love with the country. It was obvious to him that his background as an early intervention specialist could be put to excellent use here.

Louw, who grew up in South Africa and Europe, moved to Vietnam in 2008 to set up a learning support department at the Renaissance International School Saigon. His three years at RISS were successful, but he eventually realised that in order to help the greatest number of individuals, he had to set up a private organisation. He knew it would not be a straightforward feat, but that he had to try.

Louw is now the Programme Consultant and Managing Director of Learning Strategies, Vietnam’s first organisation to offer top quality behavioural support services to families and schools. Louw set up the privately funded Educational Support Services Asia (Learning Strategies’ former moniker) to provide children experiencing academic, behavioural or developmental difficulties with customised intervention programmes. His clients’ conditions range from Autism spectrum disorders to minor reading difficulties.

Louw advocates the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a teaching strategy that uses a child’s interests to accelerate their rate of learning. “ABA is a scientifically validated mode of intervention in which goals are broken down into achievable developmental steps,” says Louw.

Learning Strategies works with children of all ages and abilities in both home and school settings. Some clients have problems with functional communication development, independent play, speech articulation, socialising with peers or handling daily living skills. Others have trouble with academic performance, issues with motor skills, or behavioural concerns.

The youngest client Louw worked with was 20 months old and he has also helped high functioning teens. However, the majority are primary school kids. Although clients are a mix of Vietnamese and expats, Louw’s team only provides services to students who have a good grasp of English.

At the moment, Louw works with four internationally recruited specialists trained in the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis. But he points out that the most important part of effectively implementing the teaching methodology comes from the personality of the practitioner. “The people who excel at this kind of work often possess a theatre background. They have to be animated and good at thinking on their feet,” he explains. “Most importantly, they need to be fun. We all learn through motivation. Many of the children we deal with have had a long and often distressing history of failure in school and our job is to turn that around.”

Staff use assessment tools to develop a distinctive profile of each child’s skill levels. The emphasis is on functional skill development with mainstream integration being the eventual aim. “The goal is to get these children to the point that they no longer need us,” Louw adds.

Social skills programmes or special academic plans are developed for those who are struggling to make friends or are having difficulties with their school’s curriculum. For students experiencing substantial developmental delays, the focus is on improving baseline functional skills within a child’s natural environment. Kids with severe Autism might receive 40 hours of intensive one-on-one instruction per week, while more advanced learners only need two or three.

Since the company is hands-on as opposed to clinic-based, Louw says being in Vietnam helps in many respects. In North America, strict educational policies often prevent therapists from going into classrooms with students. Here in Vietnam, there is more flexibility, which contributes to greater progress within the classroom.

Home training sessions for parents, teachers and household staff explain how to teach new skills within the context of daily routines—from interacting with peers to getting dressed. “Every member of a household plays an integral role in the success of a child,” says Louw. Routine training workshops for small groups are also held at venues such as Boomarang in District 7.

As rewarding as Louw’s work is, he describes how a family’s budget constraints can result in numerous challenges. If a child needs 20 hours of treatment a week but his or her family can only afford five, his team must creatively piece together a model of intervention that reflects the resources at hand.

“We are also developing software programs and data management systems that can be managed remotely to reduce time spent directly with families, and thus the money they have to spend,” Louw says.

Digitizing resources will help by tracking a child’s progress milestone by milestone. “While some families only require a mild level of service, others require a long term investment to meet their child’s needs,” explains Louw. “While we have a strong track record here in Vietnam, every child comes to us with an individual learning potential. Our goal is to ensure that each of our clients is meeting that potential. We constantly evaluate each child’s progress through parent and teacher consultations and careful analysis of the data records that we maintain around each case. Over time, we can reach a point where we are able to make informed judgments about how far we can reasonably expect a child to progress. We have to ensure at every step of the way that a family’s investment in terms of their time and finances is justifiable in terms of the projected long term outcome for the child.”

Learning Strategies’ long-term aim is to filter program models into the Vietnamese community. Louw has already conducted numerous Vietnamese language workshops with the help of translators. The team is also working with local charities to start bringing comprehensible assessment tools to underprivileged special needs schools in Saigon. “We need to come up with an effective working model [given the resources available] and then break down the model into digestible chunks that we can disseminate over to the Vietnamese. We also need to provide support to the management structures in various schools.”

The organisation’s name change, along with their new logo and website, is part and parcel of Learning Strategies’ desire to fine-tune their identity. The group was also keen to take the word ‘education’ out of their name. Louw explains, “We are not a school, we are not providing the teaching. We are providing the strategies behind the teaching.”