Parents worry about their children’s emotional, physical and financial security when planning for their future. Although academic success is vital for ensuring a child’s prospects, parents often forget that it isn’t the goal that they have been aiming for. What the children really need is a happy and nurturing environment to prosper. If your child has a learning difficulty, this becomes even more important.
Children with learning difficulties often have two sets of behaviours for home and school.
- At times the ‘structure’ that a school provides is beneficial for some children to appear confident. At home, where attention is higher, and lapses in time schedules are likely to happen, there tends to be a meltdown. This sometimes also attributes to the fact that children are exhausted facing the challenges at school. They really don’t mind the time at home where it’s okay to be at their ‘worst’. When that is the case, children recognising their own benchmarks of appropriate behaviour end up feeling deep regret and guilt.
- Then again, children who are relatively happy and confident at home completely shut off at school. They don’t speak up in class or participate in activities that require to be verbal.
- Children with difficulties like ADHD may have a low tolerance for activities at school that require them to be patient or consistent. They may be happier at home where they can be left to explore anything they wish to.
Behavioural differences can be confusing for regular caregivers. “Do we really need to categorise them with medical terms that seem daunting, only to be looked at as being different?” asks a horrified mother whose child has recently been evaluated for borderline autism. Being different has always been unnecessarily alarming in society. Everyone has to face obstacles and in learning how to overcome them, lies the true value of education.
To understand more about children and their special needs I met Gayathri Narasimhan, a special needs educator, who has worked relentlessly for eleven years to support parents in Oman make the best of their children’s potential.
Why did you set out to become a special needs educator?
Eleven years back, I knew nothing of the different kinds of difficulties children face. I first came to understand that the traditional methods of teaching are insufficient when I met my daughter’s friend. Her parents wanted me to help her study but I found that no matter how hard I tried I could not reach her. I felt guilty and questioned the purpose of my own education. That was when I unlearnt my old teaching methods and relearnt new ones in their place. I went back and studied psychology and did a teacher training in learning disabilities, studied behavioural therapy, sensory therapy, handwriting specialisation etc. I had to study all of that, especially in the three years I exclusively set aside for this, because the umbrella under which ‘difficulties’ would fall was enormous. There seemed no end to it. While working, wherever I found a child facing a challenge, I would end up doing a course on that.
However, when once my daughter wondered what children with severe autism or ADHD, would do after schooling, as she herself would after 12th grade, I knew my role should not be restricted to school. It was then I dedicated two years to learning various vocational courses.
I was greatly influenced by the working style of people affected by Down syndrome at Nimhans in Hyderabad and was amazed at the systematic and efficient way in which they carried out their vocations. In Oman, when I came back I started vocational classes for children both at home and while working alongside Oman Down Syndrome Association. I am particularly proud of being able to train an exceptional Omani boy with Down Syndrome, a perfectionist who is good at various things like chocolate making, creating chocolate bouquets, making hand made soaps, candles, even block printing and screen printing. He will soon be opening shop in Oman, an entrepreneur to look out for.
While there are various special needs for children with either learning, physical, emotional or behavioural difficulties, who among them will be accommodated within the framework of ‘inclusive education’?
True, the umbrella under which children with difficulties fall is enormous. However, what will be focused on in a school will be their educational needs. It is learning needs that will be largely worked on by special educators.
There may be children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, for instance, who will be helped by these educators. Our challenges will, however, largely include their behaviour, because, academically their performance level would be high.
Then there are children with Dyslexia, which is a language-based learning disability, or dyscalculia, a severe learning difficulty, where the child is unable to solve arithmetic calculations or even dysgraphia which is an inability to write with the correct spacing. Often one difficulty can cause problems in other areas. For instance, if the child cannot read due to dyslexia, how will she comprehend a question? That is why when we special educators begin lessons, our starting point so to say, is very different from regular methods. The children graduate from 12th grade completely on par with other children. All that is needed, is that they are taught differently. It must be remembered that it is a lifelong disability and they need to learn from circumstances all their lives, just like everyone else who are very much in the mainstream.
So really, children with any difficulty can be accommodated in an inclusive school?
Depends. It depends on whether they can be academically trained. In an inclusive school, the children are not secluded. They sit alongside the others and are pulled in and out as and when they need help.
How will you know if the child can be academically trained?
Through assessments. Special educators do only a basic assessment. We then refer them for a formal assessment to a clinical psychologist. The children have to be registered under RDI( Relationship Development Intervention).
When do you tell parents that they need to get their children assessed?
Very early, as early as kindergarten.
Not later? Not suddenly in High School?
Later too. Sometimes the problem is identified late. In fact, in the school I am working in, I met a child who is in 12th grade and has ADHD. The fact is that he always had ADHD, but in the absence of a special educator (when the school had not been inclusive), no one was able to help the child in all the years he had been there. Since I joined, I took some initiative in the school to screen the children. The class teachers would tell me the children who have consistently been scoring low marks. That would become the first alert. There on, I would do my basic assessment for special needs. After that, I would send them for external formal assessment.
What if the children have been getting above average marks but still have a learning difficulty? Can they still get help?
They will then be invariably be identified through their writing skills. Then they will be appropriately helped.
I ask that question particularly because I know children who are not necessarily poor academically but may have difficulty socializing or have severe anxiety issues that hamper their lessons.
Such children most likely will have borderline autism. I have a student such as the one you describe. Just the other day, I gave her an exercise in letter-writing. Her first reaction was to tear up the paper. I rewrote the question in another paper and gave her some time. She came up to me and sat beside me and asked me for another question. She did not want to do this one. Then when I did give her another question, she continued with four other letters in one stretch, each written in immaculate English without a single error. The child could most definitely write but her brain was taking a while to get charged. The lapse of time made her anxious and so she tore the paper at first. A special educator recognises anxiety easily. When I see children beginning to get anxious especially during exams, I ask them to put their pens down, take them for a walk, give them a hand massage as I have studied sensory therapy and I know the pressure points to bring anxiety down.
How are children with learning difficulties judged when it comes to exams? Do they have a different benchmark?
We never bring down the level of exams for these kids. What we do is to help the child rise up to that level. We would not want the child to feel discriminated. We don’t tell them that they are a ‘special child’. Whether it is accolades or exam results, in an inclusive school, they are always pitted against all their classmates on a common platform. To discriminate them would bring down their self-esteem very badly. In fact, I don’t even go to meet my students in their regular classroom. However, an eye on them is kept from a distance. They win awards for art and sports naturally without additional benefits meted out to them. They are quite capable of outscoring in academics too.
So it really is the approach to lessons that really matters, isn’t it? But is it also the time? Do you need a lot more time?
Oh, we need a lot of time. Sometimes, for instance, you teach something and the entire lesson is forgotten just before exams and you have to redo a large chunk of portions all over again because it’s just completely forgotten.
How important is an early intervention in learning disabilities?
Very important. I always tell parents if the problem is identified early and effort is made to overcome the difficulty at a very young age, special educators like me just may not be required. Parents can save some money. When identified at the kindergarten level, the problem can be reversed and they learn how to cope with their difficulties because the disabilities are neurological disorders, not genetic. They are a lifelong neurological disorder which they learn to cope with and lead a very happy life.
How do parents deal with the fact that their children have difficulty?
Parents are a big challenge for us. Of course, there are exceptional proactive parents who themselves go-ahead for an assessment and then come to us with it. There are also parents who are very cooperative and understanding when we first take the cause to them. We come up with some outstanding results by working together. However, in most cases, we have parents who stay in denial. They refuse to go for clinical assessments and we remain unable to help. The schools have rules where we cannot help a child unless they have been evaluated in their difficulty.
Do your students talk about their aspirations? Apart from the vocational skills that you were talking about, what can you say about, let’s say, college?
Most of the children I have seen have problems with maths. So they get into arts or business studies. I have students who have finished Masters in Music, who have done Cabin crew courses, one student who has studied sound engineering in Chennai, and many are good at computers.
What essentially parents need to realise is that their children just may need a special educator like any child might need extra tuitions, isn’t it? The parents I want to reach through my blog are essentially the ones who are in denial like you said. What message would you like to give them?
They need to accept that their child is having difficulty. They need to overcome the fear of ‘labelling’ which unfortunately is prevalent in our society. Institutions on their part need to run various awareness programs to help parents. Counselling is needed for parents, the peer group, and the school community at large. For instance, once a class had to learn how to behave around a child who had an 80% visual impairment. They needed to know that they cannot leave their bags wherever they pleased and had to be responsible for the safety of the child while taking the stairs, while at the same time letting him/her remain independent. They also need to learn to co-exist with children who may have ADHD etc. The counselling is done to ensure a subtle level of support.
This is important because, with the lack of support from institutions, children can get bullied. One child I know got terribly bullied and she started getting silent seizures. She had to be removed from schooling here and was taken back to her home town in Chennai. A positive environment, the way they are treated, the way friends talk to them are all very important. Labelling them as ‘special’ should most definitely be avoided.
However, I do know of schools where they refer to children as ‘special children’. What can a parent do if she faces discrimination at school?
What can a parent do? Parents cannot do much, can they? The institutions have to be responsible. They need to take the lead. Institutions need to integrate the children with special needs with those who don’t have those needs, even in vocational classes. Vocational lessons must be a group activity for everyone. All children benefit from it.
There should not be a distinct line differentiating the children you say. Even the children who don’t fall under the bracket of ‘special needs’ have difficulties, don’t they?
Absolutely! I, for that matter, cannot play sports, I may not have the aptitude or the training for it. Well, the issue is that we are not tested in every sphere equally. We are only tested academically. It’s just not enough criteria to judge a person. It is just so wrong.
You said institutions need to take the onus of sensitizing teachers and students and that a whole inclusive system needs to be built. Do you think there is a lack of such institutions?
Yes. We have a long way to go.
Would you say that there is a lack of special educators too?
Yes, there is.
I have noticed that some International schools do give importance to special education, where the work seems refined, but they charge high fees and it might seem like good education but only for the elite.
(laughs) Well, special educators need to be committed with a mindset to serve. It has to be 100% commitment. I don’t have one single period free at school. I have continuous classes. However, my institution ensures that I focus only on this work. I am not called for any other activity. I am 24/7 available for my children.
Why can’t every subject teacher also be a special educator?
They are increasingly going for it. The awareness campaigns I have done, for sure has made some difference. A Hindi teacher from where I teach had a student with a photogenic memory. She had always found him difficult to teach but he seemed to remember everything when taught in a visual medium. She subsequently incorporated a visual learning method for her entire class. Everyone benefitted with the method. It especially helps when the subject experts are open to the idea of special education. All the concepts can be taught in visual, auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic ways. If all of the four learning styles are used to teach every topic in class, all kinds of learners will essentially benefit. It takes a lot of work and like I said, the teacher has to be committed.
Owing to the fact that there is indeed a lack of committed teachers and good institutions, what would you say to a parent so that they gain confidence and don’t feel intimidated by irresponsible educators?
Well, they can’t change their institution or correct a teacher. Well, perhaps they can too but it is very difficult. So what I can suggest is that they get exposed to their child’s needs and the ways to fulfil those needs, as much as possible themselves. They could themselves become the educators their children need. I have had instances when I have advised parents to do certain courses so that they, one on one, can help their children.
That was quite an insightful conversation. Thank you so much. I know I did talk about teachers who don’t cooperate with parents sometimes. However, having said that, teachers are usually very inspiring. It is such an honourable job and many children remember some of their great teachers long after they have left school. Your work stands distinguished even in comparison to those well-loved teachers, based on how incredibly committed you are. I’m sure you will be cherished by your students always.
Thank you. However, I must say, I am able to do what I do only because the institution helps me and gives me a free hand. That is why they have such a big responsibility in bringing positive change in the attitude of society towards special education.
Ms.Gayathri Narasimhan is a special educator loved by children and parents alike. Her student Abdullah al Ruqaishi, is her pride, as he embarks on a new journey in entrepreneurship.
–work by Abdulla al Ruqaishi