Educating the special child

Anuradha C

Imparting formal education to little ones is among the foremost challenges of adult human society. Simply because we are trying to play God. Deciding what’s good for them and what they should know, when they are not able to decide that for themselves. Knowing fully well that each child is unique in its acumen, interests, natural talents, financial position, social standing and so on. The best system we have come up with is formal school education – a collective learning method that classes all children in more or less the same mould. This is sub-optimal, surely. But alternate methods of personalized learning are tough to implement and involve massive investment of time and effort from the adult world.

Our responsibility becomes increasingly grave when it comes to the matter of special children. Because it becomes impossible to slot these children into common moulds. Just like the vividity of God’s creation, the ‘special’ part of these children is simply too unique in every child!

We may try to apply some terms like “Autism”, “Asperger Syndrome”, “Down Syndrome”, “Dyslexia”, “Cerebral Palsy” or “Motor Skills Disorder”. But these are just for our own convenience, because it helps to define the indefinable, at least to some extent. It gives us something concrete to work on.

The tricky part of this category of children is that they are equal in innate intelligence to normal children, in most cases. What they lack is dexterity in movement, ability to communicate and comfort among crowds. More than these limitations, there is an even bigger problem they face – their fear of the unfamiliar.

The existing education framework for these special children is pathetically sparse, prohibitively expensive and limited to the big cities. The first dilemma for an affected parent begins with acceptance. The natural urge is to try and coax the child into the ‘normal’ school system and hope that he or she will cope eventually, with a little extra support and guidance. This method might seemingly work in a few outlier cases. But predominantly, the rigorous schooling system only manages to break the child’s fragile confidence and dim their interest in learning. This is the stage where a parent’s acceptance that ‘my child is different’ is vital. With this acceptance begins their search for viable alternatives.

Government guidelines and accreditations
When it comes to offering formal educational courses to special children, there cannot be a fixed rigid format, due to the diverse nature of their deficiencies. The Government of India, under the auspices of the HRD Ministry and Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment offers an open schooling curriculum for this purpose. NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) prides itself on being the world’s largest open schooling system. The idea is to offer a wide variety of basic subjects, vocational training content, home schooling aids and format-free evaluation methods.

Students can appear up to the class 12 examinations in this format. However, there is no formal education prescribed beyond this level.

Alternative schools for special needs
Inclusive schools – These institutions try to maintain a balance in their class strength with a mix of ‘normal’ and ‘special’ children, say something in the range of 80:20. For mildly affected special children, this is a good option. They might offer mixed formats of curriculum – the regular ICSE/CBSE/State boards along with NIOS.

Some of the well-endowed schools may also provide free of cost education to economically disadvantaged special children. However, such schools are limited in number and always in great demand.

Special needs schools – The concept of a special needs school is very sketchy and difficult to itemize. Just like schools for children with physical disabilities, there are dedicated schools catering to children with learning disorders. They usually employ teachers with certifications or diplomas in these specialized teaching methods. These schools may also offer the support services of a paediatric psychiatrist. There is a lot of focus on one-to-one learning in such schools. They also have a good mix of sports, yoga and music among the extra-curriculars. However, the specific focus areas of each special school is left to the vision and priorities of its founders.

Home schooling – Works wonderfully well in the early years of the child’s life. No better teacher than the parent who fully understands and empathizes with the child’s valiant efforts to learn about the world around. Grandparents with stories of morals and faith, courage and compassion are a big hit with the kids. The limitations of home schooling start to appear as the child grows up. Exposure to peer circles of children and teachers qualified with specialized training become vital then.

Complementary support systems
One of the major impediments to schooling for special children is managing logistics. Its takes immense time and effort for a parent to pick up and drop the child at school, since they cannot be allowed to travel unaccompanied. And then hunt for other support systems that complement the child’s growth process. Physiotherapy/speech therapy sessions, surgical and medical intervention on need basis, psychological counselling and finding playmates for leisure time, the list is daunting. Suffice to say, the parent’s entire universe shrinks to cater to the needs of the child.

Vocational training options
Activities which involve minimal reading and writing are the ones that work best for these children. Especially those which are more visual or enriched with sound. Cooking, carpentry, percussion music are good examples of vocations and interest areas that appeal naturally to special children. The added advantage of activities of this kind is that they can be performed in relative solitude. So that the children don’t have to deal with the additional stress of handling people around them. Several parents that I have interacted with vouch for the effectiveness of these areas.

The parent of a 16 year old strapping young boy recently shared her new discovery with me. After years of trying to find an area of interest for her son who shows characteristics of autism, she chanced upon software programming for websites! Not the dreary complex kind, but simple web page creation with lots of experimentation in colour, fonts, images and sounds. The boy even won an award certificate for his efforts. And the joy on the mother’s face is indescribable.

There are several options out there which might work well with these children, it takes a lot of determination and a stroke of luck to find the right fit for each child. We must be prepared to think unconventionally and make relentless attempts.

Some parents are so overwhelmed by the whole ordeal that dejection and disillusionment sets in. While some others come out with a steely purpose of doing something concrete and constructive to better the lives of these sweet innocents. Many of the special needs institutions are the result of a parent’s resolve to make a difference. Contributions come in many forms – monetary support, part time teaching, peer circle groups, experience sharing, counselling centers. One such parent I know is in the process of creating a mobile app to aid self-learning for these children.

Many people who come in contact with these special children make one remarkable observation. These children are curiously free of petty human failings such as jealousy, greed or bitterness. Whatever little the world achieves in the form of educating these children for their betterment, it should not affect this tranquil existence in a world of their own.

The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at [email protected].

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