Ankita Diwekar Kabra
As a child, I remember gawking at children who were, I was told by well-intentioned adults, “abnormal”. These children did not study in regular schools, and if they did, they repeatedly “failed” exams, were shunted by family and peers and were a target of humiliation and ridicule amongst classmates.
In the present day, thanks to movies like “Taare zameen par” and the Internet, there is a greater awareness of the variety of learning challenges that children face. Unfortunately, our education system is not yet 100% aligned to meet the challenges of these students. It is heartening to know that many schools in India now welcome students with learning difficulties. My experience tells me that a strong vision coupled with simple adaptations and a team of motivated and committed educators can help meet the learning diversity of students.
At Fountainhead School, we have endeavored to cater to the learning diversity in our student population. We started off with a vision for these students, which we defined as follows:
- To make the students as independent as possible in their lives.
- To identify and nurture their talents.
The variety of learning challenges that students face range from learning disabilities like dyslexia and dsygraphia to Down’s syndrome, autism, delayed development, etc. Just as no two children are alike, similarly no two learning challenges are alike. There is a spectrum in each ranging from mild to moderate and severe. Accordingly, the kind of support that each student needs also varies.
For physically challenged students, simple modifications like making every area in the school accessible through ramps, having toilets designed which they can use independently, ensuring that these students are meaningfully occupied in classes like PE and dance where they cannot participate go a long way in making the child comfortable and independent in his school routine.
For students with hearing issues, sitting in the front row of the class works wonders. Kindergarten and lower primary teachers are trained to be alert, to keep a close eye on students who are not meeting grade level expectations, who are distracted, who show a tendency to disturb others, or who come from violent or broken families. These students are the more likely ones at risk to develop a learning disability. Additional academic support is provided to these students and if no visible improvement is seen, it is recommended that the student undergoes formal testing to rule out or identify the learning difficulty. Similarly, students in higher grades who come with poor past academic history are closely monitored during their first year in school.
Once a learning difficulty is identified, we try to understand the nature of the same and how it will affect the child’s progress in school. Accordingly, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is formulated which specifies what grade level expectations the child will be expected to meet, what kind of additional support he will get, will this support be in the form of a shadow teacher in class or will the student be pulled out of class for a few hours every week for 1:1 instruction? Once these questions are answered, the IEP is shared with the student’s homeroom teacher and the parent to ensure that all are aligned to achieve the IEP goals.
Simple as it sounds, it isn’t so. A lot of times, parents aren’t very accepting of the fact that their child has a learning issue. They need to be counselled and made cognizant of the fact that their unconditional love, support, and acceptance will be the biggest factor which decides how well their child copes in school. Since institutes that train teachers for inclusive education are far and few, getting qualified professionals to work with students is also an uphill task.
Some organizations like Mindsprings (www.mindsprings.in) and Maharashtra Dsylexia association (www.mdamumbai.com) offer short courses and training modules for special educators which we have found to be beneficial. It is also ideal to have an in-house psychologist and a tie-up with reputed testing service agencies which will administer tests for all kinds of developmental disabilities and provide authentic reports.
It is crucial to make it a part of the school culture that the student with special needs is not just the responsibility of the special educator. The homeroom teacher plays a very important role in the student’s growth. A loving, competent, and motivated teacher comes up with a variety of teaching and learning strategies to cater to the student’s needs when he/she is a part of the classroom; so a student who cannot express herself well in writing may do a mono act to demonstrate her understanding of the topic, a slow learner may be given extra time to complete assignments, and a struggling reader may use an ipad app to have books read to him.
Classmates also need to be sensitized to the needs of these students so that they do not become victims of teasing and bullying. There may also come a time when we realize that the school is unable to teach anything new to the child than what he already knows or when the student poses a threat to the safety of other students. At such times, heartbreaking as it may be, we have to let some students go.
At the end of the day, while choosing to be an inclusive school poses many challenges, the rewards are far too many.
The author is the co-founder and Primary school Principal of Fountainhead School, Surat. Fountainhead is an inclusive K-12 school offering the IB and IGCSE boards of education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.