What we learnt from Shreya

Timira

This column began with the intention of sharing success stories of inclusive education to encourage institutions to be able to imagine the possibility of successfully making space for all children to be able to learn together by bringing about small but significant changes in the way a school functions. The intention of this column reminds me of the story of a little girl studying in my school whose circumstances drove us to do exactly that. I’d like to share Shreya’s story this month.

Shreya came to us in Junior KG. She was the third girl child of the family, completely unwanted and a child who had no idea that she would have to bear the burden of her father’s death, which occurred soon after she was born, for the rest of her life.

To make matters even more unfavourable for her, Shreya’s mother was diagnosed with a tumour in her brain when Shreya was only three years old. Shreya grew up under the care of her eldest, much-older sister, who was already suffering from an undiagnosed, yet obvious, mental illness.

A tiny, frail, 4-year-old Shreya came to us under these circumstances. She was different from other children. There were obvious delays in development. She was malnourished, her hygiene conditions needed care and she hadn’t developed a basic vocabulary, even in her mother tongue, to be able to express herself. It was obvious that she would be different. She was born into trauma. But the irony in all of this was that when you saw Shreya, she was always smiling, oblivious to the reality that surrounded her.

Her smile gave us the strength to defocus from the grim reality and recognize what lay beyond – an innocent life that was in desperate need for care, love and the right stimulus.

The first year at school, all Shreya did was tell her teachers that she was going away to live with her grandmother because…and then she would enact her mother vomiting. That’s all she would do. Repeatedly. Again and Again. Every time a teacher walked into her class.

The trauma she had been facing since she was born was playing out in a very severe way. Unfortunately, her family was too caught up taking care of medical and financial requirements to take care of little Shreya’s needs. Junior KG passed Shreya by with her being unable to learn much. We had her repeat the year hoping that her mother’s treatment would be over soon and she would be in a better place emotionally, to be able to learn. Unfortunately, the family continued to face more challenging circumstances and Shreya began moving from one class to the next without the emotional support she needed from them.

By the time Shreya was in grade 2, our teachers had her professionally assessed and it turned out that she had an intellectual disability. It was probably a hereditary disorder and it was suggested that she be put on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) as she would not be able to cope with regular academics.

Illustration: Shreya Sen

This was a crucial juncture for us at school. Shreya had been with us for five years, she had made friends in class, she had gained social skills that allowed her to communicate and express herself with confidence. She was part of a regular classroom of a regular school. She participated in assembly presentations, annual day performances, literary and sports events and was even given weekly classroom responsibilities like all other children. I remember how the only thing Shreya could manage to say during presentations was, “Good Morning!” and “Thank you!” but she soon went on to doing an entire dance routine in an Annual Day play as well as saying a full sentence on stage as part of a literary event.

Apart from professionals conducting occupational therapy and speech therapy, we used individuals like our school nurse – the most-loved grandmother figure at school – to work on life skills like personal hygiene and the librarian – who spoke Shreya’s mother tongue – to work on basic conversational abilities to build social skills. Our special educators and teachers had worked hard to include her in everything that was done and ensure she was respected and loved by all her peers.

However, Shreya could neither read letters, nor recognize numbers. But the big question was whether education was only about literacy and numeracy. For a child like Shreya, wasn’t what we were providing her an education that was far more necessary and important?

We also realized how empathetic and sensitive her classmates had gotten over the years taking care of Shreya’s needs. They were comfortable with long silences in an academic class when Shreya was given a chance to answer. They were happy that she answered something, anything, even if they were just a string of random words. They were happy to have her be the assistant to the teacher when the teacher needed the board to be erased or a little errand to run (following instructions was an important part of her IEP!)

It was obvious for us that we were going to continue educating Shreya for not only her own benefit but also for the benefit of others around her.

I cannot highlight our success with this child without sharing our most cherished anecdote from an incident that took place in their classroom when she and her friends were in grade 3. We have a few ‘activity periods’ in the week in primary school, during which children have the freedom to do as they please with their time. Children are often seen pondering, doodling or playing made-up games, but one day, a tiny group of children were seen huddled around Shreya. As the teacher approached their table, they all hid something behind their backs and refused to reveal what they were doing. On probing further, out came a workbook that was handmade by this tiny group of children for Shreya. They said they wanted Shreya to be able to read well and do maths just like them and so had decided to make worksheets for her that she could do during these ‘activity periods’. These children had spent several late nights and long hours creating a bunch of worksheets with missing letter exercises, number counting games, puzzles and all the things they had done when they were younger. The completed worksheets had been corrected with notes and smiley faces for Shreya to feel motivated to do more. To see this empathy and love play out in such an organic way was the reassurance we needed to continue practising “inclusive education” at school.

For children like Shreya, secondary school following a formal academic board, unfortunately doesn’t allow the ongoing support that is required for their development and a special or vocational school becomes more beneficial at this stage. However, to be part of a regular classroom through the primary years, when developmental goals for all children are easily manageable, is the perfect environment for a child to understand themselves. To know they are different, just like everyone is, to know they are respected for who they are and most importantly, to know that they are loved.

When we see little Shreya, we see a confident young girl, who will unfortunately always be dependent on her family for her wellbeing but will at least be able to express herself and protect herself to the best of her ability. We will be ever grateful to children like her for giving those around them the opportunity to look at life and its people through a different lens and to give schools an opportunity to redefine education.

The child’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

The author is an arts-based therapist, educator and children’s author. She has been working with children from different backgrounds for the past 15 years and is an advocate of ‘inclusive education’. She is currently the Executive Director of an inclusive not-for-profit ICSE school in Mumbai. She can be reached at [email protected].

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