Including special children in regular schools

Indira Swaminathan, an educational consultant, recalls the story of a Nisha*, a teenager with learning difficulties who joined Akshyam Early Learning Centre, where Indira is founder-director. When she first joined their school, Nisha was more of a spectator to daily activities. When Indira asked her to help her out, she laughed and said, "No, I don’t have any brains." To which, Indira simply said, "You are talking to me, it shows that you are capable and can help me." Over a period of time, Nisha learnt to assist the younger children with tying their shoe laces, getting the required books for the class etc. This considerably improved her self image.

Children like Nisha who have learning disorders find it difficult to perform certain types of tasks, if expected to do it by themselves or if taught in conventional ways. Specific disorders include reading and writing disorders like dyslexia, math, motor planning disabilities. However, with the right intervention, such children can do well in school and later in life.

The majority of schools are not equipped or they are not prepared to accept differently-abled children. Thus most children with disabilities join special schools. However Bangalore has a few schools which provide integrated learning facilities for such children. A few schools are inclusive: they include differently-abled children with special needs along with normal children in regular, mainstream schools.

Jayashree Amarnath, is a special needs education professional. She clearly distinguishes between ‘integrating’ and ‘including’ children with special needs in mainstream schools. She says that integration is where children with learning difficulties are catered to and are not part of the mainstream learning process;

Inclusion, on the other hand, is where such children participate in the process of learning along with the rest of the kids with different methods of teaching. Some children maybe gifted in some areas and needing support in other areas. Inclusion would mean supporting only those areas where a child needs special attention on an individual basis, but really including him/her in all other mainstream activities. She feels, ‘In India, we are still very far away from inclusion, and see more of integration‘. However, we are progressing towards the direction of inclusiveness, she opines.

Why include differently abled children?

Prakriya – the Green Wisdom school offers inclusive education. "About 5-10% of the students have varied learning disabilities", informs Rema Kumar, the head mistress. She says that inclusiveness is the basis for accepting the differences in the society and is possible in a non-stigmatic environment, where biases and prejudices are kept aside.

Prakriya takes in differently-abled children, though they limit their intake to a certain number in each class, depending on their resource bandwidth. They have special class room facilities, for extra support to such children.

Rema recounts the story of Arun, joined them in class VI. Arun was borderline dyslexic, with reading and spelling difficulties. In the beginning, he used to speak so softly so as to almost be inaudible. Slowly they realized he was quite a sociable person, and finally found his special talent in theatre, during the annual day function where every child is part of the show. That helped him turn around and develop his personality.

Headstart Montessori school offers inclusive programme too. Samina Mahmood, Founder-Principal of Headstart says that the school has a programme that works towards integrating children with special challenges/needs into the community. She says that the school has seen considerable tolerance towards differently-abled children by regular children, and ‘they interact with them from the start on a day-to-day basis’.

Getting away from Labels

Jayashree Amarnath, the joint co-ordinator of the ‘After school Remedial Programme’ of Brindavan and also one of their Resource People.

Brindavan Education Trust, one of the few institutions that works with children with learning difficulties, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and borderline autistic children. She says that these are the kids who do not stand out as being very different from the regular children. So they are mostly marginalised, and almost always unidentified as having a "special need" and mostly in mainstream schools.

Jayashree says that it is best to provide support in mainstream schools, so that the children with special needs can be included as much as possible and weaned off remedial support. Once a child is "labeled", it gets cumbersome to get into a mainstream school. Schools almost always do not have the resources to deal with children with special needs.

Not only is Jayashree a professional in this field, but has been a parent too trying to understand her young daughter’s reading problems in the late 90s. Her daughter is 19 now and is pursuing architecture and has been a voracious reader for years now. However, identification was the key to understanding her needs when she was about seven yrs old. Jayashree met with her daughter’s special education specialist at school when she realised that her little girl was struggling to string together 2-3 letter words. With the right kind of support, her daughter has now blossomed to her full potential.

Benefits of inclusiveness

Indira Swaminathan says that over the years special needs children have equal sustenance of emotion and knowledge if they are included amongst regular children. She however makes it clear that one needs emotional and knowledge to handle special needs children. She explains how it is therapeutic for both the challenged and the regular children if they are taught together. The regular children develop co-operation and empathy.

She quotes an anecdote; Years ago, Ravi, an autistic boy under her care would never smile. Much older to other children, he would simply follow her around at her centre. One of the girls there complained to Indira. Indira then patiently explained to the little girl that she must smile at him first. The little girl persisted and would smile at the boy and include him in activities; Ravi slowly became friendly with everybody and especially with the girl.

Accepting physical differences:

Inclusiveness doesnt end with children with learning disabilities. It works well with physically challenged children too. NandiniMenon works with children who are visually impaired. She also works with schools, helping the teachers create an ideal inclusive environment for children who are visually impaired through the NGO Enable India enable-india.org).

Nandini believes that visually impaired children can be successful in an inclusive environment, if they have a good support system. A few accommodations and modifications need to be made in the classroom, to make it easier on such children – like whatever is written on the board must be read out aloud and diagrams need to be made tactile if the child is totally blind. Also talking to the sighted classmates before the child is put into the environment makes the peer group more accepting of the child and reduces incidents of teasing or bullying, she adds.

Special education professionals conclude that children who are differently abled will eventually have to work in the real world as adults. The transition, they think, is easier if the children have been part of an inclusive environment all their lives.

Teachers – the primary facilitators

Keeping in mind the fact that teaching strategies for kids with special needs will be very different and specialized, schools must look into training existing staff or getting on board trained staff to cater to and meet the needs of various kids. Manjit Kochar is a Special education professional who runs Winds O’Change, where many specIal education therapies are offered. She believes that kids with mild to moderate difficulties as well as high functioning children with special needs must be mainstreamed as far as possible, with special care in terms of remedial sessions, behavior modification plans, individualized curriculum etc.

Indira says that it is extremely important for teachers to be trained to deal with children with special needs. Jayashree too feels that teacher sentisation is probably what needs to be completely stressed upon when talking about inclusiveness.

At Headstart, since it is the Montessori methodology, working independently with children who need more attention becomes a part of the regular class. Special education teachers come by to work with these children in their classrooms. Prakriya offers early intervention, where the school works with the parents to identify learning issues. The school provides a resource room for the students to use while they are with the special education professionals.

Professionals caution that children with severe difficulties may have to be sent to specialized schools – placing them in regular schools may be tough not just on the school but on the special child as well. Various issues of adjustment, self esteem, mobility etc, may cause more damage than providing a solution.

 

Name of the school Address Contact No. Contact Person Email/ Website Disabilities
           
Different Strokes #1220, 5th cross, Near R. V College, J.P.Nagar Phase I 9886563939 Shoba Sriram dfstrokes@gmail.com Learning disabilities, ADHD
Head Start Montessori House of Children C.A. Site 32(P), 16th Main, 4th Block, Koramangala 25537025 Samina Mahmood   Learning disabilities

 

Conclusion

Puneet makes a very interesting observation that it is very natural to assume that children who could not move around, run and play like their fellow mates, must feel sad. But she finds the physically and mentally challenged to be happy and content with life, ‘they have a lot to offer and others can learn much from them.’

*All names of children are changed to protect their identity.

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