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Interactive approaches for special children

By Rupa Chinai

Sangath Society, a Goa-based CSO working with mental health issues, has come up with the concept of 'resource rooms' for children with learning disabilities, within their normal schools, where they can be given special attention. The concept is currently being pilot-tested in three schools in the state

Martin, an eight-year-old student in Goa, says that society needs to know about children like him who have a learning problem. His difficulty was that he could not read. That's why he was left behind in Class 3. All the children laughed at him and teased him. He hated school, hated his teachers. He was so miserable that he was put in a new school, but things were no different there, he says.

Elsa, his mother, was puzzled. Martin was good at maths, he enjoyed craft, singing, cooking. In every other way he was bright, and he was not lazy. The family then suspected there was a more serious problem and sought professional help.

Martin's problem was identified as 'slow learning disability', or dyslexia. Special education teachers trained by Sangath Society, a Goa-based CSO working with mental health issues, helped Martin practise reading in a new way and, for the first time, he found that this hated subject could actually be interesting.

"Such children feel caged because they are intellectually normal but cannot figure out what is happening in the class. There is a gap between their potential and their performance," says Marita Adam, a special education teacher who coordinates Sangath's programme for mentally challenged children.

The early experience of providing centre-based services to over 2,000 children for the past 10 years has now enabled Sangath to shift from the centre-based approach to launching a pioneering project that addresses learning disabilities from within the community.

Sangath's studies pointed to a large number of children suffering from autism and learning disabilities in Goa. Many lived in remote areas and had no access to support at the local school. They could not reach agencies like Sangath on a regular basis, and their parents were unaware that early intervention and training of children with learning disorders made a huge difference. These circumstances made Sangath realise the need to get out into the community by training teachers who could conduct 'remedial teaching' at 'resource rooms' created within regular schools. Although these rooms are meant for children with learning disabilities, ideally they should be open to any child who has a problem with his or her studies, says Adam.

The learning disabilities project has come up with a training manual that prepares teachers of Class 5-7 to run resource rooms at regular schools. The concept is currently being pilot-tested in three north Goa schools, where a resource room, conducted during school hours, has been created for children in Classes 5 and 6. The teachers who run the resource rooms are trained by Sangath, in collaboration with the Goa government's department of education as part of a Special Needs Scheme. The project has so far trained 44 teachers in two batches, with each batch attending classes three times a week for six months.

The regular class teacher is considered the best person to identify children who cannot cope. This teacher's coordination with the Sangath trained resource room teacher is important to ensure that the resource room does not become a 'dumping ground' for children who should remain in the regular class. First-generation learners -- with no previous exposure to education in their homes -- or children with emotional problems who are therefore slow in keeping up with the rest of the class should not be mistaken for children with learning disabilities.

Says Samrudhi Bambolkar, a psychologist associated with the project: "We have a rigid system in Goa where children have no choice but to drop out of school when they cannot cope. When that happens, their self-esteem suffers and they develop behavioural problems. With teachers under pressure to cope with large classrooms and finish the course, they cannot pay attention to those who are weak. The resource room, which has a flexible curriculum and evaluation system, should help these children and facilitate their getting back into the mainstream."

Dona Leonor Memorial High School in Porvorim, north Goa, is one of the schools that has decided to pilot-test the Sangath programme. Its principal, Vanaja Vijayan, says the resource room, presently placed at the end of a corridor because of lack of space, has made a big difference to 'slow learners', who are now thriving. The resource room focuses on maths, science, history and geography. Learning languages like Konkani and Hindi, and physical training take place along with the regular class.

The special focus here is on learning through observation, experiencing while doing, and oral and visual teaching rather than rote-learning (mugging). This is where Sangath's learning disabilities project provides a wholly new approach to communication and learning that could be made applicable even in the wider system of education. It would help first-generation learners as well as children who struggle to cope with learning in the English language, explains Vijayan.

Children with severe learning disabilities have difficulty reading correctly from the blackboard because of poor eye coordination. They also have problems with grasping the written word, writing and spelling. If asked to read the question, they cannot comprehend its meaning and will look at it for ages. They cannot answer immediately. In the interactive approach, however, the same questions are fluently answered.

Children with learning disabilities need special concessions while appearing for examinations. Since they have a reading problem, the questions need to be read out to them. While encouraging these children to write the answers themselves, concessions must be made for spelling. While some may have a problem writing legibly, they should be allowed to answer the question paper orally as well, depending on whether the child's comprehension or writing ability is being tested.

The level of the question paper is not lowered for children with learning disabilities, for they are able to answer the entire paper set by a regular school, with some portions altered. The questions are set in a way that gets them to think and apply reasoning while choosing from multiple answers. This demonstrates their grasp of logic and information, rather than their memory. Sometimes, translating the question into the regional language is necessary.

Teachers undergoing Sangath's training sessions for children with learning disabilities say they have learnt an interactive approach in dealing with these special children. The approach calls for an understanding of the children's difficulties, being approachable, and giving them time. The children need to be allowed to express their feelings and not suppress their emotions. They should be told that it is not bad to be angry, but that they can learn another way of expressing their feelings. This requires flexibility and sensitivity on the part of the teacher.

"Initially, when the children came to us in the resource room they had a blank look," says Pooja Chadankar, a resource room teacher. "The new approach we learnt has enabled them to progress rapidly. Many of these children are opening up, talking more, and there is an improvement in their self-esteem. They can communicate, understand concepts and express themselves in their own way. I am not sure if all of them will be able to sit the 10th standard exam, but education should focus on the vocational skills they will need," she adds.

The Goa government has a scheme of certification by the Institute of Human Behaviour and Psychiatry, which enables children with learning disabilities to get special concessions during examinations. With this, a child with learning difficulties can give an oral rather than a written exam, be given extra time to write the exam, or request a writer. This certificate also provides the child financial support of Rs 5,000 to buy equipment, books and cover essential costs such as the travel expenses of an escort.

Experts say there are no standard tests for learning disabilities, and assessments of such children require a battery of tests over a week. An assessment of whether or not a child has a disability cannot be done in 20 minutes, as is the current practice in Goa. "Sending children to a psychiatric hospital for this certification is not right because of the stigma of being seen in such an institution. Rapid methods of assessment for learning disabilities could lead to a misdiagnosis and a label for life. A bright child can be wrongly labelled as one with low intelligence," says Bambolkar.

The teachers say this certification process should be done away with and resource rooms should be kept open to all children with learning difficulties. They add that an education psychologist should cover a cluster of schools to assess children with learning disabilities within the education setting, thereby removing the problem of a stigma. The government, meanwhile, should use its resources to support the setting up of resource room in every school, and cover the training and salaries of teachers.

Sangath's pioneering work for children with learning disabilities in Goa has had two additional positive impacts. The parents of disabled children have got together to start special schools for them; one such group is Jyot Society in Margao, Goa, where four parents volunteer as teachers in running a special class for autistic children within a regular school in Margao, south Goa. And, an important initiative by Sangath has led to training programmes for Goa's anganwadi workers in identifying children with learning disabilities amongst the children they regularly see through the pre-school programme. A manual developed by Sangath teaches the anganwadi workers activities to stimulate children up to five years old.

(Rupa Chinai is an independent writer based in Mumbai. Her area of focus is public health)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2007