How can Indian education make space for the needs of ‘special’ children? - Times of India

How can Indian education make space for the needs of ‘special’ children? – Times of India

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Rajesh Bhatia – An educationist, entrepreneur, and the founder of TreeHouse Education.
India, with more than 5000 universities, is a country with the largest number of educational institutions. But does our education system cater to the needs of all Indians? According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), every fifth person in India falls between the ages of 10 to 19. This includes children with special needs too – a demographic that has traditionally been deprived of mainstream school education. Regular education for disabled children remains a distant dream.
Well-known developmental and cognitive psychologist Reuven Feuerstein who passed away in 2015, believed that intelligence is not ‘fixed’, but modifiable, and hence inclusive classrooms should be normative. But there is neither a collective effort to bring this about, nor are there legal provisions to facilitate inclusivity for children with special needs. A lack of skilled teachers further precipitates the problem.
A 2019 UNESCO report states that of the 78.64 lakh disabled children, three-fourths of them aged five years do not attend school in India. Discrimination from the school authorities, teachers, and peers are the main reasons for parents to stay away from mainstream schools while schools in rural areas lack requisite resources and have poor infrastructure. The State of the Education Report of India 2019 notes that special children do not study beyond the fourth grade and it is not hard to see why. When educators label children with special needs as ‘slow’ or isolate them from others, it makes them vulnerable to bullying from peers and adversely impacts their psychological and emotional development.
The Finnish model of education, on the other hand, demonstrates with great success how to be inclusive and empathetic by including differently-abled students in the mainstream. In small teaching groups, children with special needs are given personal guidance and there is a close-knit collaboration between special educators, education assistants, and classroom teachers. They provide maximum help to the child at an early age so the magnitude of their disabilities does not increase as they grow. Only if the odds are insurmountable, do parents opt for special schools.
Inspired by this model, we have adopted some of its practices at TreeHouse, especially at our Vadodara branch. Our teacher training programs include techniques to interact with disabled students, and the cultivation of a non-discriminatory mindset so that a healthy and inclusive environment can be created in the classrooms. We don’t consider any student as a ‘problem’ child.
Specially trained teachers support and encourage these students through modules designed to help in their integrated development. Extracurricular activities, remedial sessions, practical lessons, personal engagement, playtime, and flexible responsive teaching encourages every single child in the classroom to be more independent and to discover the leader within.
A comprehensive support system is a must for children with special needs and educators and teachers must work together to address any issue that may arise. Regular open house sessions can go a long way in sensitising students and teachers to the usage of correct language and behaviour around a child with special needs. Encouraging every child to take part in school functions and competitions is important to ensure that no one feels left out.
As the British Physicist and one of the longest survivors of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Stephen Hawkins said, ”Concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.” Educators also need to know that a child is not defined by his or her disability.
It would be good if the government could bring in a comprehensive policy on inclusive education and more teachers could be trained to recognise and address learning disabilities. States like Andhra Pradesh have taken steps towards sanctioning residential bridge course schools and other states could follow suit. We need to be working proactively to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Goal for Development which is about inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all, including persons with disabilities.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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