Thursday December 08, 2022

Experts discuss Inclusive Education; preparing children with special needs for school

By Our Correspondent
October 03, 2022

The society’s general focus in respect to children with special needs is on what they don’t know, as opposed to what they do know. Sadaf Mateen, cofounder, CEO and chief speech and language pathologist of the Circle-Caring for Children, stressed that the focus should be rather on how such children need to be taught.

She was speaking at a seminar at a local hotel on Saturday, featuring an analysis and discussion by renowned experts on one of the most important issues for parents and schools. The seminar titled ‘Redefining Inclusion’ brought together specialists, who helped parents and teachers understand inclusion, determine whether it is a ‘one size fits all’ solution, red flag caveats, and promote acceptance of diversity.

Uzma Gora, principal at Preschool Plus, said preschool plays an integral role in early detection of development delays in children. A development delay means that a child may be falling behind on one or more milestone. They can occur in cognition, behaviour, communication, social and emotional skills and other areas.

“Every child is different and they blossom at their own pace,” she said, adding that if these development delays are consistent and if they progressively get worse, they may indicate a developmental disability.

The developmental disability, she said, is limitations in factions that typically result from the disorders of a developing nervous system. These disabilities can impact a child’s vision, movement and cognition against social and emotional skills. Research shows that development delays could lead to development disabilities, which can be exhibited as early as in the first two years of a child.

“That is where preschools come in,” she said. If a child is displaying consistent symptoms of a specific physical illness like asthma, dengue or any other ailment, parents might observe the child or take their child to a doctor who will start a treatment plan. “Development delays are no different,” she explained, adding that if parents do not take any measures, it will progressively get worse.

Early detection enables parents and therapists to provide early intervention that leads to an early diagnosis, which leads to timely and affective treatment plan. This, she said, will facilitate inclusion in schools. Once in school it is detected that there is something concerning about a child, then interaction is very important. “You [schools] should call in parents and share their concerns,” she stressed.

The school should start with the positives. “Mention the milestones the little one has achieved,” she said, adding that gently approach the concerned points. Then schools should put them in touch with relevant therapy centres, where their child can be assisted. “Make sure empathy is key, not sympathy,” she said.

The most common reaction from parents, she said, is denial, which is understandable, “because it is deep rooted in the fear that will my child be struggling for most of his life? Will he or she be isolated from society or will they be able to fit in society?”

There is a three-pronged approach, where parents, teachers and therapists work together and work in tandem to put into action a plan that best suits their child. The plan could be a personalized schedule where a child spends time in school as well as therapy centres or a child might need to take time off from school and exclusively focus on therapy before returning to school.

Speaking on inclusion, she said, children are adaptable beings. “They’re most adaptable during their yearly years,” she said, adding that the child’s first school is going to be his first foray into the outside world, where they are going to socially interact with adults and children other than the ones in family.

If the school is inclusive, she said, it would be a nurturing environment for neurotypical children and neurodiverse counterparts. “Children with special need will coexist, learn, play, share, grow, evolve with other children,” she said.

School Psychologist, educator and interventionist at Haque Academy, Rebbia Shahab shared how effects of the Covid-19 pandemic still exist. The neurotypical children struggled with loneliness during school closure. During the pandemic, many research and development studies on children who were born shortly before or during the pandemic show that these children have already started exhibiting developmental delays. “They are prone to challenging behaviour, such as physical outbursts, separation anxiety, lack of focus,” she said.

She asked schools to look closely and check if they are equipped to deal with this. She shared a quote by Dr Ross Greene, “Kids do well if they can.” She said there has to be a strong partnership between parents, therapists and school. “Consistency is the keyword.” Until the collaboration is consistent, she said, the child will not get the required support.

Speaking on the challenges of parents, she said, the first challenge they face is stigma. “The fear that their child can be labelled,” she said, adding that their fear is about the treatment their child would get in school. “Stigma doesn’t always emerge from demeaning comments or social competition. It can also result from lack of information,” she stressed.

Because of the pandemic, she said, people have a lot of mental awareness but there is still a long way to go. Parents can be confused about who they should consult with and then there are budgeting and time constraints.

As for the challenges that schools experience, “we don’t have enough trained teachers and psychologists on board”, and they face difficulty in hiring qualified shadow teachers for such children. There can be a lack of cooperation from parents if they are in a state of denial.

As for the challenges of mental health practitioners, she said, they don’t have many credible degree programs in special needs education, nor do they have enough people interested in pursuing these careers.

The next speaker, Urooj Hassan, was an Autism Mom and Advocate SeNCo at The Learning Tree School. She emphasised that inclusion, equity, diversity and belonging are interdependent. She stressed that children with special needs require constant and consistent support in school and the teachers should be trained to understand their learning needs. Teachers shouldn’t focus only on what the child ‘Cannot do’ but identify what s/he ‘can do’. Children’s failures and weaknesses are discussed in their presence, assuming that they will not understand which isn’t true. They understand but cannot express themselves, resulting in further lack of motivation. Children have different abilities and one should use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. She felt that teachers also felt a lot of pressure with a special needs child in the classroom if they are not provided training prior to the child’s placement.

Sadaf Mateen, CEO & Chief SLP of The Circle, said that initially special children used to be excluded from everything. They were confined to houses. After 1980s, she said, debate over the inclusion of such children started in society and Pakistan signed the Universal Charter of Human Rights Declaration that made it compulsory for every school to take special children.

She stressed how this was like passing a law without preparing the ground for its implementation. Our lawmakers thought treating these children only with love and care and making them sit with other children would completely treat them. “But this cannot happen,” she said, adding that when such a neurodiverse child came to the classroom of 20 students, even a well-trained, competent and well meaning teacher would wonder what he or she isn’t doing right to include that child among those children.

When that child goes back home after four or six hours at school, the parents’ focus would be what that child doesn’t know. However, the focus should be how that child needs to be taught. Sadaf Mateen made an impassioned appeal that parents, schools and therapists need to work in partnership. ‘Parents desire conformity and the right kind of labelling; we are all conformists even though the trail blazers of the world have all been non conformists’. She said informed parents and an informed society must realise that some children, even though on the spectrum, would be high performing and with special attention and the right preparation they can be integrated well in main stream schools. ‘Unfortunately, there are other children who will never go to schools. What about them?’ she asked. Citing examples of scores of parents she said their only concern was ‘What after me? How will my child cope and look after himself or herself?’. She said that in answer to these concerns The Circle had introduced 2 hour, 4 hour and 6 hour programs which, in the first case, prepared high performing children on the spectrum for mainstream schools and other children, who would not be able to go to schools, with a combination of therapy, basic academics and social skills - including dining etiquette, art, music and pottery - so that they acquire the ability to take care of themselves.

The seminar started with a speech by guest speaker Amin Hashwani, founder of the Charter of Compassion Pakistan, poet and social activist. Amin Hashwani spoke of the increasing incidence of mental illness, the lack of awareness, it’s stigmatisation and our inability to read the symptoms even amongst our closest circle of friends and family. Hashwani warned that policies are not being formed for mental illness. He said that it is an explosion, a pandemic that is happening in slow motion and is seeping in to every family and social circle. “No one is talking about it enough,” he said. “The problem is too big to be ignored.”

The seminar ended with an intense and interactive Q&A session with the large audience of parents, teachers and care givers.