Trying to improve SEN provision in India
We all know that no two individuals are alike. However, in many education systems around the world, this simple truth is often forgotten. Until recently, the system in India has always tried to fit the child into the curriculum, rather than making the curriculum suit the child’s needs. Greater recognition of the concepts of “inclusion” and “integration” do offer a ray of hope though.
Every child brings with them different abilities, challenges and issues. While we can’t undo “nature”, nurturing individuals to make a positive impact on their learning is something all educators can work towards. This can be a very complicated process, though, with many different viewpoints surrounding it. Some believe inclusion is too idealistic a concept, while others see it as a basic human right.
Having worked abroad and in India, I feel there is a difference in mindset and attitudes towards those who are differently abled. Even though inclusive education and understanding of SEN are gaining momentum in India, we are still in a nascent stage compared to countries in Europe and North America.
Glimmers of hope
A lot of initiatives have been introduced by the Indian Government, including the Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009, the Persons with Disabilities Act (1995) and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All Movement) introduced in 2000, which states that no school can deny the right to education to any child regardless of disability. The reality, though, is very different. The reason for this is the attitudes of many of the people involved, which no law can change. The whole outlook of people across the country needs to move on.
The situation is made worse by a lack of awareness of SEN, and shortages of resources, trained staff and teachers. Moreover, SEN is still considered a taboo subject in Indian society; even many educated people find it difficult to accept difference, associating it with abnormality or retardation. Often, I have to take parents through the familiar DABDA (denial, anger, bargain, despair and acceptance) process, with hours of counselling, before they finally accept the child with their limitations. In our society, academic success is considered to be the most important aspects of schooling. It is the survival of the fittest and parents can find it difficult to accept that their child is falling behind.
This is a sad state of affairs because children with SEN usually just have their brains wired differently and hence, with sensitivity, nurturing, love, acceptance and a positive environment, can often make great strides in their learning and developing their self-esteem.
On the other hand, the anxiety of parents and caregivers is also right from their perspective. Worries about the future of their children – given the lack of a social security system or support from the Government, and societal pressures – only add to their woes. Even if parents want to accept their child’s condition and introduce the child into society, it is not as easy as it sounds. The biases and prejudices that abound pose huge obstacles and there are also invisible social barriers that make it anything but easy to allow these families and children to feel like they are an equal part of the social fabric. Even if families are prepared to step outside their own homes with a child with disabilities or SEN, this attitude comes at a price. The impediments are far deeper and greater in the external environment than just those presented just by the child’s condition.
Sadly, I am very used to hearing comments from members of society that, however well meaning, display an unhelpful attitude towards a child’s condition, such as: “What is her problem?”, “Very sorry to see this”, “This must be very difficult for you. How do you manage?”, “Are your other children OK?”, “Is it contagious?” and “It’s all karma.”
Often, there can also be a lack of support for the child within the family, with both parents “blaming” the other for having a child with a disability. Families keep their child’s SEN hushed up, lest they are judged for bad parenting and not pushing the child enough. The situation is not very welcoming in the educational system either, where children often get labelled as “naughty”, “lazy” or “hopeless”, adding to the anxiety of parents who run from pillar to post for their children. Even if the child gets into a school with good inclusive programme, parents are often worried about them being discovered as “special needs”, or other parents finding out about them going for a remedial class.
However, there is a rising trend of inclusive education in the private schools in metropolitan areas like Delhi and Mumbai, along with involvement from non-governmental organisations, vocational programmes, open schools and international schools following the International Baccalaureate curriculum – all of which provide a bit of hope for parents. Separate SEN or inclusive education departments are being set up with the aim of providing an inclusive environment for students with mild to moderate learning disabilities and for those needing social and behavioural counselling. These departments can be fully fledged support systems, catering to the needs of students who are slow learners, and students diagnosed with learning disabilities or conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. In many settings, there is an SEN wing running a parallel curriculum for those with moderate to severe SEN and children are integrated for a minimum of one to three hours on a daily basis.
The support happens in various phases that include in-class support, remedial support and help with exam preparation. Whereas in-class support helps pupils to deal with the curriculum demands, the remedial classes focus on reinforcing concepts, developing language skills (reading and writing), memory skills, mathematical concepts, study skills, science concepts and organisational skills. Students are regularly counselled, motivated and encouraged to perform better. Different strategies and techniques are used, keeping in mind both the students’ strengths and their weaknesses. The strategies are designed to be both child centred and child friendly.
Having said this, children with SEN being physically present in a mainstream environment does not really convey anything about inclusion unless they are accepted by other pupils and by staff. This also relies on social inclusion by parents, friends and society. Schools need to demonstrate curriculum flexibility and adaptability, commitment to differential teaching strategies and transparency in communication, along with understanding and open-mindedness. There is still room for some innovative thinking and collaborative learning around inclusion in the classroom. It may be that schools and society will need to re-evaluate assumptions about the behaviour of learners; for example, a student who likes to talk while working might be seen as exercising helpful and automatic self-expression, rather than as a nuisance.
I often recall an occasion when I was working with a child who is differently abled. I had just told a colleague that I would be with them when I could “find the time” and the child said to me: “Miss, I can really help you”. Surprised, I invited him to “Go ahead”.
“I can help you find the time. There it is”, the child said pointing to the clock on the wall.
To the casual observer, this behaviour might come across as intentionally disrespectful – as the child trying to be funny – but if we look at the situation more closely, we can see that it is probably the child’s autism that is causing him to be very literal in their interpretation of my words. All that is required from us, in situations like this, is a little sensitivity and understanding, and a willingness to change our mindset. Of course, this is easier said than done but wherever we can make the effort, no matter how small or unimportant the issue may seem, I believe that it is very important that we try.
Ms Sonu Khosla is a developmental psychologist with extensive experience of working with children with SEN. Currently Head of SEN/Inclusive Education at Pathways School (IB school) in Noida, India, she has also worked as a guest speaker and conducted training modules and workshops for companies and educational organisations in the Netherlands: