Spreading hope

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Enlightening minds: Deepika follows a unique curriculum designed for children with learning disabilities.

Some of the children are running around the playground shouting and playing delightedly while skillfully avoiding the water-puddles left by the morning’s rain. A few are having lunch and two of these kids offer us sweets from their lunch-box. The rest of them are excitedly making their way to an inner room for a dance-rehearsal. At Deepika, a school for special children, the students are evidently enjoying themselves in everything they do.

Founder-principal Sita Krishnamurthy set up Deepika with the aim of helping children who were otherwise skilled in many aspects but had difficulties in academic performances and displayed behavioural problems. “There are schools for mainstream students and there are places for those with severe disabilities. What about those in between, I thought.

So, that is how this school came about. It is a school for children with special needs, specifically in the areas of learning difficulties (LD), autism and related disorders.”

It is well-known that the earlier any behaviour-modification programme or for that matter any good habit is begun, the better the learning and more enduring the benefit. Early intervention for any sort of physical and developmental problem is best. So, the co-educational school Deepika tries to identify children with LD as early as possible and gives them customised training so they can join mainstream schools as soon as possible.

However, though the aim of any special school is to train children to enter the mainstream schools as early as possible, ironically, most of the children who come here are themselves rejects from the mainstream education system. “Many of these kids have been regularly punished, scolded harshly, and sometimes even beaten at their previous school for not keeping pace with the rest of the class,” reveals teacher Padmini Padaki.

Out of ignorance or insensitivity or a combination of both, mainstream school teachers would have taken the child’s mistakes, the apparent refusal to learn or behave ‘normally’ as a sign of indiscipline or wanton bad behaviour.

Which is why Padmini, who has a long teaching experience both at a mainstream and this special school, feels it would be ideal if all teachers underwent a course in special education along with regular teachers’ training courses. “It will make them aware and sensitive which helps when they encounter special children. This is my personal opinion.”

The attitude at Deepika is understanding and sympathetic, and the approach sensitive.

The teaching strategies –– described as healing programmes — are conducted based on the neuro-diversity of the students. They include physiotherapy, sensory integration, speech therapy, movement therapy, art-based therapy, and yoga therapy (including suryanamaskar and pranayama). The instruction is holistic, so there is multiple-therapy oriented healing which is also value-based.

The school follows a unique curriculum designed only for children with LDs and within that, there are courses tailored to each child’s unique needs and condition. A unit of Sri Sharada Peetam, Sringeri, Deepika has for its Chairman, VR Gowrishankar; and the school’s president is VR Ramesh.  

Teachers are known as facilitators and educators. Since they handle special children, these teachers have to be trained accordingly. So, Deepika conducts orientation programmes as well as training and personality-development programmes for its teachers regularly. There are also brainstorming sessions on teaching aids and know-how for effective worksheets as an integral part of the teacher-environment programme. “Given the unique, self-designed curriculum of Deepika, there is need for regular training and skill-upgrade processes for the mentors,” explains Sita. Teachers are also equipped with a relevant collection of books and resource materials. Taking its commitment to the cause of special children, one step further, the organisation also conducts out-reach programmes to sensitise teachers on disability issues across Karnataka.

Children are taken in after a medical report from a psychiatrist (where there are medical issues) and a report from a psychologist. With this as a base, Sita conducts an interview. Along with inputs from the staff, Sita then makes her own assessment and following that, the child is placed in a suitable level (that is what a class is referred to at Deepika). 

Though the LD course equips teachers to some extent, it is only their daily interaction with these children and the issues it throws up which form the real learning process for teachers. As Sumathi Ramjee explains, “Even though we think we have seen it all and know it all with regard to special kids, everyday we encounter something new and thereby learn a new lesson. The on-the-job and hands-on experience is very educative.”

At Deepika, teachers quickly understand some tough facts. First, the same technique doesn’t work with all children. What succeeds with one child produces no results with another. The bigger challenge is that the same technique sometimes doesn’t work a second time with the same child. Also, a child might stubbornly refuse to change despite all possible techniques and herculean efforts from teachers. And it requires tremendous tact and patience to handle an autistic child throwing a tantrum.

As Sita says: “We have to concede that we can’t always guarantee 100 per cent success –– though sometimes miracles do happen. We try our best and improve the child as much as possible and give every child a sense of self-worth. Parents must understand that the earlier the intervention, the higher the chances of success.”

However, all teachers say that it is very fulfilling to work with special children and improve their lives in whatever way possible. For Sita and all the teachers who have been part of the school, the most gratifying moments are when they come to know that their students have gone for higher studies,  are gainfully employed at an occupation of their choice or are happily married. 

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