Special care for children with special needs

The type and extent of learning difficulty vary and hence there is an urgency to build awareness to identify children and understand the methods used to teach such children. DH Photo/ S K Dinesh

They are cheerful, active kids who enjoy their schooling. They have the same potential as their peers but lag in academic performance due to lack of academic intervention on an individualised basis. They are children with learning difficulties, who need individualised tutoring in the areas of reading, spelling, writing and math. Though learning difficulties has a relatively low impact on our day-to-day activities, it may cause problems in academic life. However, it is one of the problems commonly overlooked or wrongly addressed in schools. 

The type and extent of learning difficulty vary and hence there is an urgency to build awareness to identify children and understand the methods used to teach them.

Some common types of learning difficulties are:

Dyslexia – Characterised by impaired ability to read or recognise words, letters or symbols. It affects reading and spelling.

Dyscalculia – Difficulty in understanding numbers, quantities, symbols, basic operations and abstract problems.

Dysgraphia – Difficulty with various aspects of writing such as handwriting errors as well as making a connection between words, ideas and putting thoughts down clearly.

Common signs

Poor grades despite putting an effort.

Uneven performance, sometimes doing well and at other times not.

Needs step by step instruction.

Difficulty with reading, spelling and writing in spite of good oral language skills.

Difficulty with language skills. 

The teacher can request the parents to get the child assessed by a special educator, educational psychologist or cognitive psychologist to obtain a diagnosis along with recommendations. Special tests and tools are available to identify learning difficulties.

The educational assessment is vital to help formulate an individualised programme for the child.

Approaches

While teaching children with learning difficulties, the interventions include:

Direct instruction method and multisensory method.

Typically the aim of teaching a child with learning difficulties would be to build skills of reading and spelling. To do this through direct instruction the teacher needs to:

Break up the task into smaller tasks or steps

Lead the process through cues or modelling 

Provide prompts of which strategy to use

Create opportunities for intensive practice

Supplement with visual aids or oral input to augment teaching

Give regular qualitative feedback to the student.

Going hand in hand with direct instruction is scaffolding where the teacher begins by using intense mediated instruction and gradually sheds assistance.

When using scaffolding it is necessary to anticipate student errors, provide cues and prompts as often as needed, divide tasks into smaller components and encourage the student to think aloud about the choice of strategy.

While teaching reading to children with learning difficulties, incorporate the following aspects of reading :

Component

Technique

Sequencing

The remedial teacher will choose an unfamiliar/new word.

The word will be broken down into parts that can be sounded out.

The student will be helped with each part.

Gradually step by step prompts will be reduced.

The next new word to be chosen will be at a higher level but within the ability of the student.

In this way, each session will begin with the review of old words, review of recently learnt words and underlining new words.

Multisensory approach

This method has shown that children learn best when the material or content is presented in a variety of ways or modalities. Commonly referred to as VAKT (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile), it can be used along with other methods like phonics, it is greatly beneficial when there are diverse learners.

It is a term that describes using more than one sense at a time. When a child is taught a new letter or word, or word pattern, the child will be shown the word (visual), made to hear the word and its component sounds (auditory), practice it on the board (kinaesthetic) and perhaps trace it in sand (tactile) repeatedly till it has a deep and successful impact and aids in word recall and reading. This builds brain pathways used in reading and spelling. It helps connect brain areas and transmit information with improved speed. It is greatly valued as it is a systematic, direct and comprehensive approach.

Special educational programmes  

Many schools have begun to provide learning support to children with learning difficulties within the school campus under a trained special educator. An individual educational plan will be drawn up which contains the learning goals to be achieved in the child within a specified period. In order to extend all possible learning support, the child will have to be assessed.

After an educational assessment is done, a multimodal system of support that includes teachers, parents, and other therapists if needed, can provide a lot of support to the child. Research has proved that early remediation can greatly reduce the extent and number of kids actually developing and meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of learning difficulties.

This would be possible if schools acknowledged that children do have a range of strengths and weaknesses, rather than focus only on academic achievement, ignoring sports, music or communication skills.

Another route would be to allow children to progress at their pace, completing subject by subject over a period of time under a flexible system. Centres dedicated to teaching children with learning difficulties offer this opportunity to those who cannot attempt numerous subjects at a single attempt in the tenth standard. 

Children with learning difficulties face considerable pressure as they are often mistaken for those who are disinterested in studies. Sometimes coupled with poor performance are emotional and behavioural disturbances. Hence the importance of the multimodal approach for overall holistic growth of the child.

The prevalence of learning difficulties in the country can be concluded from various studies across different parts of the country.  

Approximately 8 – 10% of the school population have learning difficulties. Though not curable, it is possible to build alternate routes and thereby bridge gaps in functioning. Early intervention is the need of the hour. Teachers should regularly review the grades of children and patterns of grades of a child.

People with learning difficulties don’t want to be pitied or labelled for the sake of it, the best approach is that of acceptance. Famous movie director Steven Spielberg once said that finding out he had learning difficulties was the last part of the puzzle and mystery that he had kept to himself till he was sixty years of age. He recalls being called to read in front of the class as the worst days of his life.

People with learning difficulties need others to realise that they are wired differently, that they need to be encouraged to think differently and that they have unique capabilities to contribute to the world.

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