Effective special needs education

he percentage of children with learning disabilities in India is estimated at 10-14 percent of the national child population of 415 million. However this is a rough estimate as many are undetected and unreported. The domain of learning disabilities is still a grey area in India. Beleaguered parents of such children are usually denied guidance and support and very few schools provide comprehensive educational support and care to these students.

The term ‘special needs’ is used in clinical, diagnostic and functional development parlance to describe individuals who require assistance for physical, mental, emotional or psychological disabilities ranging from mild to severe. The ‘at risk’ group includes children who while currently healthy, are at risk of developing disabilities in the future. Infants exposed to drugs, abuse, neglect and those with genetic predisposition to mental and physical disabilities are also at risk.

The needs of such children could be diverse, and the spectrum includes slow learners as well as those that are gifted. While all children can learn, not all of them learn in the same manner, at the same time and at the same pace. Addressing students’ needs involves identifying learning needs, developing customised learning outcomes, selecting appropriate tools and choosing best learning settings.

The needs of children with learning disabilities are best met with early intervention, by removing barriers to learning, raising expectations and achievement levels and adopting collaborative appro-aches. Early intervention is the most effective form of addressing the special needs of children. Learning disabilities such as autism, Down’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder or specific learning disorders like dyslexia, dyscalculia can be addressed effectively with appropriate intervention measures. While education is the key to a bright future for children, for those with special educational needs there are many barriers. Yet the bottomline is that all teachers should be trained to teach students with special needs and schools should support such students.

Schools that welcome students with special needs should follow an integrated or inclusive approach. The broad difference between the two is that while integration focuses on needs, inclusion focuses on rights. Integration is best achieved by getting small groups of children with special needs admitted into mainstream schools, perhaps a few times per week. On the other hand schools practising inclusion need to be structured to accommodate children with special learning needs. Therefore while an integrated school system is characterised by individual adaptation, the distinguishing characteristic of inclusive schools is institutional adaptation.

Typically in integrated and inclusive schools each student with special learning needs has an individualised educational program (IEP). Students with learning disabilities thrive in structured settings. The use of typed, laminated checklists prepares them for the day in school. Using pictures with words that describe tasks, facilitates action. Teachers should include details such as class routine, timetable, handing in school/home communication books, saying good morning, on these lists. This builds literacy, independence and responsibility.

Incorporating role-play in learning is an effective tool for children with special needs. Additionally simple modifications can be made to assist such students in regular classrooms. They should be given smaller segments of work with modified worksheets using simpler questions or problems, and extra time to complete their work. A system of peer-help is an effective support measure, and should be encouraged.

oreover computers and technology based teaching are strategic tools for slow learners. For example the use of headphones while reducing distraction, also helps in motor co-ordination while maintaining focus on given tasks. Similarly interactive software brings lessons alive through audio visuals.

At the other end of the spectrum is the gifted learner. "Gifted" or "exceptional" children also need modifications in instructional delivery, curriculum enrichment and expansion of educational programmes and social and emotional support within school settings. These needs can be met in differentiated classrooms or in the form of advanced courses and extra tuition. The brightest too, need support at home and in the community to do their best.

A gifted student is best taught in an enrichment programme which could be group-based or individualised. The regular curriculum can be adapted or modified to meet the needs of accelerated learners. Teachers employ various tools like the multiple intelligences approach; Bloom’s taxonomy; varied questioning strategies; interest centres/ groups, to provide differentiation in the classroom.

Quality education is a fundamental right of every student. All children should have equal opportunities for accessing quality education. With the right intervention at the right time and enough practice and opportunity, stragglers and handicapped children can eventually become assets to their communities.

(Bhooma Krishnan is director of Learning Unbound, Bangalore, an online supplementary education company)