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Special Needs

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Working with SEN students is tough

Special Needs Students.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
My first experience with SEN, special educational needs, happened many years ago. A close relative had a horrific traffic accident which left him bedridden for a year; during that year, the prognosis went from "Critical" to "Paralysed" to "Might move" to "Might regain partial use of his legs" to "Might walk with a crutch". He was 21, a university team basketball player, an excellent student whose life as he knew it was snatched away from him. My mother went to visit him regularly taking me with her, because, as she much later explained to me, she could not face it alone. Thus I got acquainted with a hospital ward, a room where five young men were struggling for their lives. 

I was 11 years old. 

What could I do? How could I, a mere child, cope and help others? Well, children are resilient by nature. I realised that it was necessary to invent some activity which would include all of them, not just my beloved uncle. And I began to teach them English, which was one of my favourite subjects at school. I would bring in my grammar book, tell them about my lessons, read aloud short texts and do my homework. Since it frequently included composing dialogues and inventing some group work, gradually those young formerly able and now disabled for life men began to take part in my little lessons. They would laboriously compose grammar constructions, enact little scenes, make dialogues. After a couple of months they would all greet me with, "Hello Teacher!" In English. My own conversation skills grew exponentially. The knowledge that a disabled person is not in any way mentally deficient stayed with me for life.

Whenever I have a SEN student of any age in my class, I always think of two factors:

1. What is the nature of their disability, what makes them special? Is it a physical, psychological, emotional or circumstantial feature? This refers to students who, though in some way having special needs, can still attend a regular class. Children with clearly defined mental disorders usually attend specialised schools.

2. What do they need? On the one hand, we teachers have to work out some techniques which allow us to include them into all or at least most activities. On the other hand we should perhaps try to think about the problems from their point of view. If a child cannot walk for instance, their main wish is not to be included but simply to be able to walk and thus be the same as all the others. In other words, they don't want to be excluded.

Whenever possible I would try to work out a unified approach and not separate the children into groups according to their physical or psychological problems. One of the dangers which all of us face is paying more attention to any pupil who deviates in their behaviour from "the norm", or who has physical and health problems, than to the others, to those who are very good talented students. 
Finding a balance is not easy but it is possible. Imagine you have a normal class. What does it mean exactly? There may be five children whose performance is consistently excellent; five pupils may always lag behind due to various reasons like behaviour, tardiness, dysfunctional family; and about fifteen children may habitually get good and satisfactory marks with an occasional A (top) one. All of us have to learn how to work with this rather typical mix. 

Imagine that you get a new student, one who is disabled in some way, or one who has borderline psychological issues. Try to ascertain that you understand what your own challenges are, and if the parents or guardians are your allies. A child who has some serious health problems may be a genius, or they may be bitterly opposed to any inclusive attempts. Heaven forbid we show any compassion or give them an easier task. It is always better to treat them the same way as everybody else, and to give them some time to adjust. 

They are not the only ones who need your attention. Any newcomer may be a welcome addition or a disruption. A child with some issues is double the challenge. When one of my own children was in primary school, a new boy was brought to their class. The boy had all the necessary papers from the psychiatrists which said that it would benefit him if he attended a usual school. The trouble was, nobody warned us parents about it, nor had any doctor evaluated our kids' ability to cope. The boy's mother was supposed to stay in class with him all the time. Once she stepped out he would start acting out, making horrible faces at all the girls, laughing or falling on the floor when the teacher tried to admonish him. All the children were plain scared. While the educational authorities pondered over the situation we parents organised a sort of day watch among ourselves, so that one of us was always on hand to help the teacher. Finally the boy was taken away to a special school. 

Each situation is unique. When any SEN child comes to any usual school, it is always an extra burden on any teacher. In my experience, every child has some talent. What helps: I would ask their parents about the child's interests, and whenever possible talk to the child. It is no secret that what the parents want for their children, and what the children want do not always coincide. "Everybody in our family is a medic, but he/she only wants to work with horses!" Well, let them work with horses, I would invariably answer; they don't want to be career criminals or drug addicts, they want to heal, doesn't it come from the family? 

Once you find a talent, any talent or interest, use it when working with a special needs child. If they don't want to be included into everything you do in the classroom give them some time. Watch the other children carefully. If it is difficult for them to accept the newcomer at once, also give them some time. Children accept lots of things faster and easier than adults if they have an opportunity. "The new boy has a claw instead of one hand", my own five-year-old informed me matter-of-factly. "He can't write as we do, so the teacher has to invent something for him". I went to explore surreptitiously. It turned out that the little boy had two thumbs on his right hand, a defect which is easily corrected in babies yet his parents for whatever reason did not opt for surgery. To an adult it looked rather horrifying; children saw it as his peculiarity. So he was born with two thumbs, so what? 

Here is an old principle which works well: treat others as you would like them to treat you.