The inclusive world of children

A team: Co-operation and sharing when taught help children to appreciate one another.

A team: Co-operation and sharing when taught help children to appreciate one another.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Rajeev Bhatt


It is essential that children get their space to grow in the home and school environments, and be understood for who they are as individuals.

Thank God for weakness we can see, for special needs which are obvious, for the chance we’ve been given to turn this wretched system on its head and make it work for all our children.

Disability turns the world upside down. Thank God. That’s exactly what the world needs. In yoga, a wonderful, holistic approach to life which takes body, mind and soul into account, the headstand is called the king of asanas. Upside down, blood flows to the brain automatically, with no need for the heart to work against gravity to provide the vital life-force.

Yoga teachers say that regular practice of the headstand creates a sharper memory, a clearer vision and a more balanced life. And the best thing is that, having made the effort to get the feet up in the air, everything else happens automatically. That’s how inclusion works too.

System of exclusion

Bringing children with special needs into mainstream schools turns the whole education system on its head. With the fresh energy flow their arrival guarantees, we begin to look at everything differently. We begin to see what school is actually about. The system of education practised throughout most of the country is a system of exclusion. But we are so accustomed to its exclusive processes that we accept them without question.

At every stage of a child’s learning, we put obstacles in her way: admission tests, interviews, registration and security deposits, tests, exams, and, in many schools, a foreign language of instruction; it’s as if someone sat down and actually planned a system to ensure failure.

We’ve all seen the bright, curious little children in our neighbourhoods go running off to join school on the first day of term. They are so eager to wear that uniform, carry that bag, eat from that tiffin box. Those children come plodding home in the afternoon, their sparkle gone, their curiosity squashed. They’ve got no imagination! They are dull and weary all the time.

How does this happen? As parents and as educators, we take the child who is and measure him against some mythic “typical” child who does not actually exist. And the child in question, the living, breathing, quirky little child in front of us slowly disappears.

So thank God for disability! Thank God for weakness we can see, for special needs which are obvious, for the chance we’ve been given to turn this wretched system on its head and make it work for all our children.

I have three children — the youngest one has a disability. I only wish I had had her first, because she’s the one who taught me to stop looking at the charts, to stop comparing her to a milestone list, a development sheet, or to the other children her age, and start looking at her. And that’s what inclusion offers us: a chance to see our children — all of them — as they are: unique, precious, whole.

Accommodate is the word

A child with a disability — particularly a learning disability or a mental handicap — entering a typical school automatically becomes a problem, starting with the admission process itself — how do you test a child with a mental handicap? You don’t have to! Let him in!

Why should any child’s first encounter with organised education be fraught with anxiety? Why should a child have to fear rejection? If seats are limited, let the admission policy be a lottery. Every child can understand concepts like “the biscuits are finished”.

But no child should be asked to swallow the idea that she isn’t good enough for a particular school. (Indeed, show me a child who isn’t “good enough” for a school and I’ll show you a school which should close its doors and admit that it hasn’t a clue about education.)

Now bring that child with a disability into the maths class. Here it gets a little trickier. The difficulties, however, are still not with the child but with the system. The child with a disability holds up a mirror for us, showing us what we are really doing. And what are we doing?

Our classrooms are not communities of learners. They are arenas where competitors vie for prizes.

Children are not encouraged to acquire knowledge for its own sake but for points, and their classmates are not their collaborators but their rivals. It’s like the classic game of tug of war.

And have you ever noticed? In a tug of war, one side wins and one side loses, but more often than not, everyone ends up falling over.

In a typical classroom, children are humiliated. Teachers turn mean, saying things to kids they wouldn’t dream of saying to another adult.

Cooperation and sharing are neither taught nor valued, and in fact, they are often actively discouraged (Don’t share your work, don’t copy, don’t talk in class!)

But when there are kids with disability there, somehow these wonderful human qualities become essential. Because disability turns the world upside down.

This is too short a space to describe all the ways an inclusive classroom works, but here are some things to consider:

Kindness: the simplest to describe; the hardest to practise. The Dalai Lama says kindness is his religion. Its importance cannot be overestimated. No teacher can ever be excused for being unkind to a child, yet belittling and sarcasm are so common we hardly notice them.

Creating a classroom atmosphere of kindness and respect is a teacher’s first responsibility, and it is the single most important step toward inclusion.

Group work: Children need to learn to work in teams. It’s a critical skill for life as an adult and it makes the best use of the range of talent and skills in every class. Nothing in adult life is possible without team-work, yet we actively discourage children from practising the vital skills of consensus building, turn taking and appreciating others’ contributions.

Scoring: Turn the concept on its head by scoring kids both individually and as a group. If an individual child scores higher than the group, she needs to be taught to think about who else she could have helped. If she scores lower, she needs to ask herself whom she could have approached for help. Let the kids decide what to do about lazy team members.

Random buddy-system: Pair children up so that each one has something to offer the other as well as something to learn — there is no one who doesn’t have a positive contribution to make.

Realistic expectations: Don’t expect the same things from each child. You wouldn’t expect a house painter to do your electric wiring or a doctor to write your advertisements. We are all hard wired with our own individual capacities.

Substitutes: Everything is adaptable. Yet we behave as if the syllabus arrived in our schools straight from God and can never be tampered with. Different kids have different learning goals. So why not adjust the curriculum, the time allotted, the skill level, to suit the individual child’s needs? Once we get away from the idea that learning is a competition with winners and losers, all sorts of new approaches are possible.

Creative participation: Remember, it’s only in school that a person is expected to be good at everything! Children can take part in activities according to their abilities, not according to a pre-set notion of what they should be capable of. If it’s Geography, for example, one child can name the countries on a globe while another might be able to name the cities. A third could be the one to hold the globe. All three are participating.

Praise effort, not intelligence: There is fascinating new research which indicates that when children are praised for being smart, they immediately begin to fear looking dumb and they stop taking risks.

In any case, intelligence is not in anyone’s control – why should we be praised for it? Effort is. And effort almost always trumps intelligence.

Once we change the ground rules, once we understand that learning is cooperative and not competitive and that we are all in this together, inclusion becomes a simple task. It can work in our schools as it works in our families — we all just learn to adapt to the special needs of each member.

Now back to yoga

There are a few contra-indications to doing a headstand, as any good yoga teacher will tell you. Three that I know are: a bad heart, a detached retina and chronic constipation.

So if you have a school that is neither loving nor kind, where kids aren’t happy, where competition rules, the classroom is a battlefield and learning is a struggle rather than an adventure; fix that school’s heart before you subject more children to its power.

Inclusion is the hope of the future and as teachers and parents, the future is in our hands.

The author is the executive director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a Dehra Dun based resource centre for people with special needs. >

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