Several years ago my son, then in Class Seven, came home disturbed about an incident in school. His classmate Abhay (name changed), who sat next to him, could understand what was taught in class, but could not fare well in most of his tests and examinations. He also did not want to talk to others in the class. My son, being a new student in the school, had been trying to make friends with Abhay but found that he was quite wary. This puzzled my son on two grounds: why was Abhay so quiet and reserved, and why could he not put down on paper what he understood?

In time, Abhay became a good friend to my son and all of us. He often came to our house and we used to enjoy meeting up and playing together. He was very talented - good at art, music and sports - and he could talk with ease on many subjects! But it was very hard to see him cringe when he spoke of school or studies. With much sadness he shared that he really tried to study but it was just beyond him to write answers, and nobody seemed to understand him. “Why is it so important to do well in exams when I know so many things others don't? People just do not understand my difficulty and call me dull, lazy and many other such names.”

Today Abhay is a successful entrepreneur, thanks to the support of his parents and some teachers. The greatest support that Abhay got was the understanding that he was different in terms of academic pursuits. The other areas of support were: recognizing his talents and strengths and nurturing them. Once out of school he pursued his interests and dreams and today he is a successful clothes designer.

This association with Abhay got me thinking, questioning, and reflecting on how we could help children who learn differently. Abhay had the condition that is commonly known as a learning disability (this was not common knowledge then). Children with this condition may have no physical or intellectual problems; the difference is that they cannot process some auditory and/or visual stimuli as well as the rest of us. For example, they may read 'b' as 'd' and 'm' as 'w'. There are several kinds of learning disabilities, from language (reading, writing, comprehension) to mathematics.

When a child finds the conventional schooling system difficult to cope with, a few questions arise. Are there any alternative methods? Is it fair for the child to go through childhood feeling handicapped for no fault of his or hers?

Since then, life has given me many opportunities to gain insights into how we can help children going through similar difficulties. The course of life took me from Calcutta to Delhi, Hyderabad to Bangalore and I taught at leading schools in these cities. It was heartening to note that many teachers had started asking these questions, recognising that there are children who process information and data differently, and feeling that it is our responsibility to reach out to these children. Over the years I learnt about alternative education, inclusive education, integrated education and learning disabilities.

The most important learning for me has been that it is possible to help each child learn the way s/he enjoys; of course the setting for the learning has to be different from the one Abhay and my son went to. This I discovered when I got an opportunity to meet with Indira Vijaysimha, one of the trustees of Poorna Trust and presently the Director of Poorna, an alternative, inclusive school in Bangalore. Over successive meetings with her, I decided to join Poorna. Working with Indira and my other colleagues, children and parents in Poorna, I feel happy that I am associated with a school that includes, in its fold, children who learn differently.

Inclusion in Poorna

Poorna is an inclusive school: 15% of the children have special learning needs and they study along with the remaining 85% children whose processing abilities are as those of the majority of the people. It started in 1993 as a home school to teach 6 children, by parents who felt that their children learnt differently and who wished to offer a different learning experience for their children. As the school grew, so did Poorna's vision:

• To evolve a system of education where children can explore and begin to understand the world around them.
• To enable children to develop emotional well-being, academic skills, and an awareness of contemporary development issues.
• To create sensitive and caring human beings who can add value to society.

Poorna is inclusive in more ways than one. In addition to enrolling children with special learning needs, we have children from various socio-economic backgrounds (some first-generation learners and some whose education we sponsor), and the children and teachers follow various faiths.

Over the years we have learnt that each individual learns differently and we build on each student's strengths. In addition to academics, students learn to respect each other despite their differences, especially those due to challenges such as learning disability or autism.

Learning through equal participation

Biologically adults produce children.
Spiritually children produce adults.
Most of us do not grow up until we have helped children to do so.
Thus do the generations form a braided cord.

[George F Will]

Learning never ends for anyone. The first learner is the teacher and we teachers at Poorna are constantly discovering ourselves. We are learning all the time. What is very different at Poorna is that students are encouraged to give us feedback and they are our greatest teachers! The journey is often rough; the good part is that with each experience we get stronger. To give you an example: we do not frame 'rules' and hand them down to our children. While deciding on a norm that we must follow, we dialogue with the children and their parents before making it a 'rule'. Children discuss and decide on the consequences of digression from norms agreed upon. In cases where there are digressions we come together to take the next course of action rather than 'handing down' consequences.

This is our strength. The involvement of the whole community - teachers and parents - in school helps us innovate continuously. Honest in their feedback, they offer healthy criticism which helps us 'think' all the time. There is an extended community of well-wishers who are there for us, whenever we need their help.

We believe that each child enjoys learning at his/her pace and that it is important to expose them to a variety of learning experiences: art, craft, the natural environment and social issues for example. This is true for all children, but especially important for children with special learning needs. Children are encouraged to participate in discussions, to have a view on various social, environmental and other current issues. They learn to present their perspective and respect other perspectives. Children go to various communities (tribal schools, agricultural farms, fine arts centres) and stay there for a week or longer. While living in these communities they get hands-on learning experiences in a wide range of skills and vocations.

Each individual learns differently and there are diverse abilities among the students and teachers. We do our best to integrate the differences and provide a multi-sensory approach to teaching. We have learnt that in the initial years allowing children to explore goes a long way. To give an example: two years ago we had five-year-old Vishnu (name changed) join us. He had tremendous difficulty writing the alphabet while his friends were writing three- or four-letter words. We observed that Vishnu loved working with puzzles, drawing and painting. When other children were involved in writing tasks he painted or worked on puzzles. After about six months he expressed a desire to write with other children. Today he is as comfortable as the others in writing.

Our students are not grouped according to age. Children work in mixed age groups and develop their interests. Children across ages help each other develop skills, discover and understand concepts that we work on. When a child gets interested in a particular topic or concept, s/he goes all the way to find out more and we have animated discussions in class. The most interesting discussions happen during their walks in the neighbouring farm when children discover different kinds of plants and insects, and find connections or links with our own lives.

For all this to happen effectively our class size is restricted to sixteen to a class. Our student:teacher ratio is 9:1. While the students with learning disability are included in the classroom for most of the day, during the vernacular periods they go for remedial teaching. We have special educators in the school for providing remedial intervention for the children with auditory/visual processing difficulties.

Project work

Currently the two projects we are working on, as a community, are Our Greener Earth Campaign and Our Community Kitchen. Following our commitment to make our earth greener, we are growing a lawn on our campus and planting 50 trees in our farm next door. Our farm has given us a sizeable part of their farm to develop. Our students, ranging from 10 years to 15 years of age, are working together to dig the land, plant trees and take care of the trees. As I write this article they have planted jackfruit, custard apple, pomegranate and ashoka trees; in the next few weeks they will be planting papaya, kari patta (curry leaves), lemon, drumstick, chikoo and more.

The Community Kitchen project (which is of a long-term nature) is where children work with the teachers and parent volunteers to cook a meal for the whole school. The meal is simple, nutritious and hot, which the adults and children enjoy.

Through these community projects we are learning to work together, understand each other better and enjoy sharing a tasty hot meal together!

General awareness

Social issues and events are followed closely by our students. The interesting observation I made when I joined Poorna is that they all have opinions on wide-ranging issues: from child labour to the effects of industrialization, from conserving natural resources to what careers they would like to opt for. It also helps that many of the parents are actively involved in research in pure and life sciences and ecology, and they bring in a variety of experiences which we benefit from.

Preparing for the future

We prepare our students to face life in all its aspects - emotional, intellectual, interpersonal - and to have a vocation, a passion for what they do. Our endeavour is to develop the ability to face challenges that are thrown at one in the course of life. The emotional well-being of every child is given utmost importance at Poorna.

All our students integrate into mainstream vocations and careers after taking recognised school-leaving certificates offered by the NIOS and IGCSE boards. These provide flexibility in that the children can stagger the examinations over two to five years, which reduces the pressure of academics for those with special needs. Our ex-students have gone on to diverse professions and careers: they have become doctors of Ayurveda or allopathy, dentists, craftspersons, designers, models and some of our present students are set to make careers in music, carpentry and other traditional careers.

Challenges we face

Like any other learning organization, we face many challenges in seeing our dreams through. These range from financial resources to time constraints to partnering with people who have similar ideas, ideals and passion. Each one of us has to be patient, persevering and give of our time. We have to constantly unlearn, learn and relearn according to the needs of the children and adults! There is a lot of dialogue that has to be done, both internal and external.
There are certain specific challenges we face as an inclusive school.

  • Heterogeneity in the abilities/learning needs of children in a group. Our discussions and sharing are common and the written work is done at different levels - while some students work at the factual level of comprehension, there would be others at the inferential and some at the critical thinking levels of comprehension. Students work with concrete teaching materials/manipulatives wherever possible for conceptual understanding. Some children find mathematics extremely difficult; we work with them on the day-to-day aspects of math - the use of money, weights and measures and commercial math.
  • We have regular discussions and talks with the children to sensitise those without special learning needs about the challenges and difficulties faced by their peers with such needs.
  • Low self-esteem in some children, denial or unreal expectations of parents: Students with special needs know that they are different from the majority in academic achievements. A few of them develop other talents and enjoy a high self-esteem; sadly, some children and their parents feel quite disheartened and cannot accept that one can develop other strengths (sports, performing arts) and excel in a chosen field. In them, the desire and the accompanying pressure to perform well in academics is tremendous. Parents sometimes find it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that their child is differently abled. Often, they accept the fact intellectually but at an emotional level it is very painful and they could be in denial for many years.
  • To address this we meet the parents once in two months, to share the progress and the challenges that the child is facing. We reaffirm and re-commit ourselves to do our best to help the child develop life skills to become as independent as possible.
  • Special educators: Special educators are few in number and it takes a while to replace one who leaves.

Dealing with the emotional state of the learning disabled child

Dealing with any person's emotional state is quite challenging. A child with special learning needs has more challenges to face if s/he has not found an alternative way to express her/his creativity. The emotional state of the child with special learning needs gets more complex with the onset of adolescence. By now s/he has noticed being different from peers (in terms of academic ability), and the changes of adolescence are compounded with this realization. We have seen that addressing parents' emotional well-being helps the children. We work in various ways:

  • interact with the child at an informal level: It is not just academics that we discuss. Children feel free to discuss the joys and sorrows they are going through and this sharing helps classroom interactions.
  • provide opportunities for the child to succeed: We involve him/her in activities of interest: for example, theatre, other arts, gardening, cooking, stitching. In academics we assess them orally and reduce the conventional paper-pencil element of assessment.
  • expose the child to a variety of skills: Success in this area helps gain self-confidence and self-esteem. We invite persons from diverse fields - artists, craftspersons, film makers, scientists, biologists, doctors, engineers, theatre persons and musicians to interact with the children and work with them on projects; we have noticed that the students make 'connections', making it possible to discover an area for self-expression.
  • dialogue with parents and help them see that there are opportunities for their children in their chosen fields, given the passion for what they choose to do.

For me it has been a very interesting journey with the students and my colleagues, into nature, human minds and much more. Each day is a new day which brings new learning and we continue to wonder and keep our curiosity alive. Also, the fact that we are together and have grown in number and in our personal as well as our professional lives, is an assurance that we concerns in education are contributing in some way to society at large. For this we are extremely grateful to all the persons who have impacted us, directly or indirectly, to give us the energy and inspiration to move on!