When no one believed me,
I believed myself.
|When no one respected me,
I respected myself.
When no one talks to me
I talk to myself.

Siddhant, Class 7

This is the story of Kabir (name changed), who was referred by his teachers to the school counsellor for not coping well academically and for frequent outbursts of anger. Kabir was repeatedly injuring himself and crying in his room afterwards. He was also not sleeping well. He was a socially withdrawn child, didn’t have any close friends, and didn’t blend in well with his classmates or hostel mates. He was slow at writing and completing his school work. Most of his teachers had come to believe he was lazy, unwilling to work hard, irresponsible and stubborn. He was exhibiting many of the behaviours typical of children who are unpopular with their classmates. They generally tend to be withdrawn, anxious, fearful, moody and likely to be emotionally disturbed. They may be impulsive and have poor emotional control. They appear to lack empathy and sensitivity towards others. And they are often plagued by low self-esteem.

Initially in counselling, Kabir appeared timid, had very poor eye contact, and made stiff and guarded replies to most of the questions asked. When asked about his anger, he confessed that he often felt very angry when others criticized him unfairly. He said teachers often scolded him for not completing his work. He felt miserable because no one understood how much effort he had put in to complete his assignments. He often mentioned how he wished his teachers knew that he had SEVEN subjects to handle and not just ONE. There were some subjects he didn’t find interesting and, therefore, did not feel motivated to complete those subject assignments. He felt that most people around him didn’t understand him. He felt it was best not to trust anyone, especially after one of his old friends had betrayed his trust. His self-esteem and self-confidence seemed very low. He also didn’t seem emotionally close to his parents. During vacations, he said he spent a lot of time playing games on the mobile phone. His parents often scolded him for being distracted and not paying enough attention to his studies.

When asked about his hobbies, it turned out that Kabir was an avid reader of adventure fiction. He brightened up when asked to talk about books. He went into great detail about his favourite author. We discovered that he also liked to sing and play the tabla, but he had never sung in public. In sports, he enjoyed football.

We would like to refer to a diagrammatic representation of the Johari Window, which we used as a framework to work with Kabir to help him and his teachers discover his known and unknown strengths.

The Johari Window

During subsequent meetings with Kabir, it became clear that there were many strengths that lay beneath this child’s withdrawn and angry exterior that he needed to discover. There were some strengths that he was aware, but unsure of (for example, his love of books), and some strengths that he knew about but his peers and teachers weren’t aware of at all (for example, singing). And then there were strengths that neither he nor his peers and teachers were aware of. Though outwardly timid, he gradually gathered the courage to raise his voice for the right reasons. He was honest and genuine in his speech. It was a delight to see this intelligent and thinking person blossom. With increasing self-confidence, his stiff, incoherent speech disappeared and he began articulating his thoughts very clearly. As he came to know himself better, we came to know him better.

In his journey of self-discovery, two goals had to go hand in hand— first, helping him discover his unknown strengths, which was the ultimate booster of his self-confidence and second, bolstering a sense of achievement as far as his academic performance and his teachers were concerned. This was accomplished through a collaborative involvement of house parents, teachers, counsellors and Kabir’s parents.

Teachers and house parents were made to understand that Kabir has a learning difference and they need to deal with him more patiently. Over a few sessions, teachers were given suggestions on how to give constructive feedback to children. The need for keeping feedback short and simple was stressed. It should also focus on a particular behaviour, and not be a sweeping judgment on the child’s personality. The feedback should never be used to dump the teacher’s negative feelings on a child, especially with children who are seen as being ‘difficult’ or ‘different’. It’s always a good idea to start with positive feedback, and make the feedback balanced. Focusing on what the student does, rather than acting on assumptions of what he/she is like, and making ‘I’ statements (rather than ‘you’ statements) to share your feelings, helps build better communication and trust.

Academic Interventions

Academically, Kabir was helped outside of regular school hours with extra classes. Over the years due to prolonged neglect, negative labelling and his increasing lack of interest in studies, a significant learning lag had developed. He needed someone to help him navigate the world around him. The journey began by helping him learn to prioritize his tasks and chalk out a plan of action for the day. He was given tips on time management, for example, on how to prioritize his list of hostel chores and academic tasks. The second thread was to work upon his attention span. Due to his unstructured routines in the past, he was not able to sit for even thirty minutes initially. Gradually, with music therapy, his restlessness subsided. With a forty-fiveminute sitting followed by a ten-minute break, Kabir learnt to sit through two hours of self-study sessions. He was also asked to use cotton balls to block out external noises which distracted him. The third intervention was to bridge his writing lag. Written expression is an important part of life inside and outside the classroom. This lag was acting as a huge barrier for him. Kabir felt helpless when not able to express his thoughts in writing. He was helped with his writing skills by incorporating these five steps:

  • Assessment of current level
  • Enhancing writing speed
  • Working on spelling and sentence construction
  • Building narrative writing skills
  • Pausing to reflect on his work upon completion

Kabir’s present writing and communication repertoires were determined through feedback from teachers, parents, as well as current and previous work. This gave clarity in chalking out a writing programme for him. Exercises were planned to help him enhance his writing speed. This included time-bound exercises of copying text from a particular ongoing chapter in class. Paragraph dictations also helped him build his listening skills. The ‘Look, Cover, Write, Check’ method helped him improve his spellings. Instructional activities were carefully planned using classroom content to make him comfortable with narrative writing. This was one of the main thrust areas. Kabir needed a different strategy here. He responded well to visual supports such as graphic organizers, video clips and flash cards. As his narrative writing skills improved, he was able to articulate his thoughts better and became more confident day by day. Simultaneously, some of the teachers also began to ‘look forward’ classes with him. These classes helped him to become familiar with new concepts before a teacher began a new chapter in class, and in this way, he felt more confident answering questions in class. It took time, but his teachers changed their opinion about him because he started responding in class.

Extra-Curricular / Non-Academic Interventions

It came as a surprise to most of his peers and teachers that Kabir loved singing and playing the tabla. At a cultural event organized in the hostel, he sang for the first time before an audience. He hadn’t known until that day that he was a wonderful singer and neither did anybody else. He was also given an opportunity to speak the ‘thought for the day’ in the morning assembly. He was given a leadership opportunity when he was asked to anchor a quiz for his juniors. He also gave a book talk to his classmates on his favourite book.

His parents were counselled to have a more patient and empathetic approach in dealing with him. Instead of scolding him, his mother was asked to spend more time with him, and also set reasonable limits on his use of mobile phone to play video games.

Today, Kabir is on his way to becoming more independent, and is handling many things on his own. It is beautiful to see him smile, laugh, play, spend quality time with his friends, articulate his thoughts confidently in class, and become responsible for his learning.

Although we have described the interventions made with one child, we have worked with many such children who were condemned as ‘lost causes’. A little bit of heartful attention, coordination, and collaborative efforts between teachers, parents, school counselors and house parents could lead to very positive outcomes with such children’s emotional wellbeing and academic performance. We include here recent feedback from Kabir’s teachers:

Kabir was a reserved and laid-back child. He seldom participated in class, and often appeared distracted. However, over last term he has become more forthcoming and contributes to class discussions, clarifies his doubts and even engages in dialogue on topics of interest to him. He often surprises with original and unique answers. It is a delight to see him articulate his thoughts so well. The scaffolding provided post school hours has enabled his written work to improve vastly. This has helped him improve his performance in class tests. It has also made him more confident in his outlook. However, his group work skills need improvement and he also needs to become more accommodating of different people and perspectives.

We are writing this article after almost a year’s worth of sustained work has been done with Kabir, and this is a continuing effort. Rajghat Besant School, being a residential school, makes it easier to carry out many of these interventions after school. This level of coordinated interventions would not have been possible if Kabir was a day scholar. Getting his teachers, parents, and house parents to see the child in his unique context took time.

Krishnamurti has rightly said that it’s much easier to condemn a child than to understand a child. Understanding takes time, effort, patience and sustained, heartful attention. Condemnation is quick and conditioned. Without the multiple initiatives taken with Kabir to uncover the reasons behind his anger, isolation, apparent laziness and disinterestedness, we would have lost him and he would have remained lost to himself. We were fortunate that Kabir’s anger and disenchantment with everything was what finally awakened the attention of his teachers, and led to the series of interventions that brought out the unique individual in him: a differentlyabled learner who did not necessarily fit into the patterns of our conditioned expectations of a ‘successful’ student. To see him in his totality, and not in a fragmented manner, has been a transformative educational experience for all of us.

To understand a child, we have to watch him at play, study him in his different moods; we cannot project upon him our own prejudices, hopes and fears, or mould him to fit the pattern of our desires. If we are constantly judging the child according to our personal likes and dislikes, we are bound to create barriers and hindrances in our relationship with him and in his relationships with the world.

Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life