Safety measures for school children with special needs

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Dr Annie Koshi
Principal, St Mary’s Senior Secondary School, New Delhi

School children with special needs have the same emotional swings as other children, unless they are in autistic spectrum. They fall in love, they try to get attention by being naughty or rude or stubborn. Most importantly, like all of us, there is predominate need to be accepted and to be loved, says Dr Annie Koshi, Principal, St Mary’s Senior Secondary School, New Delhi.

What are the general precautions a school should take to ensure a safe environment for the children with special needs in terms of infrastructure and facilitation for effective participation and learning?

More than precautions for safe environment it is the need of every child whether challenged or otherwise to have infrastructure that facilitates free movement and participation. Well-chosen colours and aesthetic designs help to calm the children and encourage them to keep their environment clean. It needs to be said at the outset that an inclusive infrastructure comes in handy to even the typical at some time or another. For example, a wheelchair user needs a ramp or lift, so does a teacher or a child with fractured leg or elderly parent. But a ramp that is not of the appropriate angle will be a cause of a fracture, as will the floor of the ramp if it is slippery and not rough.

Importantly toilets floors need to be kept dry and clean with some adaptations like a steel bar next to the commode for support to create a safe environment for all children. A well lit school ensures that there no dark areas to create problems. Effective participation and learning comes from ensuring that infrastructure is adapted to the needs of the population under consideration for instance younger children need furniture that is suited to their height with no sharp edges.

Are there any emotional challenge faced by these students when they at mainstream and what are the general features of such challenges? How do you think a school should cope with them?

Teasing and bullying are some of the dangers of growing up with typical children who do not understand difference. But then teasing is part of a typical child’s life too and an integral part of growing up. The solution to these problems lies in the way we respond to them as a school, as a teacher and as a parent. It is largely and erroneously believed that children with special needs do not have the sexual and emotional desires that typical children do as they grow.

It is very important that we address issues that rise on a daily basis and that discussion and follow up is there to any situation. The danger is when issues are ignored and this indifference builds a culture of discrimination and intolerance. Keeping parents and teachers in the loop and making sure that they are an informed and involved group is crucial for the well being of the special needs child as well as the school environment.

What steps should be taken by the school for continuous monitoring of the safe environment of these learners in schools? What kind of special skills are required for the mentors of such learners and how do we incorporate those skills in teacher-mentors?
A school safety audit committee that makes regular planned checks will go a long way towards ensuring an environment that continues to be safe. This safety audit committee can and should be made up all stakeholders like parents specially parents of special needs children, teachers and administrative staff. A register could be maintained which records observations and action taken after each audit.

Proper orientation and sensitisation of new teachers, other staff and parents of the institution, highlighting the positive aspects of both an inclusive school and safe classrooms, is a must every year.

Interactions and ongoing discussions with children are necessary to keep the inclusive climate alive.

There are really no special skills required by mentors except that which every teacher requires such as empathy, patience and understanding of development and cognition in children. Relationships are crucial and it is a caring teacher that ensures the successful completion of schooling of a special needs child. Skills that enhance good practices like presenting lesson plans through VAKT (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Tactile) method will help every child in class. Planning and evaluating, scholastic and co-scholastic activities in a holistic and inclusive manner will ensure dignity and respect of all children in the school.

What kind of avoidable challenges do these learners face normally in schools in their relationship management with their peers? How does a school ensure a safe and healthy relationship with their peers?

Challenges that children with special need face in school usually come from a lack of understanding about ‘the other’ by the typical child. This lack of understanding in teachers and sadly sometimes even in parents gives rise to some of the most difficult challenges that a special needs child can face. Parental and peer support is crucial to build confidence in the child so that she can bravely go on to build relationships.

Making sure that the profile of children in a school reflects the diversity of society can reduce this problem. Ensuring that the typical and the special needs child grow together right from pre-primary guarantees that children make better peer relationships as the bond starts right from the early years in school. Yet as relationships become complex some children may have difficulties in initiating age appropriate conversations, handling fights, rejections, etc independently. For this, the school counseling team needs to step in and help resolve the issue.

It is also important to get an early assessment of the special needs child so that there is proper understanding of the child’s challenges and strengths. This in turn will lead to more understanding and acceptance by parents, teachers and peers. So, through counseling, circle time, assemblies, etc, issues like bullying, conflict management and empathy within class are dealt with.

What is the role of parents in facilitating the safe environment for the children with special needs when they are sent to schools? How can the schools bring synergy between their efforts and those of the parents?

One can’t emphasise enough the importance of a caring, empowered parent in the life of a special need child. It is really the one thing that can make all the difference. Early intervention ensures that challenges are minimised as much as possible. A parent in denial will delay intervention till sometimes it is really too late or may even put their child into situations that they are not supposed to be in given their circumstances.

The school’s role in such circumstances is first to understand the needs, strengths and challenges of the child. A professional counselor who is trained to do assessments should do the evaluation of the child. The counselor should give a comprehensive report that includes detailed interventions and strategies that can be used to tackle and minimize the challenge.
Presenting this report to parents of the child and to get them to understand and accept their child as he/she is, is sometimes a never ending chore. The school needs to constantly remind itself that fighting a child’s battle is actually delivering the child his/her legitimate rights. Inclusive education is a rights based education which believes in every child getting an equitable quality, education.

Dr Annie Koshi is Principal of St Mary’s School in New Delhi. She actively advocates the cause of the physically challenged and has worked hard to create an inclusive school where physically, mentally, emotionally and financially challenged children study together in the mainstream, a school where ‘difference’ is accepted and celebrated. Also, she has been instrumental in bringing in legislation to change methods of assessment for the visually challenged in the Board Examinations as well as legislation.