Based on the realisation that children with one form of learning disability or another can make meaningful contribution to the society with early intervention, expert care and inclusive education, experts think the country could do more for such children to enable them attain their potential. Uchechukwu Nnaike reports
Mrs. Okwuâ€™s son Oke (not real name) has a certain learning disability that was only discovered when he became â€œdisruptiveâ€ and distant in class. When his school could no longer cope with him (because there is no teacher trained to care for children with learning disabilities), he was withdrawn from the school and because of the exorbitant fees charged by special schools which Mrs. Okwu could not afford, she took her son home.
Gradually, Okeâ€™s case became worst and his mother resorted to locking him indoors because she didnâ€™t know what to do and she was ashamed to seek help.
This scenario is the reality in many homes that have children with special educational needs or learning disabilities in the country, as there are few institutions that can take proper care of them. Sometimes it takes a longer time to ascertain the exact problem, which prolongs the solution. Unfortunately, most of these people end up not attaining their potential.
The issue was highlighted at a recent forum organised by Hiima International Education Network in Lagos, where the Chief Executive Officer, Mrs. Nike Agunbiade-Etiebet could not help citing the case of the late Stephen Hawking, who despite his medical condition, still made a huge impact in his field and in the entire world. This she said could not have been possible in Nigeria where not much is being done to help children with special educational needs.
She expressed concern that most parents with such children cannot afford the high tuition fees in schools for children with special needs and the few schools that practice inclusive education.
According to her, a child has special need if he/she has disabilities that make it difficult for him/her to perform task children his/her age can perform.
â€œA child has special educational needs when he/she has significant learning difficulties that make it more challenging for him/her to learn like other children of the same age. Special educational needs include learning difficulties, behavioral, social, and emotional difficulties, sensory/physical needs, intellectual disabilities, medical or health conditions.
â€œIn developed countries like UK, when a child is diagnosed as having special educational needs, the government works with the school to take care of the child’s education by providing what is called â€˜Special Educational Provisionâ€™. That is government together with the school will provide extra help for the child to learn quickly.
â€œThis help is usually of a graduated approach. That is a continuous and continuum of help gradually to help with the child’s learning. This is not so in Nigeria. The government does not provide for special educational needs and there is no law in Nigeria to compel schools to practice inclusion.â€
On why it is better to integrate children with special educational needs into mainstream schools rather than confining them to a special school, Agunbiade-Etiebet said the children with special needs thrive better in an environment where there are mainstream children because can learn positive things from the mainstream children.
â€œFor instance, a child with autism will probably be hitting his/her head on the wall because they come with different characteristics, if they are in mainstream schools, that is why we talk about inclusion, they can drop some of the traits of autism. An autistic child will not talk, some of them donâ€™t have language at all and some do, so if they can talk a little bit, if you put them in a mainstream school, they can learn to socialise a little bit than to put them in a special school where they will be picking the wrong things again from other children. So that is why they need to integrate with other children in school. So we should not even promote so much of seclusion or special schools except in very severe cases.â€
She regretted most mainstream schools donâ€™t have teachers that can handle children with special needs that is why many schools do not practice inclusive education. More disturbing she said is the fact that only three universities in the country train special education teachers.
â€œTherefore most schools in Nigeria don’t practice inclusion because it is a bit expensive to practice. It requires having a special educational needs coordinator, assistant teachers, and sometimes therapists. Also teachers in Nigeria are not trained to handle or teach children with special educational needs.
â€œGovernment can assist schools by providing special educational needs training for their teachers and also make law of inclusion in Nigerian schools. That is a law that compels schools to practice “functional Integration” of children with special educational needs in mainstream or regular schools.â€
The CEO, who described Hiima as â€˜High Love of Childrenâ€™ said the model recognises childrenâ€™s individual differences thus it teaches them with love and respect to unleash their potential for greater heights and to make positive difference in the world.
â€œHiima professionals have been in education for over 20 years teaching in the early years up to the sixth form with unique, well proven and result oriented methodology based on the inherent attributes and the childâ€™s capacity to learn, using the absorbent mind and the sensitive periods according to Maria Montessori as well as the idea of Multiple Intelligences of Howard Gardner.â€
She said the model believes that the child has natural propensity, predisposition and talents to succeed, to explore, to create, innovate and better the community. â€œThese talents in an individual child can be exposed through loving cooperation stakeholders of the childâ€™s education viz-a-viz the parents, the child, the teacher, the environment and learning sets.
â€œThe Hiima teacher lovingly helps the child to unleash and explore his potential through observation of both previous and potential knowledge. The teacher imbibes Lev Vygotskyâ€™s idea of Zone of Proximal Development by scaffolding knowledge to undiscovered and yet to be explored knowledge and talent.â€
Agunbiade-Etiebet said the Hiima learning system helps to discover the strength and weakness in childâ€™s learning by mapping the childâ€™s previous knowledge and providing enhancement topics designed by experienced teachers to fill in gaps; it opens the teacher/parent to knowing the childâ€™s learning characteristics and learning style; it introduces opportunity for differentiated and structured learning; it encourages the use of synthetic phonics at the school.
Other benefits she said are firm foundation in grammar from preschool; opportunity to study wide international topics; it can be used to improve learning by the gifted and talented child as an enhancement programme; it bridges the attainment gap between a child and his peers, where a child previously struggles; it prevents attainment gap of a child at risk of learning difficulty from growing wider, among others.