By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Autism Awareness Day, which was celebrated on 2 April, got us thinking about the state of special needs education in Sri Lanka. Special Educational Needs (SEN) refers to learners with learning, physical, and developmental disabilities; behavioural, emotional, and communication disorders; and learning deficiencies.
A child is classified as having special educational needs if he/she has a learning problem or disability that makes it more difficult for them to learn than most children their age. They may have problems with schoolwork, communication, or behaviour.
Special needs can vary from the physical – muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, chronic asthma, epilepsy, etc., developmental – down syndrome, autism, dyslexia, processing disorders to behavioural/emotional – ADD, bi-polar, etc., and sensory impaired – blind, visually impaired, deaf, limited hearing, etc.
Traditionally, children requiring special educational needs (SEN) are segregated into separate learning environments. While this education practice has been established for years and has its own benefits such as a curriculum formulated specifically for children with special needs, the tide has changed as of recent times.
It is now widely accepted that students with SEN should be included into mainstream schools to maximise their learning experiences. Specifically, inclusion aims to benefit special children through improvements in their learning outcomes, including their social skills, academic achievement, and personal development.
However, the provision of appropriate educational needs for children with special needs has long been a common issue in education, particularly when it comes to integration and inclusion.
The policy in Sri Lanka is for inclusion
Ministry of Education Director Special Education K.A.D. Punyadasa speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch provided that in Sri Lanka, the policy for special needs education is officially integration and inclusion.
Punyadasa discussed how Sri Lanka provides for SEN persons in the country, elaborating that upon identification of the disability, the parents will be assisted in providing necessary medical treatments, up until the point in which they reach appropriate age to acquire language skills. They will then be subject to an assessment at the special education unit in the province, NIA and/or the Open University.
The assessment will be conducted by two officers from the unit and a teacher, and it will declare whether the child can attend a mainstream school curriculum or if they require exclusive special needs education.
Following this, those who are identified as SEN will be given an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) according to the report of the assessment, and they will follow said IEP with a SEN trained teacher.
He said: “In our assessments, we have found that right up to 4 years and 9 months, children can follow this IEP, following which 90% of them have been integrated into mainstream schools from grade one.”
There are, at present 104 national schools and 606 Provincial Council schools with Special Education Units dedicated to identifying and/or providing assistance to students with SEN.
Sri Lanka adopts an inclusive education policy, which requires that all children be afforded an equal opportunity education, thereby providing that special needs children be integrated into mainstream classrooms.
Punyadasa provided: “We are in the process of putting together three guidebooks for teachers leading up to grade nine, with the book for grade 10 in the works, that which will assist teachers to better accommodate for integrated special needs students.”
However, depending on the severity of the disability, there are students who are unable to be seamlessly integrated; in such occasions, the authorities are in the process of educating principals and educational institutes as to a policy the ministry has formulated – to appoint a singular community member/family for each day of the week to dedicate a designated amount of money to a special needs child of the community, to cover transport and/or education related costs. “We hope that this initiative will provide for the 19,207 special needs children currently living at home unable to receive an education.”
He further added that there are plans to also employ home tutors, to work with these children at least three hours a week and also provide training to the parents to help in their development and continue the education for the remainder of the week.
“For this purpose, there is a deficit of 597 teachers, the vacancy is available to be filled, however, the current issue that we face is teachers who have been trained in special needs education are currently teaching in different fields while receiving compensation from the treasury of the language secretariat dedicated to assist special needs education. We have undertaken legal action against such teachers.”
“As for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, we have a special text book for grade one students issued by the government in both Sinhala and Tamil medium, and if we receive feedback that the book has been useful, we will prepare a textbook for grade 2 and so on.”
We spoke with some dedicated special needs education institutes to further corroborate the policy adopted by the government, and the benefits and or challenges faced by those working with SEN persons.
Chitra Lane school for Special Children
Founded in 1967, The Chitra Lane School for the Special Child is a government approved charity that first started as a day school for children with special needs. Today, they reach out to over 2,000 children and young adults annually from across Sri Lanka providing much needed services and facilities for the early detection and intervention of disabilities.
Resource centre manager Nirosha Karunathilake, commenting on their operation, said: “How we function is that we have four tiers, the very first being the resource centre which is a government assisted programme, which is inclusive of children aged 0-12 years and following an initial assessment we will decide which is the best form of assistance that is required, and we also have a government assisted school, a sheltered workshop, and the academy.”
Chitra Lane Principal Champika Mahapatuna, speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch said she believes that if we can integrate then that is best way to go forward. “However, there are difficulties. Schools will direct children, who are suffering from learning difficulties. Student engagement means the attention, curiosity, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught. This extends to their level of motivation. When students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, they learn better.”
“There is observable behaviour, such as attending class, listening attentively, taking part in discussions, turning in work on time, and following rules and directions. Then, there are internal states – motivation and curiosity.”
Dharmapala Vidyalaya Pannipitiya
There are several special needs units established in mainstream schools at national level and also provincial level, and the Special Needs Unit Dharmapala Vidyalaya Pannipitiya is one example.
Special Needs Unit Dharmapala Vidyalaya Pannipitiya Section Head Damayanthi Atigala explained that the unit at Dharmapala is a government sanctioned unit. At present, they have around 11 children with special needs and they have two teachers who are trained to assist and teach the children.
“At Dharmapala, in addition to those children who are detected to have learning difficulties having entered school, we mostly get children directed to us through the Ministry of Education. Children who are diagnosed with a learning disability will be directed to us and we will work with them to better assist in their integration process and/or depending on severity of the disorder, we will work on helping them adapt to society,” she elaborated.
“Because the current government policy is inclusive education, it is the government’s prerogative that we work towards integrating children rather than keeping them in the special needs unit.”
Atigala furthered that despite the many difficulties, the government has been of great assistance in providing equipment and varying physical resources to better function as a unit; however, there is a lack of teaching staff.
“One main thing I must mention is that teachers who graduate out of training colleges with the qualification in special needs, often tend to take up teaching position in different subject streams, which is an appointment they acquire by taking advantage of their special needs qualification backgrounds. However, this results in the special needs sector severely lacking in resource personnel.”
S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia
S. Thomas’ College Student Support Unit Coordinator Joanne Anandanayagam, speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch explained how the Student Support Unit at STC functions.
“Starting from Primary kindergarten to grade five, when the class teachers detect learning difficulties experienced by a child after following a classroom observation, and if parents provide permission, the unit will conduct an informal assessment and then place the children in the suitable intervention programme.” She said that of the student population that receives support, a large portion is made of students with specific learning disabilities, whose learning differences affect literacy skills like reading and writing. The unit also focuses on classroom modifications which allow the children to integrate appropriately.
“As for integration, for now it depends on the severity of the case,” she shared, adding that STC has successful instances where children would work with the unit and then successfully get integrated in the school system; “however, for those who are of a severe nature, we minimise integration and focus on building their skills within the unit via a specialised programme.”
According to Anandanayagam, STC also has trained teachers who adopt an assistant support role in classrooms with integrated students in mainstream classes who will monitor and step in to assist the child keep up. “Classroom strategies such as buddy systems, assistance with note taking and reading tasks, appropriate seating arrangements, and opportunities for students to be tested orally for ongoing class work are some of the ways in which class support is given and monitored by the unit,” she added.
“STC played a major role in pushing for special arrangements at the Ordinary Level exams for children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia as these children often get overlooked because they outwardly appear ‘normal’, and they experience difficulty in reading and writing.
We have pushed for children like this to be able to take government sanctioned exams with access arrangements. The process involves showing sufficient case history, and following an assessment, where our team would attend the hearing with the parents to sort of argue the case on behalf of the child. The Ministry of Education will determine if the child is eligible to test orally and or in a suitable test condition as per their diagnosis.”
Speaking of the challenges of integration, Anandanayagam reiterated the importance of focusing on the child, where they will face challenges in their social and emotional wellbeing. “An unsaid but definite goal as a school is to build up their self-confidence and make sure they understand that it’s not that they can’t, it’s just that they learn differently.”
Classroom teachers, shared Anandanayagam, play a significant role as role models. “Kids tend to follow their teacher’s behaviour and if the teacher holds an inclusive attitude, other children in the classes will embody it as well.”
Overall, the understanding is that inclusion involves the reorganisation of ordinary schools, in such a way that every mainstream school is capable of accommodating every student regardless of their disabilities, complete with emphasis on the student’s acquisition of basic abilities; high levels of expectations for students as well as confidence in teachers’ ability to deal and support the individual needs of their students; obligation to give a balanced and broad coverage of curriculum experiences appropriate for all children; promotion of secured and orderly environment conducive for both teaching and learning.
However, while the challenges are many, there are a number of benefits to inclusion, as discussed above by the practitioners themselves – meaningful friendships, respect, better appreciation and understanding of individual differences, and being prepared for adult life in a diverse society.
Academic benefits in a well-designed inclusive classroom include students meeting higher expectations – both from their peers and their teachers. They may also see positive academic role models in their classmates. Families may also benefit. This is especially true when the SEN student is an only child, whose parents may be unable to fit in to the community.
The process of education should be given to children with disabilities to make them part of society, however, the inclusion of children with learning difficulties in mainstream schools requires greater attention, sufficient resources which requires sufficient funding, teaching materials, and catered curriculum, all of which are obstacles to be overcome.
However, regardless of the hardships, considering the positive impact of inclusion, it appears to be an educational system worth striving for.