The State Government’s decision allow government and private medical colleges in the state to issue the specific learning disabilities (SLD) certificate, will make it easy for students from the remote rural areas to obtain this crucial document. Currently these students spend considerable time and money on acquiring the certificate, as only few centres in Mumbai offer the certificate. With rising awareness, demand for the SLD certificate has increased putting pressure on the few institutions in Mumbai that offer the certificate. Dr Ashish Deshpande, President, Bombay Psychiatric Society, spoke to Chitra Sawant on the incidence of specific learning disability among children and the available remedies. Edited excerpts.
What are the common learning problems found among school students?
The most common problem among this group is distraction. Learning is a new and relatively sophisticated technique for children. These days, children spend more time watching television and are seen less on the playground. This is affecting the overall learning process. While watching television, absorptiveness of the brain is at a reduced level. A TV programme is accompanied by background music, colour and explanative narration. Books, on the other hand, do not describe everything in detail. So while reading, the brain has to work more, it has to imagine things which the books describe. Given that no narrative or music is offered by books as available on a TV programme, children are losing their ability to read.
Are any efforts being made to promote the habit of reading?
Now, we are introducing books which are more colourful, have lot of pictures, and even music. However, not all textbooks can be made inter-active and attractive. As a result, books are not able to retain the child’s concentration for longer period. Hence, distraction is the most common problem in the learning process.
What kind of incentives a playground offers the child which helps in the learning process?
On the playground there is no access to a ready-made narrative, hence, these activities teach you more. On the ground, while playing, there is excitability when you win; you achieve highs, and to achieve these highs, you need to strategize. Children learn the game rules and develop their language skills more quickly. When a child gets used to gadgets instead of the playground, they miss out on these emotional highs and interpersonal strategizing. It affects the development of inter-personal reactions, and how to survive and grow in civil society.
Disabled student entitled to concessions
A student diagnosed with a learning disability is entitled to concessions during board exams such as extra time, choice to drop a language, provision for a reader or a writer, 20 grace marks, option to choose lower-level math course.
Development of the brain starts from the pre-natal state and continues till the age of 15 years. If the child faces any of the above mentioned issues during the developmental stage, it affects the learning capacity of the child. Learning is a continuous process which requires genes and exposure – whether it is the mother’s diet, the immediate emotional environment, exposure of child to the external world, all these factors have an impact on the growth process.
If the child’s emotional and physical well-being is affected, the sophisticated neuronal pathway does not develop as expected. These are called developmental disorders which affects 8 to 15 per cent of children. Developmental disorders reflect in brain functions in various ways, especially in the ability to learn, read and write. These are called specific learning disorders. There are various specific learning disorders (SLD) such as writing, reading, comprehension, arithmetic calculation, expression disorder, etc.
What remedies are available for treating such disorders?
It is not a disease, but a development state so there are no medicines. We offer such children some kind of retraining. Remedial education tries to teach the students to use alternative neuronal pathways. If the visual path is affected, we work on the auditory, and vice versa. We use occupational therapy, speech therapy and remedial education to correct the condition.
Are the concerned government officials aware and sensitive towards problems such students and their parents face?
Mental health authorities are sensitive. Initially, only Sion hospital was the nodal agency for certifying students with SLD. But with the efforts of mental health professionals, workers, authorities and especially, after the release of Aamir Khan’s movie, Taare Zameen Par awareness has increased considerably. Following which, four nodal centres were granted permission for certification but even then they were under a lot of pressure. Now, every medical college has been authorized to certify and this will help children come out of these problems. One has to understand they have a disability which can be overcome if occupational therapies, speech therapy and remedial education are initiated at the right time.
What is the diagnostic criterion for parents and teachers?
Parents and teachers can identify those students who are good at sports and games but end up making peculiar mistakes, like spelling mistakes, repeating the same mistakes frequently, especially making mistakes while writing big words, words where spelling and pronunciation differ. Since we judge children only on academy performances, those children who underperform are usually considered “naughty”. They don’t get positive feedback, they are put into tuition, which means more stress on studies, they further miss out on playground time. They lose interest in studies and this vicious cycle continues.
Can you identify specialists who can diagnose such disabilities/ problems?
First, a child has to be seen by mental health professional who can assess and send the child to a nodal centre for certification, a private psychologist or a remedial teacher. The remedial teacher or the psychologist will conduct few written tests involving games, puzzles, etc. Through these tests it can be identified whether the child has a particular disorder or not.
And for the board to issue a certificate for provisions the nodal centre has to provide certificate. But there is a weak link, the nodal centre can only be referred by the school principal. Many a times school authorities are vary of giving a reference letter. They are not aware of these disabilities and prefer exclusion of such children as they have some kind reservations about giving certification. Student’s family background is considered many a times before referring to the nodal centre. The need to sensitise school authorities is extremely important. Though awareness is increasing in cities and towns it is lacking in remote areas.
Who are the certifying authorities in Maharashtra?
Earlier Sion, Nair, KEM and JJ hospitals were certifying authorities. But now all medical colleges, both government and private medical colleges can certify.
What are the facilities offered by the education department?
Awareness is created by mental health professionals, and with Taare Zamin Par, parents are positive about getting certification for their children. However, these provisions are only granted by the SSC board during the board exams, whereas these provisions should be made available during schools exams as well. It will ensure the interest of the child in his studies. Remedial, occupational therapy is regularly required which can go for over one year also. This is expensive so the drop out is high in these cases. Schools should have a panel of experts consisting of remedial tea-cher, occupational therapist which will help students come out of it and the parents are not burdened with the expensive treatment.
What kind of role parents and teachers play in adopting such remedial measures?
Teachers and parents have to encourage their children. They have to come out of the idea that there is fault of child which can be corrected by punishment. They don’t have to do anything and everything to nurture the liking for books amongst children because it is thought that with age if the liking for books persists then the learning deficit in learning disorder becomes less obvious, or sometimes, disappears.
Learning abilities are associated with left brain function and creativeness is wired with right brain. When learning deficit disappears then the right brain takes over like a big brother and helps the child get ahead. In that way you are able to protect potential loss.
Can learning disability be linked with students’ suicide?
If the child goes into depression due to failure on the academic front, he can commit suicide. SLD can lead to various problems, including substance abuse, it can also lead to violent behaviour in children.