Published: 28th October 2020
How this Puducherry Special School helped parents become co-therapists, manage their kids using WhatsApp, home hacks during pandemic
Without schools, parents of kids with special needs felt lost. But this school helped bring the parents together and come up with innovative ways to educate their children
Parents across the globe were caught like a deer in headlights when the schools shut down, leaving them to handle their children’s education all on their own. But the parents who were probably the worst hit, were ones who have special needs children. Suddenly being cut off from having any professional help to cater to the special needs of their children left many parents confused, desperate and anxious. But over the last six months, a Special School in Puducherry has done some tremendous work in bringing both parents and students together with some technology, a lot of hard work and some good planning.
When the pandemic started, Satya Special School’s helpline was flooded with phone calls from desperate parents who had no idea what to do to help their children. The situation had led to conflicts between parents, put overwhelming stress on the caregiver parent, in some cases, one of the parents also threatened to leave, “I had parents calling me panicked and having suicidal thoughts too,” said Chitra Shah, Director of the School. “Most parents take their children to school and leave them there and pick them up after. So now when they had to handle the child all day, they felt completely at sea,” she tells us.
At Satya though, the parents didn’t seem to have as much trouble, because at this school, parents also trained to become co-therapists. The school had arranged enough workshops and training sessions for the parents to feel like they had been equipped to handle the students during the pandemic. “The parents already had WhatsApp groups where they discussed their children and their activities but after the pandemic started, the groups have been abuzz almost the entire day. Parents are discussing with each other about how their kids are doing, what activities they would be engaging them in and what their progress is,” Chitra said. But what took everyone by surprise was how innovative the parents were becoming when it came to activities for the children.
One of the parents, Ananthalakshmi Bharat, with the help of her 11-year-old son has been doing puppetry to help her daughter who is all of eight years old, who has Joubert’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder often characterized by a lack of coordinated movements, to eat her dosa with her chutney. Another parent, N Geetha, has been sharing many games and activities on the group that she uses to teach her 13-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy and mental retardation.
Parents upload games, storytelling, puppetry, and teaching and learning materials on the groups, one for each of the nine centres run by Satya. Staff members who are on these groups help disseminate pertinent ideas and innovations across groups for seamless sharing of resources, Chitra said. The parents have also successfully substituted school equipment with materials lying around at home to help their children. Substitutions for formal therapy materials range from stacks of pillows in lieu of therapy balls for balance and posture, walking up and down stairs for muscle strengthening, and a vaanali (round-bottomed frying pan) instead of the balance board. Some learning materials are also made with materials commonly found in the house. “The ideas were extremely innovative, and I was awestruck at some of the ideas,” says Sheikh Sheriff, physiotherapist at the school, “Even we had never thought of using some of those materials (that the parents did).”
While these parents have been coping well enough, the school made sure to not forget the fact that many of their students lived in rural areas and did not have the same kind of access to learning materials. So they set out to plan ways to reach them. Technology could not be the only thing they would be able to rely on. Lakhs of mainstream students studying in rural areas are already being deprived of an education because they can not afford gadgets or the internet. In the few instances where families did have phones, the parents were forced to give their one phone to the mainstream child and not the one with special needs. So Chitra’s team had to take all this into consideration.
So they came up with an idea — to distribute tablets to their students. But they could not afford to buy these tablets for all their students. “With financial help from the Azim Premji Foundation, we bought the tablets,” Chitra said. Every morning, staff from the school go to the houses of the children and give the family a tablet. The tablet has all the learning material needed for the child to use that day and in the evening, the staff go to pick up the tablet and hand over worksheets for the next two days, “The worksheets are based on what the child would have learnt from the tab that day. So it keeps them occupied. In the meanwhile, the tab goes to the next child,” Chitra explained. This new programme reaches 250 children and the school has designed the system in such a way that one tab is used by three children.
The school is also working to create a rural device library project, to distribute preloaded learning materials to rural children with special needs. Even though the pandemic brought with it a lot of devastation, in some way, the parents here have had the chance to feel empowered to help their children with minimal professional help. Especially because the caregiving is now shared in these families, “I’ve noticed the ones helping the most are the siblings which is very heartening to see. Grandparents also call for guidance and I’ve seen a spike in the number of fathers who are reaching out for guidance too. There was a huge disconnect that is now getting bridged. They’ve now started taking pride in their children,” Chitra says, happily.
“The attitudes are changing because they are witnessing their children become achievers,” the director says. There is also a feeling of community, Chitra says, parents are helping each other get through this very demanding and tough phase and encouraging each other to stay strong for their children.