The traditional classroom environment is no place for children with learning disabilities. Drawing upon this fact, from the capital city to faraway Mongar district, the Special Education Needs Programme helps such children join the mainstream by learning differently.

The first thing that strikes me about Jigme Zangpo is his American accent. Holding on to his best friend’s gho-sleeve, he avoids eye contact as I draw him into a conversation.

“This is Sonam Singye,” he introduces me to his friend, his words still heavily accented. “We’re both 9 years old.”

I almost don’t notice his anxiousness until he drags his friend forward and takes cover behind him.

The two friends, now in Class III, enjoy a strong bond first formed when they joined Mongar Lower Secondary School (MLSS) as Pre Primary students some four years ago.

Today, they are fast, inseparable friends.

“We help each other with everything,” says Sonam Singye, leading Jigme away from me as the de facto elder brother, sensing his friend’s uneasiness.

Both friends suffer from autism spectrum disorder, a condition synonymous with social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviours that often lead to anxiety, obsessions, compulsions, attention deficiency, stress and dissociation to name a few.

Sonam Singye and Jigme Zangpo (right) enjoy a strong bond first formed when they joined Mongar Lower Secondary School (MLSS) as Pre Primary students four years ago. Both the students suffer from autism spectrum disorder.

Still, they’ve learned to read, write, and now interact with others a lot more than when they initially joined the school.

Jigme Zangpo (right) helps his best friend Sonam Singye tie his shoe-lace.

“When they first came to school, they had limited speech, especially Jigme, and they had no confidence at all,” says Yeshey Choeki, the Special Education Needs (SEN) coordinator in the school. “Jigme hated physical contact and it was difficult for us to understand him as it was difficult for him to understand us.”

The two, like all students who enroll in the school, were put through a Pre Primary readiness screening with the help of a Rapid Neurodevelopment Assessment (RNDA) kit provided by UNICEF. And that is when their condition came to light. Of the 796 students in the school, 51 have been found with disabilities ranging from mild to severe.

“In the beginning, it was difficult for us to convince parents about their child’s condition. Some would get angry when we’d break the news to them and even beat the kids up,” says Yeshey Choeki. “Finally, that is changing.”

Jigme Zangpo, though, is among the fortunate few. His mother, Yeshey Dema, is very supportive and puts in extra effort to help him overlook and overcome his disabilities. She even convinced her husband, a constable in the Royal Bhutan Police, to talk to his superiors into allowing him to stay back in Mongar when he was to be transferred to Pemagatshel district.

“There are no SEN Schools in Pemagatshel and, if we had left, Jigme would have become withdrawn once again as he does not make friends easily,” she says. “Here, he’s finally beginning to mingle with other students.”

Mongar Lower Secondary School is one of 10 SEN Schools, apart from two specialized schools for the hearing and visually impaired in Paro and Khaling, catering to children with disabilities in the country. As of now, the number of children enrolled in these SEN schools stands at 448. And with the increase in enrolment each year, the ministry of education plans on taking the SEN programme to five more schools by the end of 2018.

Although the pilot project, which introduced inclusive education to children with special needs, was initiated in 2001 in Changangkha School in Thimphu by the ministry of education, it was only in 2009 that MLSS was converted into a SEN school.

“It was challenging in the beginning as we did not have trained staff, teaching kits or the required funds,” says Tshering Lhamo, the deputy chief education officer of the special education unit in the ministry. “With UNICEF coming on board a few years back, most of our programmes are today supported by them.”

Teachers in most of the SEN schools have attended workshops and trainings made possible by UNICEF and other development partners. Just last year, 82 teachers from SEN schools across the country attended a workshop on inclusive education. This year, during the winter break, about 125 more will follow suit.

In Mongar Lower Secondary School alone, UNICEF has provided monetary support to construct ramps, refurbish the school’s SEN resource room and to kick-start its pre-vocational clubs. The clubs, now popular with the children, offer cooking, hair dressing and electrical wiring classes once a week.

Yeshey Choeki, the Special Education Needs (SEN) coordinator in Mongar Lower Secondary School (MLSS) taking a pull-out class for children with disabilities.

Cooking is Jigme’s newfound passion and he enjoys it more than sitting in a classroom surrounded by books. “I’ve learnt how to make sandwiches,” he says, avoiding eye contact still but breaking into a slight smile.

No doubt, the opportunity to access education has benefitted so many children like Jigme and his friend Sonam. But critics, including some teachers dealing directly with these children, worry that a lot more needs to be done, especially in terms of infrastructure for the physically challenged and capacity building of teachers.

“The project has put greater pressure on us because it is an extremely demanding job and, apart from the basics, we don’t have adequate training to coach children with special needs,” says Karma Wangdi, the Vice Principal of MLSS. “Different children have different needs and we as teachers are not equipped or fully qualified to cater to their specific requirements. We need more training.”

Pre-Vocational Clubs like cooking, hair-dressing and electric wiring have become popular among children with disabilities in MLSS. Here, a parent volunteer demonstrates hair cutting techniques to the students. (Photo Courtesy: Yeshey Choeki, SEN Coordinator, MLSS)

Nonetheless, they are learning on the job, he adds, stressing that children with special needs are more fortunate in his school as they receive more attention.

“Most schools don’t even have the SEN programme and children with learning difficulties there are simply categorized as high or low achievers,” he says. “Here, we don’t do that. We identify their requirements and depending on the severity of the case, we provide pull-out and push-in classrooms just so they (the children) get special attention and care.”

In the hope that teachers learn from each other’s experiences, UNICEF funds exchange programmes for teachers in SEN schools around the country. The objective of this is to allow the teachers to pick up the best practices and systems that are in place in each of the schools.

For sure, more trainings along with exposure for teachers dealing with children with disabilities are necessary. But, for now, SEN schools are preparing educators to recognize and respond to the diverse needs of their students while teaching them that all children can learn, that all children have a right to learn, and that different children learn differently. And that in itself is a good start.

As far as parents like Yeshey Dema are concerned, such schools are a blessing. Had it not been for SEN schools, children with special needs would not have been able to enjoy the same opportunities as others. Instead, they would probably have been neglected and isolated as was the norm in the past.

“I don’t know what I’d have done without the school’s support,” she says. “I know my son is special and I’m grateful the school treats him that way. Just listen to the way he speaks and you will know in your heart that he is special.”

By Mitra Raj Dhital

©UNICEF Bhutan, 2015

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