COVID has stalled the growth of special children

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March 27, 2022 | 05:53 IST

COVID has stalled the growth of special children

The two-year COVID-19 pandemic followed by an excruciatingly long school closure has affected the mental health of children across the country. The most affected are children with intellectual disabilities whose development has stagnated. Speaking to experts in Goa, SHASHWAT GUPTA RAY noted that it would take a Herculean task for special educators to undo the damage caused by the lockdown to these children.

It has now been two years since the Indian government arbitrarily declared a nationwide lockdown, which was originally set to last 21 days. But COVID cases continued to mount and the lockdown continued. First in 2020 and then again in 2021, the COVID pandemic continued to wreak havoc.

As cases gradually receded, all other institutions began to open, except for schools. Children continued to be confined at home, struggling to cope with online education, and parents from modest backgrounds struggled to afford the expensive smart phones for their children’s education.

Although the mental health of children in general has been affected, the most affected are children with intellectual difficulties who suffer from autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and several others. These children are highly dependent on the personal intervention of therapists and special educators for their continued progress.

However, the unscientific and arbitrarily imposed lockdown has resulted in prolonged school closures. These children have been deprived of the personal attention of their educators and therapists, despite online education. Their learning abilities took a huge hit. The efforts of special educators have been in vain and they must now start from scratch.

Laxman Naik, a special educator attached to two major schools in Goa who works on these special children at the school as well as in the slums of Mapusa, said these children with different abilities have been hit hard during the school lockdown.

“We all have a particular routine to follow during the day. If there is a slight disruption in the schedule, the whole day goes haywire. Similarly, children with autism have a particular routine. Before COVID, they went to school and had to complete certain tasks given to them by their teachers. They used to go back to school and do their chores. But all of a sudden, their life stopped. They could not understand what was happening. The parents had no idea what to do and the routine for these learners completely changed,” Naik said.

Due to the lockdown, instead of going to school, they were found sitting on the couch at home, watching TV, eating snacks and falling asleep. Now, after two years, when these children have returned to their schools, they do not allow their teachers to teach them because they are stuck in this previous routine of two long years.

“At school, these children show a lot of behavioral changes. They throw tantrums, sometimes even become violent because their routine has suddenly changed again. They are unable to understand sudden changes. Online education hasn’t helped them much. It only worked for them when parents or guardians took the initiative. Now, after the pandemic, teachers are having a hard time getting these students back on track in the classroom,” he said.

According to the specialized educator, the progress of these students has been slowed down by at least two levels.

“There is this child who is about 16 years old. But his IQ level was that of a Std 5 student before the lockdown. Now, after two years of gap, the IQ level has receded to 2nd grade level. It is really sad to see that students who had learned to read a complete text are now learning the alphabet. After teaching multiplication at one point, now we have to teach numbers,” he said.

Liane da Gama, project coordinator at Atmavishwas – The Vocational Centre, Verna and carer for her brother Savio da Gama, who has Down syndrome, said that the last two years of the pandemic and the closings and closures that followed have had a fairly severe impact on the development of children with special needs.

“The most affected area for these special children has been the development of social skills. Studying and associated learning can be done remotely, but how do you teach a child to socialize while being home all day and through a computer screen? For young adults with disabilities, the challenges were different because skill development could still be taught online, but they needed a strong family support system,” Liane said.

However, due to varying disabilities and different levels of challenge, it is difficult to generalize about the impact of school closures.

“As a carer, educator as well as the brother of someone with an intellectual disability, for me the most difficult issue was keeping my brother meaningfully occupied so that screen time did not become the focus. of the day. But it brought skills training of a different kind where he started to become more independent at home, cooking and exploring the arts more. Of course, socializing with his friends and being able to go out missed him,” she said.

On the effectiveness of online education on special children, Liane said, “I work with adults and because we moved to online teaching/learning mode as early as June 2020, I don’t think whether they have been very affected or whether they have regressed. In fact, it seems that somehow they gained a lot because the parents learned to work with their wards and participated fully in the learning process. »

Regarding the long-term impact, she said: “They have to relearn how to be in society and deal with all the challenges of society. Some of them may find it difficult to get back into a focused routine. In my humble opinion, children and young adults in special schools and vocational training centers must be welcomed with love and given the freedom and space to find themselves in a social situation.

According to her, the new school year might be completely different from previous years, but it should be prepared creatively and with a people-first motto so that all the difficulties of the times during school closures can be overcome. .

The director of Disha School for Special children, Panjim, Sandhya Kalokhe, said the impact has been twice as great as expected.

“Although we were helping with virtual lessons, visuals and other study materials, parents and carers were clearly struggling with the children to put them through their paces. These children need individual care. Thank goodness the schools have reopened now. Although this was done at the end of the school year, the two months gave us time to assess the shortcomings of these children. I’m sure it will help us better plan our activities for the new academic year,” Kalokhe said.

During these two years, many children did not have any socialization. This had an impact on their mental health.

“Many show signs of depression. Initially the children could not go out due to confinement. Then, in cases where both parents work, they were unable to take their children out and have them play with other Along with that, there are so many do’s and don’ts that they don’t really understand. It’s suddenly been a different kind of life for them,” she said.

According to her, due to poor connectivity, continuous learning did not go smoothly. In families where there were one or more siblings and where there was only one smartphone, the other child always had preference regarding the use of the phone for online lessons.

Percy Cardozo, a pedagogue and psychologist at Sangath, who leads the Inclusive Education Project, said teachers need to be patient with these children when they return to school for the next school year.

“There will be pressure on teachers to close the learning gap caused by the lack of physical schooling over the past two years. But they have to be patient and support these children. Teachers need to arm themselves with additional skills to help these children meet their mental health needs,” Cardozo said.

The priority should be to get children to settle in and feel comfortable with the environment.

“A child with autism may take longer to settle down. This can range from two weeks to two months or more. Emphasis should be placed on raising awareness among students and starting studies gradually and accelerating the pace according to progress. Just because there has been a vacuum, teachers should not rush. This will prove disastrous as the children will learn nothing,” she said.

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