NICHOLAS is a 12-year-old boy who is preparing to write the SEA exam. He was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was five years old and he attends a denominational primary school. He was assigned a teacher’s aide in standard four, and his parents worked closely with the aide, his teachers and the school’s guidance counsellor to make sure that Nicholas was given all the support he needed.
His mom notes, “Nicholas is getting more and more frustrated as the SEA exam approaches. He was managing well in school but once he started online classes, everything fell apart. In the physical class his teacher would spend extra time with him on his assignments, sometimes the other children will help him and well, he had the aide then, who used to go over the work with him to make sure he gets it, and would do extra work with him.
"But then everything happened at the same time – he started standard five, the aide’s contract ended and on top of that, all his classes were online or via WhatsApp. It was too much for him and in the first term of standard five he did badly in everything. He started to feel frustrated and became depressed. He couldn’t sleep and started acting out, he became aggressive. We got a therapist to work with him and we were able to understand that his behaviour was because he felt hopeless, as SEA exam was coming up and he wasn’t doing well.”
Covid19 has disrupted the education system in TT and the rest of the world. Because of restrictions, children have not been able to attend school physically. The changes have impacted on many students, especially those from lower-income groups and those with special needs. In Nicholas’ case, as a student with special educational needs, he was able to learn and perform well academically because he was given the extra support to assist him – support from his teacher, classmates and his aide. However, the transition to an online learning environment took away the extra help from teacher and classmates and this was made worse by the end of the aide’s contract.
Thus, as a student with special educational needs, Nicholas was at a disadvantage, he could not keep up with the work and now he is not ready to write the SEA exam. His parents understand that he is trying but it is just overwhelming for him, his teacher is limited in what she can do and, in the end, he might not write the exam this year. All this impacts on his self-esteem – he says that he is a failure while his classmates are doing well and he isn’t.
The thing is, a student with special needs should not have to be placed in such a distressing situation. While it is no one’s fault that we are in a pandemic, it is someone’s fault that we have not been able to manage the situation in a manner that we can bridge the disparity in education. At the same time, it doesn’t look like covid19 is going anywhere too soon and we have to adapt to the situation.
In this regard, given its budget constraints, it is highly suggested that the Ministry of Education (MoE) tap into its database of students with special educational needs (I am assuming that Student Support Services Division would have such a database) and identity the students who are preparing for exams – it might be too late for students doing exams this year but definitely for students doing exams next year (it is not fair to other students but at least it is a start).
The MoE can then put things in place to provide support to these special needs students. It can start by making sure that these students have access to a teacher’s aide (who are trained to work with the students on an online environment). The MoE can also assign counsellors to work with these students and their parents and aides closely, to monitor not just their performance but also to help them cope with an online environment.
Online education can be effective for special-needs children only if there is communication and collaboration between the parents, the child, the counsellor and the aide. Only when everyone has the child’s interest can the child really benefit. Otherwise, it is unfair to expect a student with special needs to prepare for, write and excel at SEA, CXC or any other exams. And it is definitely incorrect to say that no child is left behind.
Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T