DR RADICA MAHASE
Last week, 18.797 students received results for the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam which they wrote earlier this year.
While it is unclear how many of those students are children with special needs, the SEA exam is a stressful experience for most students, and more so for those who do not have the assistance they need as they pass through the education system in Trinidad and Tobago.
I take this opportunity to highlight the experiences of one child, a 14-year-old boy who was diagnosed with autism. On the request of his father, I will not use real names, to give him a chance to start secondary school without being discriminated against.
Here is Aiden’s story, as told by his dad.
“My son wrote the SEA exam just as he turned 14 years. We are so happy that he has reached this far. It was a struggle from beginning to end! We are very proud of him because after what he went through, he still continued to try and work hard.
“My son was diagnosed at age three. My wife is a teacher, so she picked up all the signs very early. We didn’t want to keep him back so when we got an appointment at the paediatrics clinic in Mt Hope for 18 months later, we took him privately and paid the $5,000 without complaining, because we wanted to know what was happening so we can give him all the help he needed.
“We still had to join the clinic; because we needed all his documents for school, to be signed by the doctor there.
“We got Aiden into a government ECCE school which is just a few minutes away from our home. The school did not have any teachers trained in special-needs education, but they were willing to work with him. All the teachers were always kind towards him and supported him in whatever way they can. He had a good foundation at that school.
“They were the ones who encouraged us to get him into the government primary school nearly. He was doing very well in his schoolwork and he was on par with his classmates.
“Before he started primary school we went in and spoke to the principal and met some of the teachers. We provided his diagnosis and we told them that we would do everything on our side to work with them and to provide extra support for him. We were always hands-on parents. We were always committed to working with the school, because we wanted the best for our son.
“First and second years went really well. His teachers went out of their way to help him.
“The problems started when he hit standard one and his teacher did not really understand him or even try to understand him. She said that she wasn’t trained to deal with him and she asked for him to be placed in another class.
“That happened, and the other teacher was at least willing to work with him, but then she went on maternity leave and he got a new teacher. This new teacher had no patience with him. She shouted at him a few times, and he is the kind of child who shuts down completely if you are angry with him. By the third term he was struggling.
“Standard two was when everything started to fall apart. Both teachers didn’t really want him in their classes. One said he was too much work. The principal convinced the other one to try with him.
“We had applied for an aide since standard one and we were lucky to get one. The aide worked really hard with him for one term, but then she left. We were willing to pay for an aide ourselves, but we were told that was not the precedent, we just have to wait. He was kept back a year because he was not keeping up with the curriculum.
“From standard three the bullying started. By this time, he was older than the other children in his classes and he stood out. The other students would constantly say mean things to him, both online and in physical school.
“We had meetings with the teacher, principal and guidance counsellor and nothing was done. At one point we were told that if it’s affecting him, we should consider taking him out of school, maybe homeschool would be better for him. We were also told that if he writes the SEA exam, most likely he wouldn’t do good enough to be placed in a school.
“The worst was when we were told that Aiden really won’t do anything with his life, why are we bothering with academic work, we should consider a trade for him.
“It was a frustrating, depressing journey through primary school. The saddest thing is the stress that Aiden went through, that we went through, was because at every point the education system makes it difficult.
“We didn’t expect his aide to stay long in that job when she had a degree and getting such a low salary. The guidance counsellor can only do so much and Student Support Services was mostly ineffective. Then, no principal can force a teacher to teach a child or to be fair to a child.
“When I look back at Aiden’s time in school, I feel sad that we are so backwards, that we don’t try to help special-needs children. We have children who really are trying – Aiden real worked hard, we worked with him. I am sure if he had an aide right through, if his teachers saw his potential, if the other children included him, then his primary-school experience would have been more enjoyable.
“On top of the SEA stress, he had to deal with so many other things, and yet he got 78 per cent in SEA. This country is a mess, our education system is a mess, the younger generations are in a mess and until we recognise that, other children like Aiden will be forced to drop out or will get lost in the system.
“My son’s experience at primary school could have been so different if he had gotten the support he needed. I am proud of what he has accomplished despite everything and I pray that secondary school will be a better experience for him.”
Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T