Sunday, March 09, 2008

From a child's point of view

Source: The Hindu

“Taare Zameen Par” turns the spotlight on our education system and cultural mindset when it comes to dealing with our children.

Most Indian parents will not accept the idea that well-intentioned parents can unknowingly inflict long-term harm on a child.

More than one Ishaan: There are many children whose needs are not understood by well-meaning parents.

While awareness of learning disabilities has grown in India over the past two decades, the impact of “Tare Zameen Par” cannot be underestimated as it has made ‘dyslexia’ a household word. The struggles of a dyslexic child, as he tries to survive in an inflexible and insensitive educational system, have been succinctly portrayed. The appeal of the movie, however, lies in its subtext as it turns the spotlight on our educational system and cultural mindset.

Looked at objectively, the protagonist’s father and mother are “good parents” who provide for their children, care for them and wish them well. However, despite a strong emotional bond, Mr. and Mrs. Awasthi fail to connect with their child. They think they have the child’s best interests in mind, but their perception of “best interests” does not factor in the child’s feelings and interests. There are many Ishaans in India, not necessarily dyslexic, but children whose needs are not understood by well-meaning parents.

Cultural trend

This reflects a cultural trend where parents are deemed to know what is best for their children. Most Indian parents will not accept the idea that well-intentioned parents can unknowingly inflict long-term harm on a child. When the child is in step with parental expectations, there is little cause for concern. However, when a child marches to the beat of a different drum, the space between parent and child can gradually widen into a chasm.

Just as Ishaan’s troubles first surface as relatively minor issues, most problems start as mild conflicts. For example, Anup does not complete his notes in class and gets yelled at by his mother; Shreya, a fourth-grade student, keeps losing her belongings and, as a result, stops receiving lunch money from her parents; Suman, a fifth-grader, cries every Monday morning and her father calls her a “cry-baby”; Kabir, a seventh-grader, is unable to wake up in time for school and his parents get increasingly infuriated by his tardiness. These are small ripples that may grow into stronger currents and morph into stormy waters if parents and teachers ignore these cries for help.

Cry for help

A child who loses things and fails to finish copying notes in class is not necessarily wilfully inattentive. Seema is the fattest girl in class and is teased incessantly by her peers. As a result, the child tries to “shut out” the world by entering a fantasy world. Even at home she prefers being in her make-believe world because her mother yells at her for getting two ‘incompletes’. The child tries to communicate by refusing to eat. The mother ignores this plea for help. Seema’s reluctance to eat only makes her mother angrier and more resolved to straighten out her daughter.

Mother and daughter fail to connect even though Seema’s mother tries to be a conscientious parent. She checks her daughter’s notebooks every day to see if Seema has any ‘incompletes’, counts the number of pencils she gives her daughter every morning and makes sure that her child eats all the puris on her plate. Seema’s mother is oblivious to the fact that her daughter’s weight may be a cause for concern; both physical and psychological.

Similar scenes exist across many homes. If parents are sensitive and share a bond of trust, there is a greater likelihood of problems coming to the fore. Possible solutions can be explored. But if parents turn a deaf ear to their children’s silent pleas, then stress builds within the child. Each scolding, each tantrum, each scene continues to increase internal tension until, one day, the valve gives way to an outburst. Many parents wake up only at this point; often, it is too late.

Most problems relating to children do not crop up overnight. However, parents’ and teachers’ attitude often determines the outcome. Ganesh’s parents could not understand why their otherwise bright child was not able to read and spell as well as his peers. His mother stumbled upon an article on learning disabilities and had Ganesh assessed by a psychologist. She learnt that her son was dyslexic. Initially, the parents were stunned, but they gradually began to accept their child’s problem. The family moved cities so that Ganesh could receive special education.

Ganesh’s reading disability was quite severe. He could grasp concepts, think critically and logically, but reading was a major stumbling block. Ganesh’s mathematical skills were also below-average as he could not remember basic arithmetic computations. His parents were very supportive when the principal of the new school felt that he should repeat Grade IV. Ganesh began intervention classes, and made gradual progress. His parents had been told that they must be patient and encourage the child to persevere. After about two months of intervention, his mother was jubilant when her son scored 20 per cent in his English Comprehension test. This was the first time he had attempted to read and answer an unseen passage.

Her optimism was contagious. Her son’s grades continued to improve steadily, and moreover, the child began to grow in confidence. When Ganesh scored 90 per cent in his Grade X exams, the family and school were ecstatic. While Ganesh’s success is largely due to his efforts, his parents’ attitude was also instrumental in motivating him. Had his mother not commended his ‘failing’ grade of 20 per cent, the child would not be where he is today.

Defeatist attitude

In contrast, Pavan’s parents exhibited a defeatist attitude. The child was enrolled in a remedial programme as he was dyslexic. After three months of intervention, his parents felt that they had seen no progress and their child was still obtaining “failing grades”. As they were fixated on marks alone as a benchmark of progress, they had not noticed that their child was beginning to “sound out” words and was less reluctant to pick up a book. By ignoring the small steps of progress, his parents failed to motivate him.

The movie also captures another urban middle-class phenomenon: the threat of boarding school. When parents are overwhelmed by a child’s academic or behaviour problems, residential schools are considered the solution.

This “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” attitude is the last thing the child needs. Even though most parents do not actually act on the threat, simply being threatened makes a troubled child more insecure.

The movie also highlights the role of schools in making or breaking children’s lives.

Teachers’ role

Just like parents, teachers have a responsibility to listen to students. Not just the ones who talk in class and know the ‘right’ answers. In fact, they have a greater responsibility to those who do not voice themselves. With class sizes ranging from 40-60, many teachers feel that they simply cannot give individual attention. While teachers cannot attend to every child, they can help identify children who cannot cope. Many schools are trying to do this with teacher education programmes and resource rooms. But, it is the teacher’s attitude and passion that determines who will make the extra effort to befriend a child.

Our inflexible education system does not provide room for individual differences and expression. All children are expected to run at a predetermined pace, and the system does not have patience for tail-enders. The fact that India is an ‘able-ist’ society is mirrored in our attitudes towards disability. However, the movie brought out the relative nature of constructs like ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ by portraying a boy with crutches as a class topper.

Even though children are prized highly in Indian culture, they often get a raw deal when they do not conform to parental and societal standards. We need to view “best interests” of children, not from adult pedestals, but from the point of children. In order to do this, parents and teachers have to first shed their expectations and preconditioned notions and embrace children for who they are as opposed to whom we want them to be.

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