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Do you understand?

Posted by admin on 28th October and posted in Strengths

Do you understand?

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

First published in Education Plus, THE HINDU, 27 October 14

 

Many articles on education, including previous ones in this column, urge students and teachers to place a premium on understanding as opposed to rote learning. Instead of merely regurgitating the text in exams, students are encouraged to understand the content. At the same time, educators are being asked to test for understanding. Thus, in addition to straightforward questions, most exam papers nowadays have a few HOT (higher order thinking) questions that are meant to stimulate and promote students’ grasp of material. But as a student, how do you know whether you have understood a chapter or lesson?

The concept

First, you need to remember that understanding is a process rather than a fixed end state. No matter how basic a concept is, our understanding of it evolves and gets more refined with age and experience. Look back to a rudimentary arithmetic concept that you learnt in primary school. Most children are introduced to the idea that division is repeated subtraction, around class II. Then they learn the procedures for short and long division. As children get more practice performing division in classes III and IV, they gain a deeper understanding of terms like ‘quotient’ and ‘remainder.’ Children also realize that some numbers are exactly divisible by others, while others are not. Once they have acquired a hold of division of whole numbers, children’s understanding of division becomes even more layered as they are exposed to fractional numbers. With whole numbers, a child knows that you end up with a smaller number when you divide it. How does the child make sense of the fact that when you divide three-quarters by a quarter, you get three? The concept of division gets more nuanced as children are introduced to decimal numbers and the world of rational and irrational numbers.

Thus, as the child progresses through higher grades, his/her understanding of division gets more complex. Likewise, if you are studying the structure of carbon or polynomials or the relationship between inflation and interest rates, your understanding of these concepts will be rudimentary at first but will grow more refined as you encounter it in different chapters and study related concepts. So, while understanding is never an end-state, you may still improve your current understanding by using the following techniques.

When you read a chapter from your chemistry or economics textbook, ask yourself if most of it makes sense to you. If you understand the meaning behind what you read, then you should be able to state it in your own words. You may realise that you comprehend the gist of the chapter but are confused by certain details. A second reading often helps clear up confusions. In order to make sure that you understand and remember factual and supporting details, you may read and summarize one subsection at a time.

Another effective way to bolster your grasp of the material is to ask questions as you read the text. If you are able to frame questions, your ability to answer them will also improve. Moreover, see if you can devise different types of questions including some that require higher-order thinking. Typically, these questions cannot be answered directly from the material given in the text. Rather, the student has to apply what is described in another context or make an inference that is not explicitly stated.

One of the most effective methods to improve your understanding is to teach the material to someone else. You may either study with a friend and explain sections to each other, or you may just pretend that you are teaching someone else. As you try to explain a concept to another person, even an imaginary one, you may notice gaps in your own understanding, which you can then fill by asking your friends or teachers relevant questions.

Further, for some subjects and concepts, you can only gain understanding by doing. Maths is a prime example where you learn primarily by working out sums. Passively reading the examples in your text or notebook is simply not enough. Likewise, you have to balance equations in chemistry, and solve physics problems on your own.

Explore

According to educationists, Tina Blythe and David Perkins, “understanding is a matter of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence in examples, generalising, applying, making analogies and representing the topic in new ways.”

Thus, you can enhance your comprehension of a subject by looking at it from various angles and performing different exercises that allow you to penetrate it at varying depths.

Further, as you fathom a topic at increasingly deeper levels, you may find that your curiosity about it also increases. You will then realise that understanding is an eternal journey filled with hurdles but laden with umpteen surprises.

The author is Director, Prayatna.

Ignite Your Imagiantion

Posted by admin on 13th October and posted in Book Club

IGNITE YOUR IMAGINATION

RADHIKA MENON

The amount of time children spend using various technology, including computers, cell phones, video games and MP3 players among others, is setting off alarms.  The fear is not only that this technology is replacing physical and imaginative play, but that it also may be diminishing development of social skills.  Further, kids rarely get bored these days as all they have to do is click a mouse or press a remote if they have nothing to do.

 The September session of the book club in Chennai was explored boredom and creativity, and how the two are linked together.

The book for this session was What Will You Give Me? by Nandini Nayar.  As the story was read, the teachers handed over materials like papers, strings, cardboard paper, clay, etc.  The protagonist in the story keeps asking his mother, “What will you give me?”  As his mother keeps providing him with ordinary items like a paper, cardboard, crayon etc., the boy transforms each item by working imaginatively.  Likewise, the kids at PRAYATNA were also deeply engaged as each one cut, stuck and coloured.

This was a fun gathering not only for the kids as they were experimenting with the materials, but for the teachers as well to watch the kids come out with attractive forms and shapes. Children’s faces brightened up towards the end as each one realized that getting bored is actually not boring!

(Radhika Menon is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

 

A Mind of My Own

Posted by admin on 11th October and posted in Book Club

A Mind of My Own

Karuna Davis

Most of us read stories from the beginning and then make our way to the end.  Some of us on the other hand, are of a different bent of mind.  We would rather find out how the book ends before we decide that it is worth our effort reading it.  Which way appeals more to you?  Is there more than one way of doing it?

 

In the book Chester’s Way, by Keven Henkes, Chester has his own way of doing things.  He always cuts his sandwiches diagonally and only gets out of his bed on the same side, everyday.  He never leaves his house without double knotting his shoes and has a myriad of other such practices.  While his mother concludes that he certainly has a “Mind of his own”, his father points out that that is “One way to put it.”  His friend, Wilson too is exactly like him and that’s why they are friends!

 

Lilly is different.  When she moves into their neighbourhood, Chester and Wilson assume they can’t be friends with her because she seems so strange to them.  She always carries a squirt gun and never leaves the house without an ingenious disguise.  Soon enough, one day her bizarre way of doing things saves them from bullies.  Something changes.  Chester and Wilson begin to find that Lilly isn’t as odd as she seems. They are similar in some ways but it isn’t just that, they discover that sometimes her ways of doing things turns out to be such fun.  She adds a new, fresh perspective to their outlook just as much as I suppose they add to hers.

 

During the book club, we read out the story and put up pictures representing different languages, cultures, religions and interests.  We conveyed to the children that differences are okay and in fact they bring us variety, novel solutions and enrich our lives.  To recognize the value of having friends who widen our view, the children of the PRAYATNA book club brought to the session a picture of themselves along with a friend and made a frame for it.

 

So we discovered that differences needn’t always be viewed with distrust.  After all each of us has a mind of our own and would like to be accepted for who we are.  Respecting the uniqueness of others adds value to our own lives in many ways.

 

(Karuna Davis is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Write Your Blues Away

Posted by admin on 30th September and posted in Strengths

Write Your Blues Away

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

First Published in Education Plus, THE HINDU, 29 Sept 14

Each day, your anxiety ratchets up a few notches as you await your exam results. Being one of the few who were not recruited during campus placements, your morale is at an all time low. Over the past few weeks, you have been having frequent skirmishes with your parents who are equally worried about your future. You try and keep your cool but sometimes life can be overwhelming and stress can take a toll on your physical and mental well-being.

But what can you do when circumstances are beyond your control? Talking with your parents and peers only seems to stress you out further. You do not want to present a dour face to your friends who are doing well, and your parents are too agitated themselves to counsel you. So how do you deal with the gnawing tension that is simmering within you? The answer is so simple that it almost seems nonsensical. Write about your problems. Yes, you read it right. Research by psychologists suggests that writing about life experiences can have cathartic effects and can promote well-being. Sounds far-fetched? Read on.

Psychologist James Pennebaker has been investigating the therapeutic power of writing for over two decades. In a 1997 article in Psychological Science, where he provides an overall review of various studies, he claims that individuals who pen down their thoughts about emotional experiences, show “significant physical and mental health improvements.” Most studies follow a basic paradigm where individuals are asked to write about a given topic for 15 to 30 minutes for three to five consecutive days. Those who write about emotional events require fewer doctor visits than they did prior to the writing exercise; this effect has found to last for up to six months to a year in different studies. In contrast, a control group that writes about superficial topics does not show similar gains in health. Likewise, writing about upsetting events, while initially distressing, promotes well-being in the long term. Interestingly, students who were in the emotional writing group got better grades in the months right after the study.

In another overview of expressive writing studies, published in 2005 in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, authors Karen Baike and Kay Wilhelm list specific health benefits like better lung and liver function, lower blood pressure and enhanced immune functioning. Other benefits involve less absenteeism from work, enhanced performance in sports and better working memory, which refers to the number of items a person can hold in his or her mind so that they can be manipulated if required.

In order for expressive writing to have positive outcomes, you must ensure that what you write remains confidential as you do not want to be judged by it. Further, do not worry about the technical aspects of writing like spelling, grammar and punctuation. What is important is that you process your deepest feelings and thoughts about emotional issues that have impacted you.

While all of the above studies used a similar writing paradigm of asking subjects to record their heartfelt and intense responses, there is another form of journaling that is also associated with beneficial outcomes. In a paper published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology in 2003, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough found that people who maintained a weekly gratitude journal, where they listed five things, either great or small, that they were thankful for, were more optimistic about their life. Further, when participants did this exercise daily, they were more likely to report that they helped another person. In another study, published in the Journal of Writing Research in 2009, Steven Toepfer and Kathleen Walker examined the impact of writing three letters of gratitude over an eight-week period. Participants, who were all college students, were asked to write letters to people who they felt grateful to in a significant way. The researchers found that students who engaged in this exercise experienced greater subjective well-being.

Now that the evidence has been presented for you, perhaps it is time to make those diary entries and write more thank you letters. For the next few weeks, try maintaining a journal where you jot down what you are grateful for. It could be anything from the lofty to the mundane. Or, surprise a family member or close friend with a letter where you voice your heartfelt appreciation. If you feel your well-being improves as a result, it won’t take much to keep up these exercises. However, if you feel that your miseries and misgivings are causing mental mayhem and preventing you from acting in positive ways, don’t hesitate from seeking professional help.

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA.)

Touching Lives

Posted by admin on 15th September and posted in Book Club

Touching Lives

Bhavna R

 

Teachers play a pivotal role in a child’s life.  They are present in all spheres of the child’s world.  With Teacher’s Day right around the corner, we at PRAYATNA, Chennai, decided that we would highlight the importance of our mentors.  As a teacher you are expected to fulfill many duties.  Mere teaching is not just the sole purpose of an educator.

 

This book club our team decided to spell out some of the responsibilities of teachers.  We spoke about our favourite teacher and how he or she touched our lives.  While speaking, we stressed on how they performed an action that has earned them a special place in our hearts.  One of us recounted how her teacher’s reassuring grace helped her through dejection when she was denied participation in an annual day show.

 

Verbs denoting various expectations and duties of a teacher were put up on the board and they were explained through a reading of the book “If I were a Teacher”.  The books illustrations brought alive the purpose of an educator.

 

The kids at the book club were enthusiastic and spoke of their favourite teacher.  They explained why they liked him or her.  We learned from this that innovativeness is a quality loved by students.  Our kids seem to stress on this fact repeatedly while talking about their favourite teacher.  We touched upon another important fact as well that, teachers are humans too.  Their moods often affect how they react to people around them.  Children engaged in an interesting role play.  Roles were reversed and the children became the teacher.  They enacted how a teacher in a good mood and a bad mood would react to situations encountered in a classroom setting.  This brought out latent acting talents of the kids.

 

The book club wrapped up with the kids making a greeting card for their teacher.  The children left PRAYTANA excited.  They were keen to celebrate the efforts of their teachers on 5 September.

 

(Bhavna R is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Globe Trotting

Posted by admin on 28th August and posted in Book Club

Globe Trotting

By Supriya

As the title suggests, this book club was inspired by the classic tale of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.  The session started with a skit wherein the scene where Phineas Gage makes a wager that he can traverse the world in 80 days was enacted.

 

The purpose of this session was to convey the idea that travelling has evolved over the ages.  In earlier times, travelling around the world was a herculean task.  However, advances in technology over the centuries have made it easier for us to navigate around the world in a shorter span of time.  To order for children to understand how we have progressed with regard to travel, we used a time line.  We traced this journey starting from the humble potter’s wheel to wheels of carriages to motor cars to airplanes.  During the book club, we also highlighted the various modes of transport on land, water and air.

 

For children to appreciate how much we have progressed, we asked them to estimate the time taken to travel between metros in India by road, rail and air today.  This activity was very interactive with each child wanting to have a turn.  Another interesting activity involved dividing the kids into three groups.  Each group was given a globe.  Their mission was to set an itinerary for a voyage across the globe.  They were asked to describe their route and modes of transport.  This game saw enthusiastic participation with one group in Egypt and another in London.

 

Keeping in mind the theme, the board depicted various modes of transport including animals, hot air balloons, ships, trains, helicopters and airplanes.  Travelling around the world widens our horizons as distances have shrunk and faraway places have become more accessible.  As a take-away gift, children were given a world map.  The world indeed has grown smaller with time.

 

(Supriya is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

 

Can there be a

Posted by admin on 13th August and posted in Strengths

Can there be a bright side to trauma?

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

First published in Mint, 4 August 14

Receiving a cancer diagnosis, losing a limb, surviving a brutal terrorist attack, outliving a child—for most of us, these events signify heart-rending loss and overwhelming grief. Even though we shirk from even imagining ourselves in such calamitous situations, life, alas, is not so benign. At some point, we will find ourselves face to face with adversity. That negative life events typically cause immeasurable strain is recognized by both laypersons and mental health professionals; in fact, after a shattering event, some people develop “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), which is now a bona-fide psychological disorder. However, while some people succumb to the throes of anguish, others not only bounce back but also emerge stronger. Knowing that we may be positively transformed by trauma can help us see the other side of death, devastation and destruction. The term “post-traumatic growth” (PTG) was coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. In an article in a 2004 issue of the journal Psychological Inquiry, they define it as “positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances”. Interestingly, PTG does not merely mean a return to a person’s baseline level of functioning prior to the catastrophe; rather, it involves an enhancement of the person’s life, relationships or work. In their research, Tedeschi and Calhoun have identified five domains under which PTG typically occurs. After going through a shattering crisis, some people gain a “greater appreciation of life” and reorient their priorities according to their altered goals. Others may experience enhanced quality of relationships while some may tread on new life paths. A few people become stronger as individuals, while others feel renewed spiritually. The authors are careful to point out that “growth does not necessarily signal an end to pain or suffering”. Even though they do not yet have the evidence to support their counterintuitive claim, Tedeschi and Calhoun hypothesize that less resilient people may be more inclined to experience PTG as stronger people have the resources to cope with tragedy better. So, more vulnerable people may experience growth as a result of “their struggle with trauma”. Among this set, some who were extroverted and more open to new experiences prior to the trauma, are more likely to experience PTG. Having a supportive network of people also promotes growth. As most of us quiver at the mere thought of disaster, we may think that only a handful of trauma survivors can experience PTG, possibly those with extraordinary courage. However, research indicates that trauma can favourably alter the life of the average person. In 1987, MS Herald Of Free Enterprise, a passenger and car ferry, capsized shortly after leaving a Belgian port. In what was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history, 193 passengers and crew died. For his doctoral dissertation, which he describes in his 2012 book What Doesn’t Kill Us, psychologist Stephen Joseph interviewed the survivors both right after the tragedy and three years later. Expectedly, many of them showed evidence of great psychological distress a month after the incident. But, after three years, “43% said that their view of life had changed for the better”. Even the more horrific catastrophes can serve as a catalyst for growth. In his 2012 book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity, Andrew Solomon interviews Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan who, along with his friend, perpetrated the gruesome shooting at the Columbine High School in Colorado, US, in 1999 that killed 13 people. Losing a child is unbearable, but being in Klebold’s position would make most people recoil and shudder. Yet, despite the severe shock, shame and social ostracism that Klebold endured after the tragedy, this mother feels a greater affinity to human beings. As she says: “When I hear about terrorists in the news, I think, ‘That’s somebody’s kid.’ Columbine made me feel more connected to mankind than anything else.” Closer home, a parent of a special child says in an interview that she emerged as a stronger, bolder person after coming to terms with her daughter’s diagnosis of autism. In addition to providing her daughter with all the supporting services and stimulation she requires, she chose to leave her husband in the child’s best interests, a move she would not necessarily have made if her child was typical. Further, she feels that by caring for a special child, she has become more accepting and empathetic towards people. She advises parents in a similar situation to stop feeling sorry and explore all avenues to promote the child’s development. Sagely, she urges them to also take care of their own needs and aspirations as unfulfilled parental desires are only going to impede a child’s development. Interestingly, one of the greatest testimonies to PTG was written even before the term was coined. Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, first published in 1946, is a glowing tribute to humankind’s inner fortitude. Even as Frankl describes the gut-wrenching ordeals of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, he is able to discern dignity among decay and perceive beauty in bestial conditions. He writes that despite “the enforced physical and mental primitiveness” that characterized life in the camp, “it was possible for spiritual life to deepen”. He feels that as long as man has a purpose or a meaning that he attaches to life, he can withstand practically anything. While the guards stripped the prisoners bare, both literally and metaphorically, Frankl evocatively says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” In his book, Frankl narrates a poignant anecdote. He was talking to a woman who was on the verge of dying in the camp. Despite knowing that death was imminent, the woman remained in good spirits. She confessed to Frankl that in her former life she had been spoiled and had not cultivated her spiritual side. Looking out of the window of her hut, she pointed to a tree, saying it was her only companion. She also admitted talking to the tree. Frankl first thought that the woman might be delirious or hallucinating. When he asked her what the tree said, she answered, “I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.”

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA.)

 

 

Heal the World

Posted by admin on 5th August and posted in Uncategorized

HEAL THE WORLD

Bindu Patnala

 

This book club we read Ladder to the Moon by Maya Soetoro-Ng.  The book is a heart-warming tale of reunion between a grandmother and grandchild. The author, transported the children along with Grandma Anne and Suhaila, on a magical journey to the moon.  The session begun with an introduction to the concept of natural calamities and their effects, along with photos of each disaster.

The book focussed on events that have affected people across the world and reaffirms our common humanity reminding us that loved ones lost are always with us, and that sometimes we need only look at the moon and remember.  Grandma Annie along with Suhaila and the kids at PRAYATNA embarked on this magical journey to the moon where Grandma Annie encourages Suhaila to use each of her five senses to reach out to the rest of the world. Together they find people in trouble, trembling in earthquakes, trying to outswim tsunamis, and praying for peace.  Annie and Suhaila reach down from the moon to offer their solace and comfort as they bring these people up, making the moon brighter for all to see.

The teachers mimed the story as it was read.  The props used for the story were welcomed with giggles by the children, who found the thought of imagining a white sheet as the moon amusing.  The children were enthralled by the story.

Though children found the import of term “natural disaster” challenging, they understood it by the end of the book reading.  They enacted a role play of their own depicting the concept.  They made a sincere effort to showcase the affects, damage and chaos during a natural disaster.  Three groups depicted different disasters.

The role play was followed by a discussion of disaster management and how it helps in dealing with and avoiding risks.  Topics such as the kind of help that can be provided during natural calamities and what children can do to help the people in distress were touched upon.  Then were then told about organizations like WHO, UNICEF and Red Cross and the wonderful work done by these organisations towards society.

Children then came up with ideas such as donating money and clothes when asked what they could do as members of the society to help minimize the loss of people affected.   They were also told how they could make a difference with their gestures such as organizing a school fund raiser, or by conducting small community events such as bake sale, or organizing a walk or run.

The children were given message cards to take home, which said “Together We Can Make a Difference.” to send across the message that each one of us can make a difference, and together we make change.

(Bindu Patnala is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Temper! Temper!

Posted by admin on 17th July and posted in Book Club

Temper! Temper!

Divya Suresh

 

Anger is an emotion that makes the best of us see red.  It manifests when one perceives threat to one’s basic boundaries or is provoked to retaliate.  It is as natural an emotion as happiness but is usually viewed as a negative one that must be brought under control.  There are different levels of anger that vary from mild anger that we may refer to as irritation to the most severe kind we may describe as fury or rage.

 

A lesson in anger management is what we at the PRAYATNA Book Club in Bangalore had in store for the children in the first session of our new term.  For this purpose we sought the help of Sophie, the main character of the book we had chosen called, When Sophie gets angry- really really angry by Molly Bang.  The book tells the story of a little girl named Sophie who had a bit of a problem controlling her anger.  So when her play gets interrupted, Sophie gets so wild that she wants to smash the world to smithereens and feels like she may explode like a volcano.  And so she leaves her home and runs away to the woods where she derives the calm and relief she seeks from the sights and sounds of the forest and soothing movements of the waves of the sea and the gentle breeze.  She then returns home in a peaceful frame of mind.

 

The Book Club board was done up with the picture of a volcano erupting with synonyms of the word ‘anger’.  We started off by asking the children about times when they got angry and what they did in those times to calm themselves.  We outlined the physiological reactions that anger sets off such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, and other reactions like feeling hot in the face, gritting one’s teeth, glaring and so on.  Role plays elucidating the constructive and destructive aspects of anger were enacted.

 

Following the book reading, we proceeded to discuss the different shades of anger that the synonyms on the board brought forth and helped the children form sentences to effectively bring out the shades of meaning.  To wrap up the book club session, we explained the importance of controlling one’s anger through the ‘Traffic Light Model’, developed by Roger Weissberg of Yale University.  Using this model, where red stands for stop, amber for think and green stands for act, children are taught to first assess a situation before acting in haste.

 

The children bid goodbye taking home with them traffic signals which we hope will serve as reminders to them to ‘Think before they act.’

 

(Divya Suresh is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

All Children Are Special

Posted by admin on 14th July and posted in Strengths

All Children are Special

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

(First published in Mint, 1 July 14)

-“You always give Atul the bigger piece.”

 

-“I know you like Mira more than me.”

 

-“Why should I always be the one who gives in?”

 

Most parents sigh in exasperation when their efforts to play fair with their children don’t meet with success. Typically, one child feels like the underdog no matter how much you try to parcel out your attention, love and support evenly.

 

Parental love may be immeasurable, but you have to exhibit it among other competing demands. As long as you ensure that all your children are loved and cared for, children usually take the all-rounder brother or the more talented sister in their stride. But what if one of them has special needs? Given that you would spend an inordinate amount of time and emotional energy in catering to the needs of the special child, how would you react when the other sibling accuses you of being negligent or remiss in your duty as a parent?

 

Family dynamics are complex and unique. And, contrary to what parents may want to believe, children are not created equal. Even in families where all the children fall under the “normal” spectrum, there is wide variation in terms of abilities, proclivities and personalities. Parents may swear that they don’t compare their children, but comments like “Rima is the patient one” or “David is the athlete” send a clear message. Ironically, in families with a special child, these inequities get both amplified and nullified as the siblings usually cannot be gauged by the same yardstick. Thus, a parent may berate Sheila, the typically developing eight-year-old, for getting her division sums wrong while lauding Kunal, the 10-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, for neatly printing his full name. By understanding the impact a special child has on a family, parents can take proactive steps to cater to the unstated needs of their typical children as well.

 

In a 2008 study published in the Journal Of Intellectual Disability Research, researchers in Western Australia interviewed over 300 parents of children with either Down’s or Rett’s Syndrome (the latter, a severe type of autism) on the effect of disability in siblings. Parents reported both benefits and drawbacks on their typically developing children.  Among the major disadvantages cited, parents bemoaned that they spent less time with the typical child as the special child demanded more attention. In addition, the family often had to forego socialization and other outings and adhere to a fixed routine. Often, parental stress from caring for the special child rubbed off on the non-disabled one too. And some parents felt guilty that their young child was already saddled with the burden of caring for his/her special sibling.

 

On the plus side, parents identified many advantages. They felt that their typically developing children were more tolerant of disability or difference and more compassionate than their peers. Most children also developed a heightened sense of empathy and were perceived as more mature and patient than other children their age. In addition to chipping in to care for the special child, these children also appreciated their own life to a greater degree and did not take their abilities and gifts for granted.

 

Share love, feelings

In her 2002 book, Special Siblings: Growing Up With Someone With A Disability, Mary McHugh provides an evocative first-person account of what it is like to grow up with a younger brother who is mentally challenged. Besides sharing her candid feelings, McHugh also interviews people who have a sibling with a disability. Often, children have ambivalent feelings about themselves and their brother or sister.

 

On the one hand, the child may resent a special sibling because he or she practically usurps all the parental attention and energy. But, at the same time, the child may also put inordinate pressure on herself to achieve stellar heights in order to “make up” for the disabled sibling, who may not reach conventional milestones. Interestingly, about one-third of the siblings that McHugh interviewed chose careers in the service professions, while many others either volunteered or were advocates for social causes.

 

In their 2012 best-selling book, Siblings Without Rivalry—How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, communication experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish caution parents against casting children into roles, even if a child has special needs. Foremost, as children have differing needs, they advise parents that children do not have to be treated equally. Instead, they advocate treating every child uniquely.

 

Thus, when children are fighting over who got the bigger piece of cake, ask the children, “Is anybody still hungry? There are some biscuits in the tin.” Do not encourage comparisons by saying, “Both your pieces are equal.” When children accuse you of loving the sibling more, list out the unique qualities that you love in the child.

Secondly, children with special needs should not be viewed as “problem” children. Instead, parents may accept each child’s frustrations, appreciate what they can do and focus on finding solutions to navigate their challenges. This will help children to not cast themselves in either a “victim” or “perfect child” role.

 

Faber and Mazlish also recommend that each parent should spend some time alone with each child several times a week if possible. During this “special time”, make sure that you devote your attention to the child you are spending time with, without referring to the other child. In addition to bonding with the child, carving out this time communicates that you value each child for his or her individuality.

 

In her book, McHugh quotes Debra Lobato, a developmental psychologist, who encourages parents to debrief their typically developing child about the problems that their sibling has in an age-appropriate manner. Moreover, parents must also involve siblings in discussions on how long-term care can be provided to the special child after the death of the parents. As McHugh convincingly writes: “The most important factor here is how the parents react to a child with a disability.” If the parents adopt an optimistic world view regarding their special child, the rest of the family is likely to mirror the same positivity.

 

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.

 

 

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