ARUNA SANKARANARAYANAN | Founder and Director of PRAYATNA
PRAYATNA was established in 1998 to provide assessment & remedial support for children with learning difficulties. The centre works with children who struggle to learn in mainstream classrooms.
PRAYATNA caters to the needs of children with conditions like dyslexia, ADHD and mild forms of autism. The centre also helps children with issues of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity to regulate their behaviour by creating personalised behaviour modifications programs.
Aruna has a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Harvard University.
What/who inspired you to start PRAYATNA?
I founded PRAYATNA in 1998, when the awareness of learning difficulties was at a very nascent stage in India. Teachers and parents were often not aware of why a child was struggling to learn in mainstream classrooms. Kids were typically sent to tuition classes if they failed to perform well in class. But most tuition classes only taught what was in the school curriculum, without really understanding or analysing why a child was doing poorly in school.
As a student of psychology, I was deeply interested in how findings in cognitive and developmental psychology can be applied to education. My doctoral thesis, for which I collected data in Boston and Bengaluru, was on reading difficulties. I also received a Fellowship from the Echoing Green Foundation in New York, to set up a centre for children with learning difficulties in India. I started PRAYATNA in Bangalore, as a supportive space for children whose needs were not being met in traditional classrooms.
Please tell us more about PRAYATNA and about what it does.
PRAYATNA was started with the main aim of providing remedial instruction for children with learning difculties. In addition to assessing children and conducting remedial classes for enhancing literacy and numeracy skills, PRAYATNA has branched out in related directions. We have developed and published attractive and effective teaching aids that can be used by parents and teachers. PRAYATNA also offers a one-month course on learning difficulties that includes an intensive practicum. We also offer programs for developing children’s social and communication skills, study skills and oral language proficiency in English. The centre also conducts workshops for teachers and parents on a variety of topics related to education and parenting. We also help schools in setting up resource rooms.
What according to you, are the important things that teachers and parents should know about learning disabilities?
All kids, especially those with learning difficulties, need a nurturing and supportive environment, both at home and at school. While parents and teachers should show empathy for a child’s difficulties, they should avoid viewing the child solely through the lens of his or her disability. When a kid has a learning difficulty, we should not let that define the whole child. Instead, we should work on developing their strengths while providing intervention for their areas of difficulty. Further, we as adults, have to model resilience if we want our kids to become confident and optimistic human beings. Instead of bemoaning the fact that a child has a difficulty, we should try and support the child in every possible way so that they too can realise their dreams.
How similar or different are the teaching methodologies at PRAYATNA, as compared to mainstream schools? Kindly elaborate.
At PRAYATNA, we start from where the child is at, regardless of his or her age or grade level. After assessing a child, we work on academic skills that need to be enhanced. Instruction is typically one-on-one, and the teacher-student ratio does not exceed 1:2. We use a variety of attractive teaching aids, which have been developed in-house, to help children acquire literacy and numeracy skills. We try to follow a play-way method where kids play games that target specific academic skills. Our teachers are also sensitive to the children’s interests and other needs. For example, if a child has a short attention span and poor sitting tolerance, the teacher may use behaviour modification strategies to gradually increase the child’s ability to focus. Or, if a child is fond of horses, we may devise reading and spelling activities around the child’s interest. We are very flexible and try to adapt to the child. In addition to working on their academic skills, we try to foster a growth mindset so that all children believe that they are capable of achieving their dreams.
When a kid has a learning difficulty, we should not let that define the whole child.
Are there instances where parents have been in a state of denial, that their child is different? Kindly elaborate.
All children are unique and different. At PRAYATNA, we avoid labelling children as we want the focus to be on the child and not on the clinical label. While most parents are supportive and want to help their kid, a small minority do not recognise the need for specialised intervention. But once a kid starts showing progress, most parents are quite accepting.
All children, including those with learning disorders, are capable of learning.
How important is parent involvement in the child’s learning and education at PRAYATNA?
Parental involvement varies depending on the child and the parents. While we take care of a child’s academic skills, it helps if parents read to their child, play word games and most importantly, acknowledge the progress that a child is making. Some parents get more involved and even do our one-month course so that they can support their child’s learning at home.
How is the child’s progress assessed? Are there examinations or tests?
At PRAYATNA, we assess the child when he or she first enrols. But I would like to emphasise that assessment is not synonymous with testing. Our approach is very holistic and involves obtaining a child’s complete history and profile from the parents. We also give a questionnaire to get feedback from the school teacher. Children are assessed by a trained and compassionate examiner who also makes observations regarding various facets of the child, ranging from socio-emotional skills to oral language proficiency to attention span. The initial assessment allows us to draw up a targeted intervention plan. Subsequently, the child is re-assessed either after a few months or at the most a year, in order to gauge the child’s progress.
We should give children the space to form their own goals and dreams.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced? What helped you overcome it?
Time is a major constraint for kids these days. As kids come to us only after school hours for remedial classes, we have limited time slots available, to accommodate all kids. We try to schedule kids so that every child gets the attention that he or she needs.
What is your message for teachers and parents?
First, all children, including those with learning disorders, are capable of learning. We, as adults, have to have what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’ if we want kids to imbibe the same. Abilities and talents are not fixed in stone, and with the right kind of intervention, all children are capable of realising their potential. Second, we should give children the space to form their own goals and dreams instead of foisting our aspirations, however well-meaning they may be, on them.
What has been your most rewarding experience so far?
Every day is a rewarding experience in its own way. To see kids make small steps of progress is very gratifying. When a sullen and awkward child blossoms into a cheerful and confident one, the teachers feel really rewarded. And when parents and school teachers also recognise and acknowledge the progress that the kids have made, we feel doubly satisfied.