Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by Ralph Jemmott
Mrs. Sandy Field-Kellman often makes an impassioned plea for children with learning challenges. Hers is a genuine concern in the sense that too often children’s learning “disorders” and “disabilities” go undetected and consequently unattended.
I have just finished re-reading a small 32-page booklet entitled Learning Disorders and Disabilities: A Guide for Parents.
The author is Dr. Martin Baren, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine. The small text makes some distinction between learning “disorders” and “disabilities”.
Disorders, says the author, relate to problems originating in the brain, the central nervous system. This, I think, implies that the issues are primarily physiological and quite deep-rooted. Such issues may severely affect a child’s learning ability, including vital capacities to listen and speak. They often continue into adulthood.
Disabilities, the author seems to suggest, may be less severe but certainly more prevalent. Professor Baren defines a disability as a learning problem that “results in a significant difference between a child’s natural ability (I.Q.) and his or her level of achievement.” It has always amazed
me that relatively little I.Q. measurement is done in Barbados.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as we prepare for the 2023 Common Entrance Examination, our Ministry of Education has not released the across the board results of the 2022 test. Top secret, one supposes.
We want to reform education, but the citizens may not even know exactly what it is that we are about to reform and how, why and with what potential outcomes.
Formal education is about three things. The first is inputs, the second is process, and the third is outputs, outcomes, or results. What matters most is the output – whether persons are or are not learning in both the cognitive and affective domains.
Martin Baren’s text suggests that as many as 25 per cent of children do poorly in school because of all types of learning disorders and disabilities.
He asserts that “large numbers of children are never diagnosed or treated and many of these children suffer in school both academically and socially.” In Barbados, we are beginning to see the social and economic consequences.
I am very sympathetic to Mrs. Field-Kellman’s advocacy, but one issue I sometimes have with her calls to Brass Tacks is that she hardly ever identifies precisely the problem the children she deals with are experiencing.
She recognises children are reaching age eleven but cannot read. Her tendency is to blame “the system”. The term “system” is one that covers a multitude of sins and sinners. These could include the Education Ministry, the schools, principals and teachers, the parents and the perverse influences of the wider society that educated children to less than desirable ends.
Truth be told, there is enough blame to go around. Learning problems may include visual, hearing and motor handicaps, mental retardation, emotional disturbances plus environmental, socio-cultural and economic-material disadvantages. We live in a very imperfect world. Too often, schooling is discussed as if it were separate from the realities of everyday life.
As we all know, some children come into this life with severe disadvantages. A welfare worker went to see her client, who came to the worker’s car smoking a spliff.
The welfare recipient was well advanced in her pregnancy. When asked why she was smoking, and told of the potential dangers to the unborn child, she replied she smokes the stuff ‘all the time.’
Children born to alcohol-consuming mothers may suffer foetal alcohol syndrome with severe retarding effects on their cognitive development.
Severe material poverty, where children from birth lack the required nutrition, also suffer slow cognitive growth because of defects in the synapses, the interlocking and enveloping tissue in nerve cells in the brain.
I know that some attempts are made to check for children’s physical defects like sight and hearing. Invariably, the children whose problems are addressed are those whose parents are better off and can afford diagnosis and treatment.
More needs to be done.
This is primarily the responsibility of the teachers and the parents for perceiving what ails the child. Tests must be done on any child who is perceived to have a physical trait that inhibits cognitive development. Treatment is not cheap, but failure is also expensively consequential.
One of the most shocking events in my teaching experience was invigilating a Common Entrance Exam sometime in the 1980s. One student, a boy, did nothing on the English paper but write the letter O.
He was not physically disabled as, following the test, he ran from the room with great alacrity. I could not understand what the problem was and why a child like that would be sent to do that exam. My thoughts often turn to that boy and wonder what became of him. Education is far more complex than persons often imagine.
There are systemic issues in education that could be somewhat remedied. Children with disabilities need special attention from teachers equipped to handle their special needs.
Despite the often repeated claims that each child matters and each should be allowed to develop its capacities to the highest level, whatever those potentialities are, the historical tendency is to privilege the academically gifted child over the less able. Thus, slower learners who need greater individual expert attention are often crammed in the D streams in large numbers of 25 or more to a class, where many become scholastically submerged.
This is often blamed on the Eleven Plus, but abolishing that exam will not in itself make a difference. There will still be slow learners who need special attention. Mrs. Kellman stated recently that she supports mixed ability classes.
The late Dr. Leonard Shorey once expressed a similar point of view.
One wonders what level of cognitive mix they are talking about. Why would you put the girl who last year scored 100 per cent in English and Maths with a Grade A in the Essay in the same class with one who scored below 20? To what end? This is often little more than social posturing.
Education is about equality of opportunity, not about equality of outcome. Many today like to pander as socio-economic egalitarians even when their lifestyles indicate that they are anything but.
Another systemic problem is that for decades the Barbados Ministry of Education employed only one psychologist for the entire system, even when it was evident that the society, for a variety of reasons, was producing an increasing number of children with psycho-educational difficulties.
Perhaps the most common disability is Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. It is a condition that affects mostly, but not exclusively, boys. Professor Baren states that up to one-third of children with ADHD have learning disabilities that affect their academwic performance. Ritalin used to be one medicine most used to counter ADHD.
Years ago, Time, or was it Newsweek, carried an edition which expressed concern that Ritalin was being over prescribed in the USA. The perhaps good thing about ADHD is that many children grow out of the condition. The not so good thing is that if it goes on for too long, it may retard children’s ability to catch up.
I would conclude by mentioning two other factors that can retard educational achievement. One is family breakdown, the other is cultural poverty. I once taught a boy whose scholastic performance began to decline.
He moved from where he usually sat to the end of the classroom. When his mother came to the form-level meeting, I stated I had observed a change in him. The mother said she did not want to bother me with her personal woes but notified me that she and her husband were divorcing.
In another case, a boy was “acting up”. His mother said the boy’s problem is that he wants the mother and father to get back together, but she concluded ‘that is not going to happen.’ In another case, a boy was experiencing some health issues that kept him out of school intermittently. I asked the mother, (it’s invariably the mothers in attendance) what about his father? Rather shyly, she replied, ‘He is not in the picture.’ Enough said.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.