Expert: Leigh Dunn

By admin
18 February 2013

Mr Leigh Michael Dunn of Formosa Primary School in Plettenberg Bay specialises in the Educational Life Skills Programme (ELS) for learners with special needs.

His learners come from all socioeconomic groups and their challenges include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fetal alcohol syndrome, visual handicaps and autism.

What can teachers with limited resources do to help children with special needs?

It’s always such an honour for me to organise fundraisers at our school and often by also approaching local NGOs we acquire and supplement appropriate educational games and resources for our learners. As educators we’re all used to getting by with the minimum in our classes. South African educators especially are characterised by their drive and hard work, which is why we’re so highly regarded when we work overseas – something I have first-hand experience of. It’s our passion and that, not funding or resources, is what makes the difference.

The other day I motivated my learners to pick up beer bottle tops, which we used to make new music instruments for our next concert. Children are always more than willing to help, and most local businesses will do anything in their power to promote education, especially in their communities.

When a teacher isn’t specifically educating learners with special needs and a learner in the class has ADHD, for example, how can the teacher ensure the learner makes sufficient progress? On 8 May 2012 our National Parliament emphasised the implementation of inclusive education in South Africa, and we’re working to make every school in our country a fully inclusive school. The term “inclusive” means to “include” children who are different and have alternative learning needs – for example, hyperactive or ADHD children – or “make them part” of the curriculum and all programmes in the classroom. Those children’s concentration can be maintained by:

  • Getting them to sit close to the educator.
  • Asking them to carry out easy tasks so they are praised a lot (if the instructions, task or homework is too long they will lose interest).
  • Keeping them busy with day-to-day tasks such as opening the windows.
  • ADHD children like being on their own because it makes them feel important, so create a “private cubicle” or let them do something solo, such as in the “reading corner”.
  • I also have a series of calming exercises for ADHD children and, to make them more fun, I get the entire class to join in.

In my experience, when an educator makes those learners feel special, they feel important, which will stimulate their interest in the work and the children will definitely start doing much better.

Last year, in my class, even the Education Department’s social service provider was amazed at the progress a special-needs child had made and how ability to concentrate had improved without medication and just through daily life and personal attention.

A reader has an autistic son. He’s in a standard kindergarten but hasn’t been advanced to Grade R because he can’t yet write or talk normally. Apparently he’s very bright. How can the reader help her son?

There are varying levels of autism. Some autistic children can’t talk at all, others struggle to communicate, and still others have various kinds of communication and social challenges. All autistic children must first build a trust relationship with the person teaching them or anyone else. Those children fare better with one-on-one contact, for example, with a full-time assistant. Educators or assistants must first win the children’s trust and respect their personal preferences – for example, some autistic kids don’t like loud noises and others don’t like to be touched. Building their trust is a long process; if you don’t, you’ll get nothing out of them. Often they’re really intelligent but can’t express their emotions, feelings and preferences.

I have a toy telephone in my class. It’s allowed an autistic child who didn’t want to talk to me to start communicating with enjoyment. I also have an iPad and iPhone app called “Talking Tom”. It’s a cat that repeats everything we say to the screen. We don’t have to have modern technologies such as computers and iPads in the class to make it possible because “Talking Tom” can be loaded on a cellphone.

There is no medication to cure autism. It takes lots of perseverance, love and patience.

How do you incorporate games and art when you teach special-needs children?

I use a multidisciplinary education programme every day. It incorporates art, music and all sorts of games that promote fine and gross motor skills. Through it I focus on the child’s interests and, for example, I present a maths class using art. After all, art has to do with mathematical concepts such as differences, texture, depth, colour, form and space. The learners and I really enjoy it.

I also use music therapy, which is the learning of important life lessons through music, rhythm and sound. The first way newborns start to learn is through communication, play and fantasy, which is why we do it in class every day.

I use lots of picto programmes, especially for the autistic children in my class, so drawing is part of our learning programme. [Developmental psychologist Jean] Piaget’s theory explains children’s development and the development phases of the learning process. According to him, children aged seven, even to 11, should draw every day and come into contact with concrete objects such as toy cars. I make this possible each day in my learning programmes inside and outside the classroom.

How important is your relationship with the parents of special-needs children?

By making children happy you automatically get their parents on your side, especially in the case of learning-disabled kids, because parents are very overprotective of them. That trust relationship, first with the children and through that with their parents, is essential.

I have the contact details of every parent of every one of my learners on my cellphone. Not every learner in my class has a TV or computer at home but every parent has a cellphone. Parents enjoy and appreciate getting feedback from the educator. It shows our interest even on weekends, holidays and on special days such as the children’s birthdays.

What can parents of special-needs children do to help them with their homework?

The best thing parents can do is treat special-needs kids like 100 per cent normal children. My learners are given homework every day. Even if they do the same thing over and over again every day, the parents feel happy their children are trying. I send each one of my learners home with a Picture Dictionary as part of their homework programme. That way if they can’t read the words they at least recognise the picture and so return to class confident in the knowledge they understand the homework.

Is there a website or government programme teachers can consult for advice or resources for special-needs learners?

We started the www.elsensa.co.za website with the aim of providing advice and ideas, especially to educators and special schools, because there is still no government programme available.

How does one change children’s self-images and attitudes to school?

When learning-disabled children are accommodated in a mainstream school, such as at our school where the ELS class is part of normal school, they get used to being part of an ordinary or normal community. Sometimes they’re teased but there’s always someone on hand (the educator, class assistant or even their friends) to defend them. Not that they can’t defend themselves. Learning disabled children are quick to fight precisely because they find it difficult to express themselves verbally. Because they usually receive so much love and acceptance in a special class it’s easy for them to develop a positive attitude to school.

Inclusive education proposes these learners also be accommodated in mainstream classes. It’s then important they are never belittled but always spurred on and encouraged. Their love of school will depend on our attitude. We as educators can make or break such a child and I would love to make a positive change in their lives because “to teach is to touch a life forever”.

In addition

With even a tiny bit of encouragement anything is possible. That’s why I always remind myself that “even the smallest star can shine in the darkness”. Even that child we sometimes feel can do nothing can improve so much with just a little encouragement from our side.

We live in stressful times in which our children are exposed each day to challenging situations such as drug abuse and gangs. It’s a time in which there are few good role models in many families and communities. So let us never get tired or discouraged and always remember we are their role models and often provide the only smile or hug that child will get that day.

As educators we must also strive to make our lesson programmes more fun. When children enjoy something, and when they laugh, they remember things for much longer. Many of my learning-disabled children have returned to mainstream education where they’re doing well. Even if according to the school psychologist a child has perhaps an IQ of only 60, I can prove EQ (emotional intelligence) is far better than IQ. When children enjoy what they do they will do the best they can and achieve success. Children who receive love, acceptance and positive attention every day don’t only progress and develop academically but also on a social level. Their self-confidence improves and, at the end of the day, they will become well-developed citizens of our country.

You come to love every one of these children so much you forget about their disabilities, their colour, race or background. They are just as wonderful and just as much of an honour to work with as the children who could be our future world leaders.

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