When learning is a mountain to climb

Jaya Supermaniam conducting online lessons using as many learning aids as possible. — Photos: LOW LAY PHON/The Star

WORKING and learning from home became the new normal this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Students are generally attending school through online platforms.

However, for children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, their challenges are greater as they need more focused attention to follow lessons.

Teachers and parents are putting in double efforts to educate these children during the restrictions under the movement control order.

As most children with dyslexia are found to have a penchant for arts, crafts and music, their educators incorporate these creative fields into their teaching process.

Parents with dyslexic children in the Klang Valley have the necessary equipment to enable them to continue learning during the MCO, but still it has been challenging as these children fare better in a classroom setting with their trained teachers.

Dayana says her son Ariq has trouble staying focused when lessons are held online.Dayana says her son Ariq has trouble staying focused when lessons are held online.

Dayana Elrin Jamaluddin, 35, is worried about her son’s education as there is no school for him to attend in person.

“My son attended classes at Malaysia Dyslexia Association (MDA) since November last year. He made good progress.

“Then due to the MCO, he has to learn online but he cannot focus through this method. He cannot concentrate even if the online lesson is just between him and his teacher.

“My fear is he will forget all that he has learned before the MCO if he does not go to school, ” she said.

Her son, Ariq Aramy Danish Mohd Zamri is seven and is outspoken.

Choy took up a degree programme in special needs education to help her sons.Choy took up a degree programme in special needs education to help her sons.

However, he used to refuse learning because of his inability to read. With intervention and encouragement to focus on his interest such as drawing, he is showing progress.

“He always turned his head away when we showed him words and he lost interest in school until we diagnosed his condition, ” Dayana recalled.

“When he was six, he used to communicate with me while I was at work through his brother’s phone using only emojis.

“He would send an emoji of a cake if he wanted one, or a lollipop if he wanted that.

“Now I teach him at home after work and he can identify words, ” she said.

“I will ask him what he wants to do for the day. If he wants to swim, I allow him to swim in the mini inflatable pool. If he wants to do art, I let him. This way, we do not overstress him with just academics, ” she added.

Mother-of-three Dr Choy Su-Ling, 40, said her sons — a pair of twins aged eight, and their 10-year-old brother — have learning disabilities.

She said her children’s schoolwork had piled up since home learning began during the MCO because they were much slower in completing their homework, but she diligently helped them.

When her children’s condition was diagnosed, Choy took pragmatic steps by closing down her public relations firm and furthering her studies in special needs education.

Now she assists her children at home. She is also a teacher at a dyslexia centre using the Orton-Gillingham approach whereby learning and teaching are done using the auto sensory method.

“At first I grieved over their loss of opportunities in life because of their condition. My oldest son has dyslexia and dysgraphia, which means he cannot identify words and has writing difficulties.

“One of my twins has dyslexia and mild autism while the other has dyslexia and speech delay, ” she shared.

“I teach my children daily, after completing online lessons as a teacher. It is challenging with three children, ” said Choy who now celebrates every small achievement.

Meanwhile, she has noticed amid the MCO that some parents have let their children drop out of online classes for students with learning disabilities.

“My children take much longer to complete just one passage and they have so much pending homework, but I cannot rush them, ” she said.

She reminded parents with special children that they should not compare with the milestones of an average child, especially during trying times such as now.

“Have realistic expectations and celebrate any progress.

“Do spend more time with those in similar situations as they can be a great support system, ” she advised.

Choy said having the right learning intervention would enable at least 70% of dyslexic children to join the normal school system eventually.

“Many make the child memorise words but those with dyslexia do better memorising the sound of the letters and words, ” she said.

Josielyn (second from right) says art helps to boost the self-esteem of her sons.  With her are her husband Vijay Pillay and her children (from left) Kushal, Arysha and Siddartha.Josielyn (second from right) says art helps to boost the self-esteem of her sons. With her are her husband Vijay Pillay and her children (from left) Kushal, Arysha and Siddartha.

Another mother Josielyn Pillay, 34, attends programmes at MDA with her dyslexic sons aged 14 and 10.

She was teaching her older son to draw, which caught the attention of others at the association and that landed her a job as an art teacher at the activity centre last year.

She finds that the majority of children with dyslexia are creative and love art.

Hence she plans art activities to make learning fun for them during MCO.

“My eldest son was slow in his studies and would say that he could not understand anything at school.

“He was interested in art so I taught him. He shines in that aspect. He has been learning well at the association too.

“Interestingly, he is colour blind. Instead of painting the sky grey, he would paint it pink and insisted it was grey. Instead of painting green he would paint black. But we cherish his ability as he does good illustrations, ” said Josielyn.

Her younger son, she said, was forgetful about things.

“He is like Dory in Finding Nemo, the Disney animated film. We laugh over it but he is good when it comes to money. He counts money well and knows if you do not return his balance.”

As an art teacher, she created videos for parents to do activities with their children at home.

“If I do a video call, I cannot see much of what the children are doing because my lessons are art related.

“But when I record a video on what and how to draw and share it with them, they do it well. Their parents share their children’s artworks and they are impressive.

“The parents tell me their children look forward to art lessons every week, ” she said, adding that learning sessions were a time for families to bond.

Josielyn said it was important to monitor a child’s emotional state, especially during MCO.

“Sometimes people assume special needs children are stupid and lazy but that is not true.

“The key is to find out what they like and focus on that.

“Don’t ask them to become someone else. Allow them to tell you what they want.

“Since they cannot read well, parents can read stories to them. They like listening to stories. Both my children can now read and write but they are trying to master bigger story passages, ” she added.

Sariah says there are about  1,000 dyslexic students at the association’s 17 centres.Sariah says there are about 1,000 dyslexic students at the association’s 17 centres.

MDA president Sariah Amirin, 76, said the association had about 1,000 students at 17 centres nationwide.

“Our students are mostly above five years old. But we also had a 40-year-old odd-job man who came to us for help, ” she said.

Sariah, who has been with the association since 1998, was a teacher who decided to devote her retirement years to helping dyslexic children.

She defines dyslexia as a form of learning difficulty instead of a disability because it can be addressed.

“Some 90% of them can read and write following correct intervention.”

She highlighted that dyslexia varied among individuals.

“Some see the words go in circles and some cannot differentiate the letters of the alphabet, ” she said.

She added that parents wanted their special needs children to attend classes in person because they said online learning was not effective for them.

“They are always asking me when school is reopening.

“They love art and music and they look forward to all those.

“They also require a lot of teaching materials, and offline classes are ideal for them.

“But we have to continue conducting classes online, to five children at a time, ” said Sariah.

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