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Special education teacher tackles executive function disorder

Eyes open wide
Thursday, April 24, 2014
Principal of Eshe’s Learning Centre, Kitts Cadette makes a point to one of her students. Photo: MICHEAL BRUCE

When special education teacher/lecturer Kitts Cadette first heard about executive function disorder she was sceptical. Was this another attempt to put a fancy label on a simple human fault?


Attending a workshop by executive function specialist Sucheta Kamath convinced her that the disorder—which impairs a person’s ability to plan, focus and therefore achieve goals—was real and, more important, it was keeping many children and adults from fulfilling their potential. 


Now as the principal of Eshe’s Learning Centre, a special education school in Woodbrook, Cadette wants to open other teachers’ eyes to the problem of executive function disorder and other learning challenges their students may be battling.


Eshe’s is holding a two-day conference at the school on May 1 and 2 titled Hidden Disabilities: A Look Through the Microscope—Prevalence and Intervention. The conference will cover different types of learning disabilities and strategies for dealing with them. Sucheta Kamath will give the keynote address.


Eshe’s, founded 30 years ago, has held workshops for teachers before. This will be its first conference. 


The discussion is particularly relevant in light of T&T’s problems with violent crime and school indiscipline. Undiagnosed disabilities may be the reason some people don’t learn as much as they should in school. And inadequate learning is connected to anti-social behaviour in children and adults. 


Cadette said while local research isn’t available, international data supports the idea that learning disabilities are linked to delinquency and crime. 


“Usually when you have children whose academic needs are not met in the classroom it manifests itself somewhere negative,” Cadette said in a recent interview at the school, which is on Ariapita Ave.


Cadette said one of the major obstacles to diagnosing and dealing with many learning disabilities is the notion, waning but still prevalent in T&T, that only people with obvious physical or intellectual handicaps are disabled.


“Children with hidden disabilities, they look like you and I. When they look like you or I, nobody knows that there’s a challenge. So the expectation is that it is a human failing on my part, and it isn’t that something is going on here,” said Cadette, touching her head. 


Cadette tells the story of when Eshe’s founder Esla Lynch, who has dyslexia, first took the idea of the school to a Ministry of Education official who worked in special education. 


“She was told that dyslexia is a name that rich people give for the fact that their children were lazy,” said Cadette. “For him, special education was the vision impaired, the hearing impaired, the mentally retarded, and the physically handicapped…She always refers to that.”


The situation in T&T has improved a lot since then. More teachers are getting training in special education, the Student Support Services is a department of the Ministry of Education that was set up to deal with problems that may be affecting children’s ability to learn, and a special education policy paper is in the works. Cadette attended a recent stakeholder consultation meeting on the policy.


But the country still has a long way to go. 


At Eshe’s, each teacher has a maximum of 14 students per class so that students with specific challenges can be given particular attention. A typical class in a public school can be twice that number, which makes it more difficult to identify, much less give additional attention to, students who might need it.


Most of Eshe’s students are referred from public schools and are eligible for government assistance in paying school fees, but this requires a costly assessment from a psychologist. Parents who can’t afford it have to go through the public system and this can be a long process—as much as two years. 


And T&T’s political system, which sees policy and personnel changing with each new administration, can also be an obstacle to improvement. 


“Everything is so politicised,” said Cadette. Touching a copy of the special education draft policy paper, she asked: “If this present government does not win the election next year what happens to this document? Does this work come to a halt? What has happened in the past (is that new governments) put a halt to it.”


Cadette, a Trinidadian who taught students and trained teachers here before migrating, is on a two-year sabbatical from the Howard School, a 64-year-old special education institution in Atlanta, where she’d been teaching for the past 13 years. 


When the retiring Lynch asked her to be interim principal, she had reservations about leaving her job in the US. But she believes in what Eshe’s is doing and has always wanted to help the school. 


She facilitated a workshop at Eshe’s in 2012 with a colleague from the Howard School. The school partnership also saw four teachers from Eshe’s spending a week at Howard last year for training.


Howard’s assistant head, Allen Broyles, will be a presenter at the conference, and Howard teachers will help facilitate a children’s camp at Eshe’s in July that will use ideas shared in the conference. 


There’s proof among Eshe’s alumni that the sacrifice and effort are worth it. 


“Many of our students have gone on to tertiary level education, both nationally and internationally; many of our students have opened their own small businesses,” said Cadette. 


“We have produced students who are independent, successful contributors to the T&T society and the larger world.”


• For more information on the conference Hidden Disabilities: A Look Through the Microscope—Prevalence and Intervention or about Eshe’s call 622-7206.


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