With Anu (Anupama Sircar), the first thing one remembers is that her human side comes across first. Not many people come across like that because a lot of people are obsessed with themselves, with what they are doing or thinking. Needless to say, it is always a pleasure to meet her because there is always something to discuss, to laugh about and in the most honest of ways. There is no artifice about her. To top it all she has a warm and ready smile, a clear way of articulating things and the humility to laugh at herself and the world. She genuinely likes people, life.
I’ve known Anu, for a long, long time now. But to put the order right, I’ve known her in-laws first. Sircar Aunty who has been a steady encouragement in my writing journey, always showing up for my book events, and always encouraging me despite all the trash I wrote and showed to her, Amit (Anu’s husband) who is always warm and welcoming and ready to discuss music and movies and good times, and Ajanta (Amit’s sister) a dear friend (and another early die-hard supporter of my improbable writing journey) who’s probably the root connection being Shobha’s friend from school. Suffice to say, I know Anu for over two decades and more now.
When I heard that she had started ‘The Learning Graph’, (spelt ‘thelearningraph’) a Remedial Therapy center for children with dyslexia and ADHD I asked her if I could visit and do an interview of hers. I had no idea what a remedial therapy center was about (did not know too much about dyslexia or ADHD either) and wanted to know more and see for myself what Anu was doing. (Another thing that you know of her is that she is the kind of a person who goes about her work and her causes with a lot of professionalism and care.) Anu was gracious enough to invite me over and give me a lot of information about the wonderful work she is doing.
The Learning Graph is a Remedial Therapy center that focuses on children with dyslexia and ADHD mainly. As one can see in the home page of the website, dyslexia is not a disability and has many advantages – with a little help it can unlock a lot of creative stuff. (I loved the way the two dys-lex-i-a’s were juxtaposed and one struck off – the one about it being an “impairment to recognise and comprehend written words” and instead, the other one, which goes like “a learning advantage and a unique ability to recognize and comprehend complex, visual patterns”.) There is a lot of information given about what dyslexia is (learning disability to comprehend or recognize written words), what causes it (runs in the family, a structural difference in the brain, requires alternate neurological pathways to develop to strengthen that part), how to recognise symptoms (http://thelearningraph.com/dyslexia-symptoms – must read this section because it has such comprehensive information), dyslexia remedy and its strengths. The Learning Graph focuses on the segment of children with a learning disability in the conventional sense, because to me, they seem equipped for something much more than what normal chaps can handle. The Learning Graph aims nobly to dream of a “world of equal opportunity for children where IQ and EQ are equally important and every child possesses the academic, social and emotional skills required to succeed in all spheres.”
Anu is a certified therapist and has completed her ‘Remedial Therapist Course’ from Ripples, an authorized center. This course is a 6 month course and is comprehensive – psychology, cognitive blocks, case studies in schools, at home, hypothetical cases. She has also added a few more certifications to learn and know more about the subject. The fact that she taught English at Bengaluru’s Vidyashilp School for a decade surely helps her to understand children and their psychology.
I asked Anu why she chose this area to work with. Anu said something that was very heartwarming – that in all her years as a teacher at school she always felt for those who struggled at the back of the class. The whole system was praising the top 5 and a whole bunch of children were being left out. I love the underdog too and identify with them, having been a backbencher all my life, so I can understand what it must mean to have someone even think such thoughts about us.
The interview then.
Q. What does ‘The Learning Graph’ do really?
Anu: We help the child improve her or his learning curve. When we say child, we specifically work with children with Learning Disability (LD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). To explain this area of work some more, there are four broad classifications in this area – Autism, Slow learners, Mentally Retarded and LD. I chose the LD space because there are many in the other two areas who are far more qualified and experienced.
Children with LD have an average IQ and belong in the category of 90-110 range. So it’s difficult to recognise symptoms. It’s just that they have a neurological dysfunction. There is no cure really but it is an established fact that with intervention and support, the condition can be remedied if the child is brought under care at the right time.
Q. What’s the philosophy behind the remedy for dyslexia?
Anu: At The Learning Graph we believe that a qualified and experienced therapist is the best help for a dyslexic student. With a structured, systematic design we promote understanding, memory recall, use of spoken and written language. We use a combination of methods such as cognitive intervention, phonics and word analysis, spelling, word recognition and oral reading fluency, grammar and syntax, text comprehension, hand-writing and study skills.
Q. What is the right time for a child to come for support?
Anu: Intervention can start at the age of 6. Typically it could take from a few months up to 2 years to see some marked improvement in the child’s abilities.
Q. And how does one identify the issue?
Anu: To identify the issue one has to be aware, and not be in denial. Children with LD are like everyone else. But they show signs like having trouble with reversals (confusing b with a d), formation of letters, spellings, reading or just being slow. Just get an assessment done and you can remedy the situation. (for more information please visit http://thelearningraph.com/dyslexia-symptoms)
One other thing I’d like to mention is that for some kids we just get an eye test done and that solves it for them. All they need is a vision therapist and nothing else.
Q. What do you do once the child comes under your care?
Anu: To start with we do a Standard IQ Assessment test – or rather we have it done at one of the centers in Hyderabad. It is done by a clinical psychologist. This test covers both IQ and education assessment and is very detailed. It costs Rs. 9000 approx. and takes time. It is done over a couple of weeks.
Unfortunately in Hyderabad there are few centers that do the testing (Ripples is one). I am considering adding testing as a service at The Learning Graph. There is a huge waiting time for parents who wish to get the test done.
Based on the Standard IQ Assessment, I prepare what we call the IEP or Individualised Education Plan. I do the IEP myself. It takes into consideration attributes like reading, writing, spelling, visual, auditory, sensory perception.
As for the age group – the child could be from 1st grade to 10th grade. Our interventions are typically for three sessions a week, one hour per session. Interventions are a combination of cognitive and academic exercises. For some learners we use the kinesthetic medium – or other mediums – based on the multiple intelligence theory.
Q. What are the services that The Learning Graph provides?
Anu: Like I mentioned above, we provide Informal Assessments, Academic Interventions (identify the problem area, prepare interventions in reading, spelling, vocabulary, creative writing etc), Cognitive Interventions (memory, attention, spatial orientation, auditory and visual perception). We also do Parent Empowerment sessions that deal with Child Management and how to track the child’s learning curve. We have a behavior modification sheet based on the ABC model where the parent keeps a record of the Antecedent (activator), Behavior and Consequence and observes what happened pre and post incident.
Q. What are the aids you use to improve the child’s learning graph?
Anu: We use several aids. Blocks, Mazes, Puzzles, Cognitive games, Reading cards (progressive), Worksheets (Anu herself developed and designed over a 100 worksheets for children), some Montessori material as well, the Fleurestein Instrumental Enrichment Kit. The children go through a well structured program that has a proper plan. Progress is monitored on a daily basis, feedback is given and child motivated for the next session. If they do well over a week, after the regular positive reinforcement that we normally give, we give them an additional incentive of a smiley score card that is up for everyone to see. The children are quite happy here. They miss other sessions but not these.
Q. How many children have you handled so far? and how has the experience been?
Anu: I completed my certification course in 2012. Unlike many others who work in schools I chose to work from home after my course. My work requires one-on-one attention. I can at best handle two at a time. So far I have handled 50 children in the past three years.
Turning them around has been the most fulfilling part of the journey. To see their improvement, their confidence, to see the sparkle in their eyes makes me happy. Many show improvement early, in two months, and most show improvement over a period of time. The longest we have had is one child who was with us for two years.
Here I want to mention that all the stakeholders need to tune into the child and their learning graph during this period for maximum effect. Parents, school have to be in line with what we are trying to achieve as well. For example if parents let the child watch television for hours on end, it will impact the work we have done. I am pretty strict at that. I prescribe that the child watches no more than 30 minutes of television. The parent must enforce discipline in the child’s interest and not give in to every whim.
Q. Do they regress sometimes?
Anu: Sometimes they do. They come back for a refresher course.
Q. What are the typical challenges you face?
Anu: All challenges I face are in dealing with parents. Most don’t accept that something is wrong with the child. Schools themselves are supposed to give certain provisions which they do not. They do just enough to show that they are doing something in that area. I’d love to see more awareness in schools to support such children, treat these children with more care and sensitivity. Schools need more resources and need to get more organized to deal with these children. All schools now have one resource person but most need more than one resource person.
Q. What are the future plans for The Learning Graph?
Anu: I am keen to expand the scope of this venture and take Remedial Therapy to economically backward children in government schools etc. For this I worked a bit with Priya Kosalaram, who works with economically backward children to help with their homework.
My big dream is to create a school for students with LD and ADHD. Hyderabad still lacks facilities for dyslexics. There are about 40 remedial therapists here – we are constantly in touch. But in Chennai there are full fledged schools that offer the entire spectrum – testing, sensory integration, remedial therapy and even a school.
Q. What are the big lessons you learned on the journey?
Anu: That these children respond most to a personal touch, that emotional bond. Call it love if you will. When you remember the name of the child, remember what they like, they are so happy. Like one kid who comes here who is so happy that I remember that she eats a dosa everyday. She loves it when I mention it to her. I talk to them about the music they listen to, movies they see, remember their birthdays and get them cupcakes, give them feedback. They love being treated with love, affection, care.
Q. What is it like in the child’s mind? Did you ever get a peek there? Their fears and apprehensions?
Anu: Yes. It’s scary for them. They know they are not able to cope and do not know how to handle it. Like some code is missing. Like this child who learned everything here and did well – he would get stressed out asking me if he would remember everything in the school, how he will remember, if it’s ok to remember one answer out of five. They feel the gap, they are scared.
Q. Who are the other specialists in the area that you work with?
A. There are vision therapists, speech therapists, sensory therapists. Sensory therapy is a big area.
Q. How has the experience changed you as a person?
A. It has made me stronger and more determined. It has certainly made me more patient. I am so charged up to do more – there’s so much work to do in this area. I love this work.
By this time some of the children started to come in. I watched Anu and her colleague deal with the children in a professional and yet gentle and encouraging manner. The children did their exercises seriously, smiling in between, getting applause for the good work. It was a fun place to be for them and one could sense that. The place has a nice, warm energy and you don’t expect anything but that from Anu.
The Learning Graph conducts events regularly – Graded Reading Program, Spelling Bee, Handwriting competitions, Reading with Expression and Fluency, Diya Making, Empowering the Parent, Fast Track Classes in Summer and Learning to Write Right, Enrichment Programs.
For further details check out the website www.thelearninggraph.com. You can reach Anupama Sircar at 99634 42662, 96182 37838 (centre) or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
The Learning Graph, Flat 201, 2nd Floor, Surya Classic Apartments, Kakatiya Hills, Madhapur, Jubilee Hills, Hyderabad.
Wonderful work Anu. I learned so much in those couple of hours I spent with you and am now that much more wiser and sensitised. To know that 13-14% of children have Learning Disability was a revelation. But what’s most heartening is that with your care and intervention they could all unveil some startling talent that they have and join the ranks of other greats in their dyslexic group – Einstein, Graham Bell, Tom Cruise, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney to name some. It’s an impressive group and I am sure you’re just the person who will allow the children to find that strength within and soar away. Good luck and God bless.