Real life and real schools do not always look like an Instagram feed with A students sitting at a desk doing an activity successfully. Many learners struggle due to their emotional health or physical health or even as a result of stressful life events. Hillcrest Collegiate believes that the most heartbreaking issue is not that children have these learning difficulties, it is the issue of children who go through the system and end up in a vicious cycle of believing they are incapable of anything because they struggle in mainstream schools. This can easily become a belief system that perpetuates a feeling of incapacity that can be debilitating to the child’s self-esteem, emotional health and success throughout their life. Learning difficulties are more common than we realize and it is certainly a challenge. The approach a caregiver and parent uses can make or break a child. This is what I chatted to the team at Hillcrest Collegiate about this month as they are in the midst of planning the school’s IEP rollout. The Individual Education Program (IEP) has been on the cards for some time and in our blog this month, we chatted to the staff at Hillcrest Collegiate about the program and working with children with learning difficulties.

What is an Individual Education Program?

The IEP is an occupational and vocational curriculum that is a pilot project rolling out through the Department of Education to help children with learning difficulties gain practical skills and a school leaving certificate so that they can move on to an FET or TVET technical college. In order to implement the IEP the school must focus on small groups and individual attention. Subjects include; Maths, English, Afrikaans or Zulu, Life Orientation, Arts and Culture, Consumers and Hospitality. Assessment is based on an exam –weight of 20% and practical component of 80%. Learners are awarded a school-leaving certificate (GEC) which is equivalent to a grade 9 school-leaver’s certificate.  Admittance to an IEP program requires an entrance interview and completion of enrolment forms if a learner is suitable for the program.

What can you expect from an IEP at Hillcrest Collegiate?

A good IEP program should focus on building a learner’s confidence and self-esteem as well as academic progress. These are some of the key elements that staff at Hillcrest Collegiate will focus on as we implement IEP in the school.

Encouraging the right attitude.

The right attitude is the key to overcoming any challenge. We know that the way we behave and respond to the challenges our learners face will teach them invaluable life skills. If we get frustrated at their struggles they will internalize this and feel frustrated with themselves, which is detrimental to their well-being. It is absolutely normal for both learners and teachers to experience frustrations, despondency and feel overwhelmed. We found that speaking about it, naming it, normalizing it and empathizing with the feelings helps learners to overcome the shame of having learning difficulties. The next step is to shift the focus to celebrating the process of learning and the progress our learner’s make to help them see that they are capable of achievement. This shifts a learner’s attitude from ‘I am stuck with these obstacles for life and will always fail’ to ‘I can manage to work through these obstacles, achieve and progress’.

Building Confidence

Confidence can only flourish within the right environment. Having a learning challenge can be debilitating but it doesn’t have to be. A nurturing environment, where acceptance, patience and positive encouragement is fostered can be life changing for children with learning disabilities. The most important attitude a school or home should have is that a child does not need to be cured of a learning difficulty. Rather they need to be given the correct tools, skills and recourses so their own progress becomes self-directed rather than assisted.

Working with family

We recognize that institutions, including our own have limitations as well. A good IEP is important but schools cannot be there to encourage a child 24/7, this is where the home environment can make or break the success of a good program. When parents take an active role in learning as well as build a realistic concept of academic and personal success in their homes, we find that learners thrive. Celebrating progress, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses and understanding that your child learns differently will help immensely.

Encouraging important skills and lifestyle choices

There are a few skills and lifestyle choices which help our learner’s thrive and which we try to encourage. These are: perseverance, pro-activity, realistic goal-setting, celebrating their wins, accepting help when necessary, stress- regulation, managing setbacks and disappointments without becoming despondent and finally maintaining a healthy eating and exercise regime.