‘We miss the physical presence of our students, but all main school activities have continued online’
Bolanle Adewole is the founder and executive director of TLP Centre, the first full day school for children with autism and other related developmental disorders. A certified autism specialist, she is also the director of The Learning Place Montessori School in Lagos. Trained in London, Canada and the USA, she certified as an Autism Specialist with International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) in 2018. Passionate about autism awareness advocacy and believes no child should be left behind, she continuously engages in the empowerment and fluent integration of the differently able into mainstream schools. She engages in various charitable outreach activities with the Lagos State Government as well as corporate organisations. To date, she has directly or partly influenced the education of over 500 indigent children in Nigeria. A renowned speaker and teacher, Bolanle belongs to several professional bodies and serves on the board of several companies. In this interview, she talks about how the education of students with autism and other developmental challenges have been affected by Covid-19 and how she is tackling this as well as integrating special needs children into mainstream education amongst other issues.
COVID-19 and the subsequent stay-home order have undoubtedly disrupted the educational calendar somewhat. How are you working around this issue?
The stay-at-home order came with the closure of schools and saw us putting in place measures to ensure that our students’ learning remains optimally maintained. A saving grace for us was the fact that we had always operated online on a large scale so migrating our curriculum online was prompt. We were live in 48 hours and classes actively commenced until the Easter break. These, as well as parents communication, have continued to date. We miss the physical presence of our students but all main school activities have continued online.
Students are now being home-schooled as best as possible. Is this a feasible solution or would it be better to halt the school calendar till the lockdown order is lifted?
Education is a critical part of child development. It drives factors responsible for the advancement of their minds, acquisition of social skills, facilitation of learning and much more. Every child benefits from consistent learning opportunities, a halt in these or in the school calendar is likely to create learning gaps, accompanied by adverse long-term shortfalls.
LASG is employing radio/TV to educate students as they sit at home, can students really learn like this especially students that struggle academically?
First, I would like to applaud the Lagos State Government for this initiative. It would go a long way towards ensuring that children continue to learn regardless of their location. It is important to note that every child is different and each has a unique learning style. The remote or virtual learning may not benefit all but it goes without saying that some will definitely acquire knowledge and skills from the remote classroom. If the lessons are practical, engaging and interactive, they should captivate the interest of more students than less, including the different learners who may display academic challenges. The worst one can do is not to try at all.
For children that come from less-privileged backgrounds and have no access to TV, Internet, laptops or educational tabs, how would virtual learning work for this category of students?
The teaching of this category of children may not necessarily be through the use of inaccessible devices but through a practical sustainable approach. This is an area where the government and corporate organizations need to intervene. An organised outreach in the form of creating alternative learning modes, including the “United Nations School in a box” model; the creation of a structured teaching curriculum, a community empowerment based program; donation of practical inexpensive devices and training of parents or relatives who though may be indigent, are willing and able to learn, would go a long way.
You work extensively with autistic children and children with related developmental disorders, would you say this disruption has affected them more?
Children with autism thrive on routine and predictability. One of the key ways of managing their behaviour is to have a predictable schedule, which directs their day-to-day activities. The first disruption to them during this crisis was the abrupt closure of schools without adequate notice or preparation. It became compounded with the uncertainty, absence of consistent therapy and withdrawal of physical activities. It hit them hard and evoked some new undesired problem behaviour for parents and caregivers at home.
How are you still managing to teach the children seeing as face-to-face method is not feasible at this time?
A face-to-face meeting is feasible in the form of synchronous virtual meetings. This has been a lifesaver and has worked for a good number of our students. They’re excited to see their teachers and peers and have engaged pretty well on this platform since we launched online schooling. Like physical school, there is an attendance timetable, lesson resources and concept presentations, all done online. This has helped keep and retain some semblance of normalcy. We have spent time training parents also and most have adapted and are coping.
Has the pandemic and the resulting problems it has created made your job harder in any way?
The COVID-19 is unparalleled and has hit the entire globe in an unprecedented way. Life would never go back to the same again. It has brought about a lot of changes, which have affected our operations, our lifestyle and service delivery. The financial impact on our organisation is immense. We have had to get creative and think out of the box to keep our operations together. A lot of strategic adjustments have been put in place to cut excesses and maintain expediture. It gets deeply worrisome when it threatens to affect staff income. We hope it all ends soon.
Tell us about some of the work you have done in integrating differently abled children into mainstream schooling?
As a strong believer in equal opportunity for all, I advocate for inclusion for every child. This starts with conducting probes and identifying the existing strengths and ability that lie within each child. This helps us give the required intervention, develop a transition plan and place him into the right educational setting. We have helped prepare several children for various mainstream schools using this technique and most have successfully transitioned.
Tell us about your educational programs for at-risk children, what does it entail?
Differentiated teaching is used for children with at-risk behaviour. It entails closely observing and paying attention to the traits and characteristics of the children. The “at-risk” child would always stand out. The first thing would be to determine the function of the at-risk behaviour and set out to eliminate the stimulus that reinforces it. A lot of factors are considered and an individualised program addressing the function of the behaviour is designed. This becomes the bedrock for the educational program that is subsequently used.
What has this ongoing experience taught you, what would you be taking from it when this is finally over?
As unwanted as the pandemic is, it has come with different facets. It has exposed us to many new skills, brought us closer together and enabled us look inwards. We have critically analysed our offerings and services with a view to coming back stronger. On a personal note, it has helped me appreciate life better and brought me closer to God, friends and family. When this over, I know I will be stronger for it.
What last words do you want to leave with women reading this that have been inspired by you?
Stay true to yourself. Be not moved by fear and negativity. Get innovative and choose to be positive in these times.