Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dyslexia - Difficulty with Reading, Maths & Spelling

dyslexia LD testing

Difficulty with reading, spelling and maths is rampant among Indian students. Two recent reports have highlighted this academic underachievement. The academic infrastructure is definitely a major contributor. However, unrecognised dyslexia or other learning disability also needs to be considered by every concerned parent and enlightened teacher. We have already discussed the management of dyslexia. Here we underline the urgent need for action.

India ranked 72nd of 73 countries in a comparative international survey (PISA) of 15-year-old students. All students were assessed on the same test for knowledge and skills in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. A sample of more than 5000 students from 200 Indian schools were assessed in this program. In none of these categories did more than 17% of Indian students scored above baseline levels as compared to 81% of students from OECD countries (US, UK, Australia etc).

15-year-olds scoring above baseline 

Test India China OECD avg
Reading 11-17 % 95.3% 81%
Mathematics 12-15% 94.5% 75%
Science 11-16% 96.3% 82%

The Annual Status of Education Report (2010) paints an equally dismal picture.
Reading ability
  • Only half the students in Class 5 can read the Class 2 text
  • Only a third of Class 1 children can recognise numbers 1-9
  • Only a third of Class 3 students can do subtraction in two digits
  • Only a third of Class 5 students can do simple division
  • A third of Class 8 students could not use a calender

This may be a scathing indictment of our education system, but it also reflects the presence of unrecognised Learning Disorder in our students. Learning Disorder affects 5-10% of students worldwide. Learning Disorder manifests in varying combinations and severity of difficulty with reading, spelling and arithmetic.

If your child has difficulty reading, spelling or in mathematics
  • Have them assessed for dyslexia or other learning disability
  • The earlier remedial teaching is instituted the more likely the child is to benefit
  • Identification of dyslexia or learning disability entitles your child to waivers at the 10th and 12th board exams.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) of 2009 lays down the duties of government, local authorities and parents; the responsibilities of schools and teachers; and the norms for schools. These norms include the number of teachers, buildings, minimum teaching hours, teaching aids, library, and recreational equipment. However, the teaching to be done is not mentioned and nor is it monitored. Rote learning is emphasised. Students fail to acquire basic reading, writing and calculation skills that are required to continue learning as adults.

Don't just wait for the government 
Act NOW to secure your child's place in a global future

  1. ASER 2010 - Rural. Annual Status of Education Report (Rural)Date of publication: January 14, 2011
  2. Maurice Walker. PISA 2009 Plus Results: Performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science for 10 additional participants. ACER Press. Victoria. 2011.  ISBN: 978-1-74286-067-1
  3. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

School bullying

School Bully

Bullying by children in schools has serious mental health effects on the victim and the bully. Up to 25% of high school students report being victimised by bullies. 13% of victims have considered suicide. In rural India 31% of middle school students report being bullied (Kshirsagar 2007). Bullying is twice more prevalent in coeducational schools than in girl schools. The prevalence of bullying increases from 13% in the 3rd grade to 46% in the 6th grade. Bullying is higher in classes with more retained students.

Bullying occurs in a variety of settings that are an extension of your child's school life. Bullying can occur face to face, by texting or on the web (cyberbullying). Bullying is not a phase of growing up, it is not a joke, and it is not a sign that boys are being boys. Bullying can cause lasting harm - to the victim, the bully and the bully-victim (children who are bullied and also bully other children).

Bullying takes many forms
  • Verbal: Name calling, teasing
  • Social : Spreading rumours, leaving people out of groups on purpose, breaking up friendships
  • Physical : Hitting, punching, shoving (5% in Indian schools)
  • Cyberbullying

When is it bullying? It’s bullying when there are three features to the interaction
  1. Imbalance of power: People who bully use their power to control or harm. The victims may have a hard time defending themselves.
  2. Intent to cause harm: The person bullying intends to harm the victim
  3. Repetition: Incidents happen to the same person over and over by the same person or group
It’s not bullying when there are
  • Mutual arguments and disagreements
  • Single episodes of social rejection or dislike
  • Single episode acts of nastiness or spite
  • Random acts of aggression or intimidation

Effects of bullying

Those who are victims are at a high risk for mental health problems
  • Higher risk of depression and anxiety with increased thoughts of suicide
  • More likely to have health complaints
  • Have decreased academic achievement
  • More likely to miss or drop out of school
  • More likely to retaliate (12/15 shooters have a history of being bullied)
Bullies are more likely to manifest behaivour problems that continue into adulthood when these behaviours manifest as criminality
  • Higher rates of alcohol/substance abuse
  • More likely to get into fights, vandalise property
  • More likely to be abusive towards partners, spouses or children later in life.
Bully-victims are the worst affected. They develop both mental health and behavioural problems

Is your child being bullied?

If your child has any of these features it is very likely they are being bullied in school
  • Comes home with torn clothing or missing belongings
  • Appears sad, moody, depressed or anxious especially on returning home from school
  • Prefers to be alone
These symptoms are also likely in victims of bullying
  • Is afraid of going to school
  • Vomiting
  • Sleep disturbances including insomnia and nightmares
These symptoms are commonest in victims
  • Frequently falling sick
  • Headaches
  • Bodyache is the next most common symptom in female victims. In male victims nightmares are the next most common.
Is your child a bully? Consider these common traits of bullies
  • Become violent with others, gets into physical or verbal fights
  • Get sent to the Principal’s office often
  • Has extra money or new belongings which cannot be explained
  • Will not accept responsibility for their actions
  • Need to win and be best at everything

Do’s and Don’ts

For parents whose children are victims of bullying (Carr-Gregg 2011)
  • Tell the your child to ignore the bullying. This allows the bullying and its impact to become more serious
  • Blame your child or assume that they have done something to provoke the bullying
  • Encourage retaliation
  • Criticise how your child dealt with the bullying
  • Contact the bully or parents of the bully
  • Communicate with your child
    1. Listen carefully. Ask who was involved and what was involved in each episode
    2. Empathise and reinforce that you are glad your child has disclosed this
    3. Ask your child what they think can be done to help
    4. Reassure your child that you will take sensible action
  • Contact the teacher and/or principal and take a cooperative approach in finding a solution
  • Discuss the matter in a face-to-face meeting. Stay calm. Take along any evidence you may have gathered. Ask three key questions
    1. How will this matter be investigated?
    2. How long will this investigation take?
    3. When will you get a follow up meeting to discuss the results?
  • Contact school authorities if bullying persists and escalate your communications up the chain of command. Here’s where your paper trail comes in useful
Every child deserves an education free of fear
  1. Carr-Gregg M, Manocha R. Bullying - effects, prevalence and strategies for detection. Aust Fam Physician. 2011 Mar;40(3):98-102.
  2. V .Y. Kshirsagar, Rajiv Agarwal and Sandeep B Bavdekar. Bullying in Schools: Prevalence and Short-term Impact. Indian Pediatrics 2007; 44:25-28
  3. www.stopbullying.gov

Monday, December 20, 2010

Schools, punishment and suicide - teenagers dying of shame

A Pune school joined the ranks of those in which a punished and humiliated teenager committed suicide. A teenage life snuffed out by the psychological pain of humiliation. It was apparently over his talking with a girl student. He was thrashed by the school principal, two teachers and the girl's uncle. This was not punishment - it was physical abuse. The boy did not return home after school. His father, a labourer, went to the school to look for him. The next morning the teenager’s body was found on the railway tracks.

Labourers moving to their work-site

Behaviours perceived as undesirable by teachers

The chain of events in this suicide apparently begins with the teenager talking to a girl student - normal adolescent behaviour. It is in the stage of adolescence that opposite-sex social interaction begins. A co-ed school would be the ideal place for this adolescent interaction. Yet this behaviour was perceived as seriously undesirable by the school authorities. Let’s look at other behaviours perceived as undesirable by teachers (Borg MG, 1998).
  • Teachers perceive drug abuse, bullying and destruction of property as the most serious problem behaviours. Inquisitiveness and whispering are rated as the least serious
  • Cheating, lying, masturbation and heterosexual activity are considered as more serious in girls. In boys, dreaminess, disorderliness, silliness, quarrelsomeness, and restlessness are considered to be more problematic.
  • Female teachers perceive masturbation and obscene notes as more serious than male teachers. Male teachers perceive disorderliness to be more serious.

Punishment in schools

In the next step of the chain of events the teenager was punished for his normal adolescent behaviour.

Punishment is the application of an adverse stimulus after an unacceptable behaviour has occurred. The goal is to reduce the probability that the behaviour will recur. However, punishment, especially in public will also result in loss of self-esteem and humiliation. Public humiliation is known to promote further aggression - not reduce it.

In a school system there are better ways to induce behavioural change while preserving the child’s dignity. All behavioural measures start with defining the problem behaviour. Talking to a girl-student in a co-ed school is only problem behaviour when it is viewed on social class lines. School authorities and teachers need to realise their role as promoters and nurturers of responsible freedom and equality. As educators they need to go beyond their own personal biases.


A major interpersonal risk factor for suicide in India is humiliation (Bhatia et al, 1987). Humiliation is strongly related to aggressive behaviour. Suicide is nothing other than aggression turned inward (Freud. 1919). Middle class status protects the individual against aggression when humiliated (Aslund et al, 2009). That protection was not available for this lower socio-economic status labourer's son.

The outskirts of Pune are a churn of economic activity sucking in people with the promise of opportunity for work. In the mornings the roads from surrounding villages are lined by labourers walking with tiffin in hand to the nearest transport hub. Many among these house their families in one room shacks. It is a tribute to our system that at least for some among them the education of their children in a proper school is not just a dream. It is a shame on us that ten years of education and commitment of parents and the state can be cut short by insensitive punishment and humiliation by parents and educators. One labourer’s child died of that shame.


  1. Aslund C, Starrin B, Leppert J, Nilsson KW. Social status and shaming experiences related to adolescent overt aggression at school. Aggress Behav. 2009 Jan-Feb; 35(1):1-13.
  2. Bhatia SC, Khan MH, Mediratta RP, Sharma A. High risk suicide factors across cultures. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 1987 Autumn; 33(3):226-36.
  3. Borg MG. Secondary school teachers' perception of pupils' undesirable behaviours. Br J Educ Psychol. 1998 Mar; 68 (Pt 1):67-79.
  4. Freud S. Mourning and Melancholia. 1919