By Sriya Narayanan

When Sudeep* first came to Saraswathy Kendra Learning Centre with a history of problematic classroom behaviour, the staff at the special needs institute knew that they needed to look closely – and that underneath a child’s ‘troublemaker’ label, there usually lies a secret trouble whose weight has become too much for tiny shoulders to bear. Additionally, the boy, who was around 12 years old at the time, was a poor student.

“We didn’t observe any learning disabilities,” recalls Niraja S, Chief Psychologist at the centre, who reveals that one day, during a national discourse about women’s safety on the news, the boy found an opening to talk about what was bothering him. “He said it was something personal,” says Niraja, adding that the child had not confided in his classmates about it either. It came out that he was being abused by someone very close to the family.

Niraja allowed Sudeep to express his deep-seated rage and sorrow that were finally given the opportunity to erupt. “He wanted to be validated,” she says of the anger management work that they did together during the therapy process. Niraja encouraged Sudeep to cry, write down his feelings freely – including any abusive language he wanted to use – on a piece of paper and shred it, and also gave him a bag to punch. She received Sudeep’s permission to have a joint meeting with the latter’s mother about the issue, so that he could be safeguarded in the future. “The mother was shocked,” she says, adding that the boy’s father was also subsequently informed.

The young boy’s pain, that had been trapped inside, only to be manifested in relentless mischief, took several months of hard work on both his part and Niraja’s to work through. “It takes a minimum of eight months to a year,” says Niraja, referring to the need for multiple issues with any child to be properly addressed since they sometimes pile up and have a compounded effect. The duo had a little help from the school’s therapy dog, Tulsi – “Whenever Tulsi came in, he used to run to her and have her all to himself,” chuckles Niraja, who is glad to note that the boy soon adopted his own dog.

Over time, Sudeep’s behaviour and academics improved to the point where he amassed a sizable group of friends and passed all his subjects. His parents heaved a sigh of relief that they no longer had to worry about either his general well-being or academics. Sudeep also showed himself to be a budding artist and made the school a stunning work of art to celebrate when it reopened. “He eventually decided to stay on in this school,” says Niraja, clearing up the misconception that every student in a special needs setting has the goal of later moving to a mainstream school. Niraja observes that the only thing that matters is where the child feels at home and most capable of realizing his potential. She also draws attention to the fact that students from Saraswati Kendra have gone on to study in reputed colleges in the city.

Niraja firmly resists any credit given to her solely for success stories such as these. “We are a team where everyone puts in their hard work,” she says, outlining the role of teachers who make note of peculiar behaviour and provide helpful information in the process of diagnosing and treating children. “Our average class has a 1:10 teacher-student ratio,” says Niraja who explains that it is in sharp contrast to regular schools where teachers – who are constantly overworked and understaffed – have neither the time nor space to sense individual issues, let alone unravel and treat them. “Schools need a team including psychologists and special educators,” she says of institutions that want to retain children with learning or behavioural challenges. These students often fall through the cracks in the absence of the right system. For as one can see in Sudeep’s journey through trauma and rehabilitation, it really does take a village to heal a child.

*Name and a few details changed to protect the identity of the child.

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