Small steps reap big rewards at iCann

Small steps reap big rewards at iCann

Observer staff reporter

Monday, October 14, 2019

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ONE of the biggest challenges faced by parents of children with special needs is finding a suitable educational institution for them. While some children with special needs may be able to attend regular schools and function well, there are others who require more individual attention, patience, and different learning resources to reach their full potential. That's where the iCann HELP Learning Centre comes in.

Led by autism specialist and special educator Rachael Cann, the Shortwood Grove-based institution is now in its third academic year of operation, and has been making an impact in the lives of several children.

“Most of our children are on the (autism) spectrum, but we also have kids with intellectual disabilities and Down syndrome,” Cann told the Jamaica Observer on a recent tour of the facility. “We also have one student who is deaf, but she has a cochlear implant, so we are still able to communicate with her.”

The centre, which can accommodate no more than 25 students, currently has 16 full-time students enrolled.

“We also offer evening tutoring to children with special needs who can attend mainstream schools but may need remediation in reading, language, or other areas,” she added.

While watching a group of the younger students participate in a physical education session with Coach Kemar on the front lawn, Cann explained that sports are a big part of the curriculum.

“Some of these children couldn't run in a straight line, or just couldn't run at all, and he has gotten them to go after the ball in between cones,” she marvelled. “I teach swimming as well, so swimming is a part of our curriculum. We use it to try to strengthen their core. These activities have really helped with our kids' balance and stability, and just their general ability to function independently.”

Along with the coach, who is also a special educator, there are five trained teachers on staff at iCann, to ensure that all 16 students receive educational experiences that are tailored to their individual needs.

In various rooms at the institution, the children could be seen in small supervised groups engaging in different activities. A pair of autistic teenage boys made hash browns in the kitchen, while three pre-teens practised writing in a separate room. Another group of three older children worked closely with an instructor in the comprehension room.

“It's a maximum of five children per class,” Cann pointed out, as she showed the team a stationary bicycle in the reading room. “We believe that movement is OK with our kids. Movement actually helps the kids to make their bodies more alert. And because some of our kids really like to move, this allows them to do so while still being constructive by doing their work.”

A student used an application on his tablet computer to say hello, displaying how technology is integrated into the learning experience at ICann. The principal bemoaned that finding the right resources for each student can be very challenging, given the financial constraints at the school.

“Sometimes the local bookstores don't supply the texts that we need for a particular child. Sometimes the books that are available don't have the kind of follow-up that is required. Our resources have to be multisensory – whether it's audiovisual, or it has some form of software that goes with it – and those things are expensive,” she said.

She added: “We have a few children who are non-verbal, and we have to buy the software that they use to communicate for over USD$200 each.”

As there is no one set structure to how education is provided at the centre, but different programmes are designed for each child depending on his/her level of independence, the 'book list' for each child is different. Cann was excited, however, that shipment of learning materials will be arriving soon, that will allow everyone to have their own workbooks.

While running an institution like the one she does can be challenging, and Cann says she never has “a boring day” as she is constantly motivated by even the smallest steps that her students make towards independence.

“We are very self-paced, and we're a positive behaviour support environment, so it's a lot of love and a lot of encouragement, and I think that really helps the kids to progress in a positive way,” she smiled. “Sometimes it only takes a day for a child to learn something, but other times it takes a week, a month, or a whole semester, but eventually they do.”

Cann's dream is for her students to not just learn during their childhoods, but to become independent enough that they can lead normal lives as adults.

“I'm not working so hard with them for them to just go sit down at home as adults,” she said pointedly. “I want to start a business for them in the future. We want to do honey farming with them. We tried it over the summer and it was great. Being able to have that would be able to prepare the older children for a work life, and then even when they're older then can come back a few days per week and do their work, so they won't be at home all the time.”

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