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Conil: All the kids come in the world to teach us things, not the other way around


Game Changers Conversations bring to light the stories of people who are too busy to do special things and change the world to promote themselves. But we believe that drop by drop an ocean would be made, and it's important to be inspired by the stories of those who are fighting for a dream and putting passion into what they do

In today's episode we meet Conil School, a unique educational concept in Romania, through which atypical children are helped to integrate more easily into a world they find difficult to understand. We invite you to watch an emotional conversation with Irina Ismail, Conil's communication director in dialogue with Andreea Lupu, Neoland partner and Empath contributor.

Andreea: How did Conil story started? Tell me a bit about your beginnings...

Irina: The story is a personal story, of my sister, who in 1996 when she became a mother for the first time, discovered that her son was atypical, at that time very little was known, she faced years of exclusion, of stigma, of "don't play with him like..." so when she had Kuki, as we called the little boy. His name was different...

Andreea: What was his name?

Irina: Nicolae

Andreea: Such a beautiful name…

Irina: But we called him Kuki…

When he was 9 years old, Adela decided to set up a center where children of any religion, race, ability or disability would be welcomed and accepted. This happened in 2005, it was fortunate for her that our grandmother had a fairly central location and offered her a basement. And she started with four children in March, one of the children was a very sympathetic and very nice little woman and by the autumn she had grown to 18 children and that's how things slowly unfolded. Kuki would come in the afternoon and stay in the afternoon and play with the younger children, and that's how we had to set up the school in 2012, because the parents wanted to continue in this inclusive education system. Of course, there are far fewer typical children in school, each parent wants their child to perform well and this is the story that started in 2005...

Andreea: long time ago...

Irina: Yes.....

Andreea: I'm curious what atypical child means. And what typical child means.

Irina: The atypical child is the child who has an atypical development compared to the typical child. Either physically or cognitively, this is how atypical children are framed, but they are also children, and they have a soul, and they have emotions, and they can do extraordinary things. The important thing is to have the patience to discover the abilities of each of them and to channel them into their area of interest. Their focus is, the spectrum is much narrower, but when you find their ability, they can really perform in that area.

Andreea:  How do children get to Conil? Both typical children and atypical children, and what do you think motivates parents of typical children to come here?

Irina: You have to have a little openness, as a parent of a typical child, to leave your child in a place where there are, in a kindergarten group of 12 children, there are 3-4 atypical children.

Andreea:  I am going to interrupt you for a moment. Why? Are there any risks? Or why?

Irina: It's hard for typical parents to accept.

For an atypical child, as I was talking about earlier, they can always go into a crisis or a moment and approach a different behavior. They are sensitive to different stimuli, they have a desynchronisation of senses and then when a stimulus appears, a beam of light, a sound, a certain texture, some are sensitive to certain colors, they can go into a certain crisis, they can't manage their emotions and then they either hit or scream, they have some slightly different behaviors that are more difficult to manage. Probably there are parents who have seen in some other contexts such reactions and then they are afraid that their own children do not reproduce, do not repeat, do not borrow these behaviors. But in our experience of so many years this does not happen.

Andreea:  That was my next question...

Irina: we aim and we have succeeded and it is a great joy for us to educate parents through children, for example, how we work in our classrooms, in preschool classes. The typical child is empowered and encouraged to help the child who has a certain special need. They work together, the typical child's self-esteem increases because "I can help my colleague", his colleague also feels accepted and feels that he has a friend and a support, and then the typical child goes home and says to the parent: "look today I helped Alexia and I did an exceptional job or I helped her to model and something extraordinary came out", that's how we approach things and to our joy there are many parents who come precisely to educate them in this spirit.

Andreea:  Parents of typical children?

Irina: Yes...

They come because there is this increased level of responsibility that their children get.

Andreea:  Got it. And you said something interesting earlier. Parenting through children. How does that happen?

Irina: Like I said. The child who has helped a child with special needs get down to the table or wash his hands or use a certain tool, that child goes home and proudly tells his mother that look, today we did this and the mother is already relieved of her fears and fears that her own child might do certain behaviors...

Andreea:  So did you notice the evolution in the parents...

Irina: Yes, absolutely...

Andreea: And evolution is about changing behavior towards...

Irina: children with special needs.

Andreea:  So I understand that parents typical kids come here knowing what's going on what the activities are at Conil.

Irina: Yes. Sure, typical kids go to mainstream, neighbourhood or near-home schools and we often get called by different teachers from different schools telling us they have a special needs child in a class of 25 kids and the only child who helps and knows how to manage is raised in our preschool. So we really do manage to make this adaptation of typical children. They have to understand that atypical children are also part of their lives and they have to learn to live together.

Andreea: what kind of framing do you have? Did you say kindergarten?

Irina: we have primary school, primary school and from this year also secondary school. We are MEC accredited and we are not a special school or kindergarten. We are a normal school but we do curricular adaptation and we work with each child according to their stage of development, the moment they are at.

Andreea: I find it incredible. And in practically all forms of education - kindergarten, secondary school and primary school - there are typical children and atypical children?

Irina: at school, in general, children remain who are either not yet emotionally developed enough to cope with the mass system or who still have some catching up to do. But typical 100% without certain problems or needs to adjust, we don't have. What we're happy about is that we have children who after going through a year, two years, in school and growing and overcoming certain fears, growing cognitively, going to mass school, and that's encouraging, because you can transfer back and forth and it's very important.

Andreea: you said something earlier that I find very hard to do. That you pay attention to each child and try to customize according to each individual child. How do you do that?

Irina: every child, whether in kindergarten, primary or secondary school, is assessed upon entering Conil. It is a complex assessment on the basis of which an individual intervention plan is made. The individual intervention plan contains some objectives that we propose for a period of 3 months. Basically, the class teacher is aware of the individualised plan, the team of psychologists, speech therapists and behavioral therapists work as a team and all the curriculum is adapted to this initial plan. Every three months we do evaluations of all children and the evaluations are done in relation to the previous evaluation. And basically we look at what goals we have set, what we have managed to achieve, what we have-not achieved we take them into the next plan, for the next three-month period and the ones we have achieved we tick off and move forward and include new goals depending on the level the child has reached. They are complex assessments both on the cognitive educational part and on the behavioral part in our case.

Andreea: I understand that you have a different team. I mean for these in-depth assessments you have a whole team you rely on.

Irina: that is right.

Andreea: what is made of?

Irina: there is the teacher, the teacher, the psychotherapist, the speech therapist, and following the individualised plan, other needs emerge and give you some directions on the child's areas of interest. There are children who are artistically oriented and for example we try to include more art classes for these children. We call it the fascination method. It is a method whereby a child, if for example he is passionate about insects, we try to make sure that the worksheets that we give to that child, whether it is mathematics or Romanian, are related to insects. Then we do, we draw the multitude of insects and the multitude of animals. And all the worksheets for each subject are structured in such a way that the children are attracted to them, that they find what is their area of interest and passion.

Andreea: and I suspect that there are also many cases of atypical children who end up enrolling in schools for typical children.

Irina: that is right...

Andreea: what happens with their parents? Which is their evolution?

Irina: until we had middle school, we would take these children up to 4th grade, and from 5th grade they had to find some solutions. In 85% of the cases, they had to go to special schools. We have children who came back from special schools. We have three children. We started with grade 5 this year and they were in grade 6 but they came back to us in grade 5.

Andreea: why is this regression happening? Beyond the differing philosophy, that there is no focus on each. Other reasons for regression? However painful, it is important to mention them.

Irina: I think there is no interest in really giving these children a chance. There are special schools, but there are special schools as well as special schools for the blind, where they really do some extraordinary things. There the problem is visual, not cognitive. The other special schools that I mentioned are schools for neuro type conditions. And then... I think there's no interest, there's no programs. It's simply a place where children are brought, they're supervised, they try little activities but it's not a constant. It's not a program.

Andreea: And in all these years you have been educators, for all that is society. Has any thing changed since you've been in office? At the societal level, I think...

Irina: the world began to understand differently and to see differently. I also see people's reactions when we go to different events, they don't immediately pull their baby. On the contrary, we have launched all sorts of calls in the school community, of which we are part, to come with their children to volunteer, to bring their classes here in our school, and to our joy many teachers have signed up and come to the joint activities that we do. We also have a partnership with the Steaua club and we go swimming, the children there do all kinds of activities with our children and yes, it seems that things are starting to change and we would very much like to be able to take our system to other areas of the country because the number of cases of children with special needs is increasing and there is a great need. In Bucharest there are still solutions and there are alternatives for these children but in the country there are...

Andreea: But as you were saying earlier, that you educate typical parents through their children, is the same thing happening with parents of atypical children? I mean what happens to them from the moment their child comes to Conil? Does anything improve?

Irina: of course the parent of antitypical child is a hero.

Andreea: It is, isn't it? Why? What's happening to him?

Irina: I have a sensitivity to this and because my sister was the mother of such a child, seeing them every day and working with them every day, I know what it is like to be around a child 24hours a day, most of the time they remain single parent families.

Andreea: Why is this happening? I mean, the mother stays with the baby, right?

Irina: yes

Andreea: Why so?

Irina: in 80% of the cases...

Andreea: In our society and in other societies?

Irina: in other societies this happens too... it is probably overwhelming for the male side to learn this diagnosis. I have always said that when this diagnosis occurs, it is not only the child but the whole family that is affected. The parents, the siblings, the existing family, the grandparents. But yes, they are heroes and they are chosen people. Because not everyone can face these challenges. Many times, mothers leave themselves last precisely to give their children as many chances to recover as possible. We try to stand by them and encourage them. We try to have as close relationship with them as possible, to work as a team, because it is very important that what is done at school with the team of psychologists is continued at home. And to our joy, there are very few situations in which children are withdrawn from us and this is often because they have relocated or got a job elsewhere or because the distance is too far or reasons of this type. But it is clear that they come here with a lot of hope and the developments of their children certify that they made the right choice.

Andreea: But I was wondering... what is the difference or how is the education applied in this way to an atypical therapy child different? I'm thinking of the classical system that is aided by therapy, for the atypical child. With you it's a whole education. What is the difference between therapy and a whole education?

Irina: well, here the child starts within educational program that is according to the national curriculum, adapted, but even in this educational process, while the child is working and sharing classes according to the timetable, he is doing a kind of group therapy. They are in a small number, 10-12 children per class, as I said, they learn to accept each other, to help each other, basically everything that happens both in the morning and in the afternoon is a therapy. We know that there are children who are for example extremely sensitive to music. And then in the situation where a child's moment of crisis can no longer be managed in the classroom, the child is taken away, we go to the music therapy room, he discharges his frustration, his energy, he stays there for 10 minutes, he sings and then he returns quietly to the classroom.

Andreea: And how intolerance and acceptance practiced here? What do you do? How do you practice love?

Irina: here all people are special, not just children. We all love children. I often felt guilty towards my own children because I was surprised that I couldn't tell the difference between my children and the rest of the children. And I feel somehow guilty, I mean I actually love them all the same. And so are my colleagues. And the children feel that immediately. Even if you raise your voice at some point, because it's necessary to cover up background noise, or try to assert yourself in a certain situation, the kids know that you're not doing it maliciously or by scolding them. They know that at that moment we have to do something specific, they understand and they align. Even when we raise our voice they feel that we are only doing it for their own good.

Andreea: I'd ask for some of the wisdom you learned at Conil. What's the most pervious thing?

Irina: the most precious thing for me is that they are our teachers and not the other way around.

Andreea: Where do you get your resources? Exclusively from parents?

Irina: we have resources partly from parents, partly from timid fund raising campaigns that we do, because we don't know this. Another part from projects like Conil Fest, events of this kind and we also had some partnerships and we want partnerships with companies that understand that by supporting these children and supporting their development, their evolution and their education, they are actually supporting their own children because in the future these children might not be welfare recipients but integrated people in the work force who are integrated and who have an absolutely normal life.

Andreea: Are there more initiatives like yours? Not the same in terms of the system but in terms of the need.

Irina: we are unique in Romania because we are both school and therapy center under the same umbrella. There are many other associations that are part of recovery but not part of education.

Andreea: Are you organised in a common body? Do you help each other?

Irina: we have various partnerships but each is trying to obtain resources on its own.

Andreea: What do you think could help you to realise these partnerships with entities that could help you financially or administratively? What would help you?

Irina: it would help us to find those companies that can support scholarships for tuition or therapies so that this facility, which has a capacity of 300 children, can receive and accommodate all three hundred of them. At the moment we have one hundred children for the next school year we already have 150 but there is room for much more and the needs are very great. And there are a lot of parents who cannot support not only the schooling part but basically the recovery of such a child is a very long process and it is a process that includes both the educational and the therapy part. Monthly cost would be somewhere around 6000-7000 lei per month, which is an almost prohibitive cost for any family in this country.

Andreea: How are the parents doing? Do they get sponsorships?

Irina: we teach them and encourage them to become their own buttresses for their children. We have 3.5% accounts for certain children who have asked for it, they do share you birthday campaigns that we've taught them to do, and we support them and they raise their own resources as well. Or they contact companies or their own employers who agree to support their therapy or educational scholarship expenses which are deductible expenses for companies up to the 20% tax limit. Of course, there is a lot of volunteering that can be done here in the school. And we offer companies the possibility to get in touch with us and see at any time what is happening with the money they have invested here, to see the evolution of the children, so we are completely transparent in this process.



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