Learners in disadvantaged communities face many barriers to learning, the very tool they need to battle inequality and carve out a better future for themselves. Support and resources in these communities are scarce so a lot more is expected and needed from resources that are available. This means that schools in these communities have been left with the task of trying to find solutions to and help combat these barriers, largely on their own.
The School Based Support Team (SBST) at Nokuphila Pre-Primary and Primary School was created to do just that: help learners overcome learning barriers. The team consists of Elsie Lekana (a Social Worker), Penny Clark (an Occupational Therapist), Laura Smit (a Remedial Therapist) and Mabel Sikhakhane the Chairperson of the SBST, Head of the Foundation Phase and Pre-Primary, and the Acting Principal at Nokuphila Primary School. Each of these professionals contributes a unique skill set and work as a cohesive unit to help identify and combat children’s learning barriers.
As the occupational therapist at Nokuphila school Penny Clark looks at how the children are functioning in school. “I look at the foundational skills,” says Clark, “that are needed for learning and specifically the nonverbal skills, visual perception, gross motor, and fine motor. I am based in the preschool because that is the most important foundation/consolidation ages for those skills.”
Laura Smit brings a wealth of knowledge to her role as the remedial therapist and learning support teacher for the pre-school and foundation phase at Nokuphila School (so pre-primary through to grade three). By liaising with the teachers, children struggling in the classroom due to either learning gaps or learning barriers are identified. Together with the rest of the team and the teachers Smit designs a remedial support programme for each child. By providing the children with a playful and anxiety free environment and making use of play-learning methods designed around each child’s needs, together they cover core skills such as reading, language, mathematics, etc.
Elsie Lekana works closely with both the learners and parents at Nokuphila Pre-Primary and Primary school in her role as a qualified social worker. She also works closely with the child welfare organisations to help identify the most vulnerable children in the community, who they then nominate for enrollment at Nokuphila as learners. Lekana looks to the problems learners face beyond the classroom – in their homes. Lekana investigates the home situation and says that her work is “to ensure that children and parents are supported physically, psychologically and emotionally.”
This is extremely tough as social ills (bullying, hunger, abuse, crime, etc.) and a whole host of other issues are rife in poor communities. And, because Nokuphila focuses on the most vulnerable learners in the community most of their learners have been exposed to the most brutal parts of our society, which naturally takes a toll on them and their parents. Lekana works with families to help address root problems and if needed escalates cases where the learner may be in danger to the relevant authorities. As Sikhakhane points out, “children who are traumatised do not learn better. Children who are lacking do not learn better. So, it’s for the team to take over and make sure that the child is well supported for learning.”
The benefit of a support team with such a variety of complementary qualifications and skills set means that not only the learners, but the teachers and parents too, benefit from their professional guidance, advice, and support. Through their shared knowledge and strategic approach, they provide a more effective and holistic solution to psycho-social and learning problems that are often multifaceted. But, without the buy in from teachers and parents to act on the professional support provided all the efforts from the SBST are for naught. Sikhakhane explains it as follows: “There is a tripod chair of learning (teachers, parents, learners). If one leg is missing, then effective learning is not taking place.”