Appreciating the individuality of children


Whilst respecting individuality, everyone was encouraged to share in the learning of the group

Whilst respecting individuality, everyone was encouraged to share in the learning of the group


No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

In most societies individuality is something we value. In my own country eccentricity has often been revered and those who are seen as slightly off-beat become regarded as “National Treasures”. I think here for example of the endearments heaped upon the Irish comedian Spike Milligan or the turbaned poet and performer Edith Sitwell whose extravangent costume and gesture were for many years parodied but never truly equalled. People either love or loathe these unconventional individuals, but to ignore their oddity is not a real option.

In some more collectivist societies, such as China, the place of the individual is less assured, and conformity tends to be the order of the day. I think that I would personally have some difficulty in living in a country which was intent on encouraging uniformity in so many aspects of life.

Whilst respecting and applauding individuality in many situations, in schools the child who stands out from the others is often perceived to be a problem. The term special educational needs says much about the fact that we see some children as being different from their peers, and in educational terms, different often equates to problematic. However, whatever the language used, we should at least be thankful that many of the children now labelled as a consequence of their individuality are within our education system, whereas in the past many would have been denied access to schooling. As the poet John Donne tells us, we may consider it necessary from time to time to focus upon the individual, but if we do so by looking at his needs as being separate from those of his peers, we are in danger of diminishing the whole. This is certainly the case of many children within our education education system.

Planning for the individual needs of a learner in the classroom in a manner that does not cause problems for the child, either by emphasising his difficulties or distancing him from his peers can be problematic. In many of the world’s administrations individual education plans have been adopted as a means of ensuring that a pupil’s needs are met. However, this is an approach that is often characterised by shortcomings and some of these were explored with students on our MA programme here in Bangalore today.

Tim Loreman and his colleagues have provided a helpful analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of individual education plans, and not for the first time we found ourselves drawing upon his ideas. Our students spent a considerable time in an effort to design their “perfect” individual education plan, working in groups and drawing upon their own experiences as well as using the course materials provided. Each of the three groups then presented their ideas to the class and made suggestions for further changes and amendments. Such was their enthusiasm for this task that we had to drive them away from their tables in order to have lunch.

There is always a fine line between planning to address the individual needs of a child and emphasising his differences, thereby possibly lowering expectations. This was an issue that we considered today. And whilst we did not necessarily reach a consensus, the quality of contributions from our students made a significant impact upon all of our learning. I have no doubt that most of us left today’s session with differing views in terms of defining the efficacy of planning for the individual needs of pupils. However, the learning was as much about the process as it was about producing the “perfect” individual education plan. The thought that went into today’s session was more critical to our learning than the end product and leads me to believe that there is no lack of commitment towards improving education for all children. Celebrating individuality is something we should all be pleased to do.

18 thoughts on “Appreciating the individuality of children

    • Hi Deepa,
      This is a very interesting question. I have some good colleagues working in China in this area, Feng Yan, who was a former MA and PhD student of mine, and Professor Meng Deng with whom I worked in Beijing have both made major contributions to the field of special and inclusive education. However, both have faced major difficulties as this is certainly not a priority for the Chinese government. It is undoubtedly much harder to make progress towards inclusive schooling in China than it is in India. Feng Yan reads this blog regularly and may feel able to offer greater insights than I can manage. Thanks for posting.

  1. It would be interesting to understand why special and inclusive education is not a priority for the Chinese government; and also why making progress in inclusive schooling in china is harder to make progress in China.. Look forward to reading the thoughts of Dr. Feng Yan and Professor Meng Deng..

  2. Hi Malathy,
    If you use the tag cloud (list of topics on the right hand side of the blog page) you will find articles about China, some written whilst I was in Urumqi. I know that there are many committed teachers working towards a more equitable education system in China. Unfortunately many children with SEN are perceived as being unlikely to make a significant contribution to the Chinese economy and priorities are therefore given to others. I will think some more about this and perhaps write about it in a couple of days.

  3. While we keep pondering about the ‘best’ educational plan for children with different abilities; it is imeprative that we keep one thought in mind when we formulate our lesson plans for the class as a whole (in mainstream and special schools); and propogate in our conversations with other adults which is – to not glorify the ‘different-ness’ of our atypical students. I would want to include and integrate these students in a very matter of fact way.

    • Well said Rajani,
      we need to see all children as just typical of the population we live in. Some are tall, others short, some are sporty, others musical, some are blins, others see – but we are all taking part in the same race. That is the human race!

  4. Hi Richard – Christina Rinaldi speaks of the ‘de-centred child’ in her book ‘In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia’ (I think – from memory). This is a very interesting perspective. It moves away individualist notions and implies that when educating we should look beyond the child. In this view the child is situated in a social context that includes the family, friends, etc. The work of educators is to provide education focused on the individual as well as those who participate in the context. It’s a nice idea, that takes Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory a bit further.
    Also, when talking about individualism, I can’t resist this…

    • Hi Tim,
      Very interesting reply. By coincidence we have been looking at Bronfenbrenner’s model this afternoon in respect of locating children and families within an ecological context. Balancing the individuality of children within a community of learners is a more complex topic than some writers have assumed. We have had tremendous discussions and insights from students who work in a broad range of contexts and who come from traditions with which we are to some extent unfamiliar with. This enables us to consider how we might deal with issues from a range of perspectives and makes for most stimulating learning. I note that you are speaking at a conference in Bagaladesh. Unfortunately I can’t make this, but one of my colleagues, who is from Trivandrum is hoping to get there and I will be encouraging students here to look into the possibility.
      Love the video clip, Monty Python always more profound than silly!

      • Thanks Richard – I look forward to possibly meeting your colleague in Bangladesh. If any of your students attend I hope they come over and say hi. We could have a coffee and a chat. I’ve never been to Bangladesh before and am quite looking forward to it.

  5. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems – yes we did this this afternoon. Tim and Richard, in India, joint family (patriarch and matriarch, their sons and their familes) was the way of life. So children grew up in large families with many other children and aunts and uncles. So in fact there was a community within a family. I wonder if that automatically lead to better social skills and adaptibility? Families who lived in the same geographical area were very close knit, so there was in fact no macrosystem, they directly had an exosystem. It would be interesting to look into studies which have resaerched the impact of this large social base on children and their development.

    • Hi Rajani,
      Th extnded family has always interested me when in India. I think in many ways it creates a more inclusive society. What I mean by this is that I see great respect by children for their elders in these families, but this is returned to the children. I have noted that if a child falls down he is picked up by the nearest adult as if it were his or her own child. The affection shown by an aunt is similar to that of a mother. This family base has the potential for the development of a much more inclusive society.

  6. Dear Rajani and Richard, I have been a recipient of the benefits of the joint family system, both prior to my marriage and post marriage too..There is immense support that parents and children alike get, being a part of a joint family.. What the children learn while being a part of the joint family is not always tangible but it certainly shows in their attitude towards life (that includes people and situations), and this is more often than not, a healthy attitude..
    However, there is a flip side to this as well.. In a joint family system, the responsibility and decision making is primarily of the sexagenarian or the septuagenarian and sometimes the octogenarian.. The next generation or the youngest generation needs to execute the decisions taken.. Many times this results in the next generation and their families to be more of passive recipients.. The challenge comes when the families become nuclear (due to differences, relocation etc).. From a passive recipient, they need to become actively involved and then move to being fully involved, be it in taking up responsibilities or making decisions or bringing up children.. This consumes time, requires effort and errors are costly..
    Needless to say, one learns and grows in this process 🙂

  7. Hi Malathy,
    some very profound thoughts here. Things are so very different in India from the UK and I am still trying to learn and understand. Sadly in England many families are living in very small units with little contact between the generations. I am sure that many children miss out because of this.

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