Learning with a difference – Focus Malaysia – People & Living – Nov. 2013

THE joy of having a child is something special and shared by the whole family but what happens when you learn that your child has learning difficulties, is not able to attend school or refuses to pick up any books to read? It can be a daunting task trying to understand what is wrong with your child and in Asian communities where even the learning environment is terribly competitive, having a child who is different can be daunting. According to Hilary Craig of Hils Learning, a centre for those with learning difficulties, an alarming number of parents with special children end up getting a divorce. “I don’t know if it is related, having a special child and the number of divorce cases among these parents but it sure is possible it might be correlated,” she says. “It isn’t easy to manage them, you’re always being judged and especially in a close-knit community like the one we live in Malaysia, you will have nosy family members constantly breathing down your back with advice on how to manage your child,” she adds. “This pressure can sometimes cause relationships to break down.” Craig says with Hils Learning, she hopes to alleviate the burden of the parents. “If I can help one child, it is as good as helping the whole family. It will improve the relationship of the child and the parents, the siblings and even the extended family members,” she says.

Tucked away amid the bustling township of Solan’s Mont Klara, Craig set up Hils Learning nine years ago to address the urgent need for such a centre. “I moved to Malaysia to be with my husband who was sent here to work,” she says, adding that she eventually fell in love with the country and its people and never went back to Canada. Craig, a specialist teacher for persons who learn differently or those labelled as having “special needs” brings with her not only paper qualifications but also personal experience in dealing with a child who has a learning difference as well. “1 do not like calling it a learning difficulty but simply a learning difference as we all have different ways of learning,” says Craig. “I have a son who has a learning difference and so it puts me in a better position to handle the students and run this centre,” admits a proud Craig who adds that her son now holds a Masters degree in Airport Management. “Sometimes all you need is the belief that these kids can achieve more than what you think they can,” she says.

“When I came over I realised there were a lot of parents who didn’t know what to do or how to deal with their autistic child, or child with dyslexia ,” says Craig. “That was when I decided to open this place so it could help them,” she adds. The internationally recognised innovative educator and therapist, together with her dedicated team of teachers, specialises in developing strategies for helping individual learners meet their own unique challenges. Hils Learning began at Craig’s home and gradually became a business as a friend of Craig’s pushed her into starting it on a slightly bigger scale. “I had no intention of expanding the business but due to the response that we’ve been getting over the years, we had to move to this current space to accommodate more children,” she says, adding that there are still many on the waiting list. At Hils Learning, many different methodologies are used to help students who are experiencing difficulties in learning. “We do a session with the child before he comes in to observe his strongest learning mode and we then respond by matching the most appropriate remediation to the student’s needs,” says Craig. “Every step that he takes is an important one, even if it is the smallest of steps.”

Difficulties in the school or workplace affect not only the individual but also the whole family. The programmes at Hils are designed to include parents, which form an integral part of the learning and support process. Craig also enlists the help of professionals such as an orthopist for children with visual difficulties, an occupational therapist for sensory and physical therapy and an Institute for NeuroPhysiological Psychology practitioner for retained reflexes. “We also have a music therapist for children with physical cognitive and social needs and not forgetting a nutritionist for dietary advice,” she adds. “In addition we liaise with schools, doctors and other professionals involved with the child. Our programmes vary according to need. We design individual programmes to suit the child,” she says.

Craig counts herself lucky to have the best team working with her, adding that it is their passion and dedication to the work they do that motivates her to carry on every day. “They are simply perfect and most have been with me for almost 10 years now, so much so I can afford to go on longer leave to spend more time with my grandchildren who are in Australia,” says Craig.
The centre takes in children aged six to 19. “The idea is those children who can possibly be mainstreamed will come here. We have those who go to school but are not doing well, who do not go to school or even those who are home-schooled, coming to us explains Craig. “In the morning we see those who have been excluded from the education system, those who can’t get into school or would not fit into a normal school attending the sessions,” she says.
Each session at the centre lasts up to three hours as Craig doesn’t believe in keeping them any longer. “They come here to learn and learning should be fun, not long and torturous,” she says. Each teacher will take care of up to three students at any given time, to ensure that a personalised teaching and learning experience is optimised. “This is not meant to be a school. This is a specialist centre as the kids we get haven’t responded well to an environment such as that in a school. So what we aim to be here is something that doesn’t even look like a school,” she explains. “I’m trying to make sure that when they go back to school, they will respond well.”

“The idea is those children who can possibly be mainstreamed will come here. We have those who are going to school but are not doing well, who do not go to school, or even those who are homeschooled, coming to us.” – Craig

More than just reaching out to the kids who come to the centre, Hils Learning also conducts workshops that are put together by the teachers. The series of workshops are designed to help individuals, parents and educators work with different learners in order to help them achieve their potential. “The workshops will be conducted over three weeks and focus on improving memory through games, enhancing spelling, as well as developing attention and listening skills ,” says Craig. “At the workshops, parents are taught simple things like what they can do for their children and these simple things will eventually increase the quality time spent with them says Craig, allowing these families to bond. More than being just a learning centre, it is also the magic that Craig and her team put together that creates a huge impact for these families. “My only worry is that I might not have enough time as there is just so much to do but so little time,” says Craig who has also written a book which is being published at press time. “The book which we are all very excited about will contain a wealth of information for parents dealing with special needs kids and teaching them practical activities that can be done together,” says Craig.

Craig, who admits to being a very active child growing up, says the energy level she has allows her to carry on with the centre. “You have to also insulate yourself and tell yourself that you are not God,” she says. “I try to do the best I can for everyone who walks in here and the rest is really up to them and the support they get from the people around them,” she adds‘ “I don’t allow my teachers to work more than 27 hours a week and they get three weeks off a year, plus another three weeks for Christmas and this is the most important thing,” she says, adding that the time off allows them to recharge.

“In this line, taking that downtime to just let off steam is crucial and as my husband notices, when we go as a team on a retreat every year, there is just so much laughter and silliness that fill the air,” says Craig. Parents with children who have learning differences should look for that one skill that is prominent, advises Craig. “Even if it is something as simple as biking, take them biking and nurture that talent for they may just end up excelling in it,” she says. “Search for opportunities where they have a chance of shining.”