I personally had first-hand experience in ‘normalisation’ when my teachers and peers tried to classify me as Indian. They did not know anyone else of mixed parentage and they believed that a person could only be of one race. As a child, this was very confusing for me. Normalisation involves “determining what is normal, identifying the abnormal and setting normality as an outcome or purpose” (Dahlberg & Moss; 2005, p.14).
My personal experience with normalisation helped me relate to Nelly. Nelly had severe epilepsy and was on medication that made retention difficult. Nelly joined the preschool at K1 i.e. 5 years old. In K1, children are expected to read and spell simple 3 to 4 letter words. Nelly’s teacher had included Nelly into her class and made provisions for her daily activities. The class worked as a community to help Nelly. She was socially included and enjoyed being with her peers. Nelly however was unable to meet the academic requirements of the K1 class. As her support teacher, Nelly had been working individually with me for 3 months. She had made tremendous progress but academically, the teacher felt that Nelly should repeat K1 and delay her entry into Primary 1 by a year to prepare Nelly better. This was an attempt to normalise Nelly. Her parents however, insisted that Nelly move to K2 with her peers.
I was torn as I was unsure if remaining in K1 was in her best interest or moving on to K2 was the right decision. I was concerned that if Nelly moved to K2 and could not cope with the highly focused academic environment it might affect her self-esteem. However, staying back in K1 without her teacher, peers and the community that supported her may also be detrimental to her development.
This made me realise that the teacher and her ability to include a child without being clouded by dominant discourses that force us to normalise a child is crucial. I now believe that moving on to K2 was the right decision as she would remain with her peers and her current teacher, whom will support her with the help of her parents. The parents disagreeing with the school forced the school to accept and find new ways to make the environment work for Nelly. However, if no efforts are made and Nelly just attends school to kill time; this will not benefit her either. Also from a rights perspective, a child has a right to be supported and a right to be allowed room for development and expression with the parents and the school supporting him/her during the crucial developmental stages of his/her life.
I believe that we can create an environment that facilitates learning, to balance academic expectations and to be open to new outlooks on early childhood education. This was, in part, a factor that led me to set up All Hands Together.