It won’t be a stretch to think of behavioral therapy as an expensive option, available only to families of children with special needs who have more than enough for life’s basic necessities.
The reality, however, is that many young Filipinos of limited or average means also have special needs. They need help with their everyday struggles, and guidance as they face an uncertain future.
With its small and spartan office in a building near Monumento Circle in Caloocan, Shaping Milestones Learning Center ventures to do its part, one branch at a time.
SMLC is a behavioral therapy center; this branch, which opened just this June, is the eighth in a chain of branches in Cavite, Batangas, Manila, Quezon City and Valenzuela.
The center is driven by 26-year-old Cheng Bondoc, a psychology graduate from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. He and five of his friends from the same college put their heads together and started this venture-advocacy of sorts.
It’s a Sped center, in a sense, but it is not a school. Its students, 11 so far in this branch, are enrolled in “regular” elementary or high schools but need intervention to help them cope with formal education’s multi-faceted demands. The kids have varied special needs, ranging from Autism Spectrum Disorder, mental delay, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Learning Disabilities.
The people behind this branch— Bondoc and at least four behavioral therapists—like to think of themselves as the “support group” for these children. While some of their branches are stand-alone, some are in partnership with schools who must deal with the special needs of some students in their population.
“Here, we seek to address all the domains: psychomotor, cognitive, communication and socialization,” Bondoc says, emphasizing the center’s “People Matter Most” philosophy.
According to Bondoc, their team is heavy on research, making sure that the methods they employ are up to date with recent trends and practices. These days, they are exploring what they term “digital behaviorism”—whether technology tools could complement face-to-face interaction with therapists in eliciting behavior improvement among the children.
Of course, behavioral therapist Bing Banares says, various methods generate different responses from different kids.
Children with special needs face a challenging future, because their academic and eventually their career options may be limited. They may thrive in activities with little to no socialization required such as the work of computer programmers or librarians. Make no mistake, however, some of them do very well in school and manage to get into the honors list.
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And then, there is economics. These special conditions are not limited to those who can afford regular (i.e., pricey) treatment.
SMLC works with this premise. This is why the payment schemes they have designed are on a per-session basis, Bondoc explains. While they emphasize that at least two sessions are needed by each child every week, they do not impose agreements whereby children must stay with SMLC for any length of time. They are free to continue as long as they note improvements, and they can stop when they don’t.
Sometimes, free sessions are given to those who cannot afford to keep up with the payments, especially if they have been students for a long time.
Business is a fact of life, sure. But in this respect, work is seen not as a means to rake in profits but as a way to reach out to children with conditions that cannot be cured, only managed.
Bondoc was in his junior year in college when he became exposed to children with special needs. Banares, on the other hand, decided to make Sped her advocacy after her stint as guidance counsellor at a private school in Manila.
Both agree that their involvement with children with special needs gives them a different kind of fulfillment. “The therapy sessions don’t just change the children. They also change us.”
Being in special education means never giving up. “Eventually you see small improvements. Kids begin to talk even after their parents have become resigned to the fact that they are not going to,” according to Bondoc. He adds that parents must not think of their kids, not as sick, but just different.
“Parents must be thankful of the little things they find in their kids. At the same time, they should not be content with these little achievements. May aabutin pa sila.”
Ultimately, the challenge is how to be soft—to be loving and understanding under difficult circumstances when it would be easy to be tough, or give up altogether. “Soft is the new hard,” according to Bondoc. “Our work with these children who really cannot give us anything in return teaches us, and well, what unconditional love is.”