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The Big Read: In mainstream schools, children with learning disabilities still face challenges

Madam June Yeo, 52, an allied educator for learning and behavioural support at Montfort Secondary School, helps 15-year-old Ansel Lim, who suffers from a muscular disorder, with his school work. Photo: Ernest Chua

Madam June Yeo, 52, an allied educator for learning and behavioural support at Montfort Secondary School, helps 15-year-old Ansel Lim, who suffers from a muscular disorder, with his school work. Photo: Ernest Chua

Madam June Yeo, 52, an allied educator for learning and behavioural support at Montfort Secondary School, helps 15-year-old Ansel Lim, who suffers from a muscular disorder, with his school work. Photo: Ernest Chua

SINGAPORE — Despite efforts by the authorities to do more for children with mild learning disabilities, it is still challenging for these children and their parents to keep up at mainstream primary and secondary schools.

The parents told TODAY they often have to find ways to help their children on their own, at times forking out money for tuition and psychological assessments. There are about 13,000 students, or about 2.7 per cent of the total student population, with learning difficulties or mild special educational needs at mainstream schools, said a Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesperson. Students with dyslexia form the largest group.

A 45-year-old homemaker, who wished to be known as Ms Hui, spoke of the challenges she had faced since her son, now 14, was diagnosed with dyslexia seven years ago. He was labelled as “slow and stupid” by classmates and teachers, she said.

Ms Hui said she had wanted an official diagnosis by an MOE eduational psychologist of her son’s condition, which is needed for her to apply for exemption in Chinese Language. However, there was a long waiting list. While she managed to get a private psychologist to certify her son’s condition, the report was not recognised by the authorities. Eventually, after she transferred her son to another school, she managed to get an MOE educational psychologist to assess her son and the exemption was approved. The process took about a year, she said.

Ms Hui has quit her job to coach her son at home and has sent him for private lessons. She said the experience had been frustrating. “We have to resort to all these different options on our own to go around the system,” she said. “We need more guidance ... as parents like us don’t know where to go and what to do. We end up just charging around and making mistakes.”

Another parent, who wanted to be known as Mrs Tan, has a 12-year-old son who has auditory processing disorder. She recalled his struggles in primary school. “Some teachers try to be helpful, but don’t understand (his condition) ... They will complain he is not paying attention,” said Mrs Tan, 45, a graphic designer. But she added: “You can’t blame the teachers, they have so many kids (in class to look after).”

A primary-school teacher, who declined to be named, noted the spectrum of special needs, some of which can cause children to be disruptive in class. Teachers would have to cater for special needs children and customise their teaching methods, he said. “But if there are too many of such children in a class, it is unfair to expect (mainstream) teachers to be able to cope.”

There are currently more than 400 allied educators specialising in learning and behavioural support, up from “an almost zero base 10 years ago”, the MOE spokesperson said. All 190 primary schools and 69 secondary schools — or about 40 per cent of the total number of secondary schools here — have at least one allied educator trained in this field and who has specialised skills and knowledge to identify and support students with learning difficulties and mild special educational needs.

There are also about 3,000 teachers trained to meet special needs, up from fewer than 80 a decade ago. They are trained to plan, adapt and differentiate the curriculum to meet the special learning needs of students. Along with allied educators specialising in learning and behavioural support, they work with MOE educational psychologists on assessment and intervention.

The MOE spokesperson noted that pupils who enter Primary One with weak English language and literacy skills will be given extra support in Pri 1 and 2. The ministry also provides grants and works in close partnership with voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) to provide school-based specialised education services for students with physical and sensory disabilities. A guide for parents with children with special educational needs has been developed to assist them on options and support available.

In 2012, the MOE piloted the School-based Dyslexia Remediation programme, a two-year intervention initiative for Pri 3 and 4 pupils, in 20 primary schools. It was extended to 42 more primary schools in the past two years, with plans for even more schools to be under the programme.

“We remain committed to developing an inclusive education system and will continue our efforts to support students with mild special educational needs at mainstream schools,” the spokesperson said.

Parents have welcomed the MOE’s initiatives, including having allied educators at schools to provide support for children with special needs.

However, Ms Amelia Yeo, 29, a former allied educator, said she had often found herself taking on miscellaneous tasks, such as relief teaching and, once, teaching art classes. The degree holder said she had a starting pay of only S$1,800 a month and was not given clear indication of career progression. “If you pay people like that and expect them to put in that number of hours ... you can’t expect people to stay long and can’t expect to get quality people,” she said.

Nominated Member of Parliament Chia Yong Yong, who is president of social service provider SPD, said more help needs to be given to special needs children at mainstream schools, especially those who have yet to be officially diagnosed. But she added that the MOE is taking steps to train its teachers to understand disabilities more.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua also acknowledged the MOE’s effort in supporting students with special needs. To be effective, help schemes need to have a robust system that trains skilled staff at various levels, including assessment, placement and provision of education support, said Ms Phua, who is also president of Autism Resource Centre (Singapore). “It is not an easy task and Rome cannot be built in a day,” she said.

SINGAPORE — Fifteen-year-old Ansel Lim, who has a muscular disorder, has trouble holding a pencil and relies on Madam June Yeo, 52, an allied educator (AED), for learning and behavioural support at Montfort Secondary School to help shade the ovals for his answers on the Optical Answer Sheet during exams.

She also helps him pick up his stationery when he drops it, as well as prints and submits his exam scripts.

When he was in lower secondary, she used to help him chop vegetables and stir ingredients during Home Economics lessons.

For seven years, Mdm Yeo has been, in her words, a “school mummy” to Ansel and 19 other students who have learning or behavioural difficulties. It is tough work, she said, citing the shortage of AEDs compounded by a high attrition rate. She added that her passion to help these children keeps her going, rather than money or career progression. The appreciation from parents and knowing that her work makes a difference also keeps her happy in her job, she said.

Ansel, who was diagnosed with duchenne muscular dystrophy at seven, also has mild autism and dyspraxia — a developmental coordination disorder.

Speaking to TODAY, the Normal (Technical) student expressed his gratitude to Mdm Yeo.

His mother, Mrs Arina Lim, a homemaker, said Mdm Yeo was a “bridge” between her and the school when Ansel first entered secondary school. “If there’s anything, I can go through her and she notices things that can help Ansel that I’ve never noticed,” she said.

Mrs Lim, 47, said she and Mdm Yeo have developed a close relationship, texting each other regularly.

As part of her job, Mdm Yeo sets up meetings with teachers, the principal, therapists and parents. Like a guardian to the children under her care, she stands up for them when they are bullied by other students.

She also takes the students aside for one-on-one lessons or small group sessions to help them catch up with school work. The students trust her and see her as their confidante.

Mdm Yeo said the Ministry of Education has been working hard to improve support for children with special needs at mainstream schools. “Seven to eight years ago, there wasn’t such emphasis on special needs. Now there is greater awareness and greater support coming in ... so give it time,” she said.

The Big Read: For special needs children, pre-school is not a given

Speak to industry players or any parent who has a child with special needs and the consensus is clear: Singapore has some way to go when it comes to making the education system more inclusive for children with learning disabilities.

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