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Interaction with special needs children beneficial to pre-schoolers

SINGAPORE — A local study has found that there are potential benefits of structured intervention programmes at the pre-school level to foster more positive attitudes on special needs during the formative years, especially within inclusive classroom settings.

Students at Kindle Garden, Singapore’s first inclusive preschool on March 31, 2016. Photo: Wee Teck Hian/TODAY

Students at Kindle Garden, Singapore’s first inclusive preschool on March 31, 2016. Photo: Wee Teck Hian/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — A local study has found that there are potential benefits of structured intervention programmes at the pre-school level to foster more positive attitudes on special needs during the formative years, especially within inclusive classroom settings.

For her study, Ms Oh Hsu Wei, a National Institute of Education applied psychology Master’s student, applied intervention strategies in the classrooms of two groups of students over 10 sessions last year. The tools used included stories which have characters with autism or allowing students to move around in a wheelchair.

Measuring the outcomes against a third control group, she conducted pre- and post-tests after intervention to measure changes in the students’ attitudes. For example, questions asked included “would you like to be good friends with a child who can’t talk?”

For the group which had a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the 26 K2 kids had “significantly higher levels of acceptance” in their post-test results.

For the other group of 17 K1 and K2 children, who had no child with special needs among them, the post-test results were also higher but not significantly different statistically — which could be attributed to the need for a larger sample size.

Pointing out that early childhood years are a “particularly fruitful time to educate children about diversity among people”, Ms Oh added: “This could mean that contact with children with special needs is essential so the experience of interacting with them further enhances the impact of the intervention programme.”

Currently, 2,600 children with developmental needs are enrolled in the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC), where industry estimates showed 70 per cent of them are unable to enrol into a mainstream pre-school. The waiting time to join EIPIC can be around six months.

At some anchor pre-school centres, the Government has rolled out the Development Support Programme to help those with mild developmental needs.

Ms Oh noted that as more children with special needs could join mainstream pre-schools in future, attitudinal barriers still remain.

She suggested factoring in more educational resources on disabilities or having shared activities in the curriculum to foster understanding among children.

Ms Oh noted the need for more randomised and larger samples to generalise the findings of her study, which is funded by Singapore’s Children Society.

On Monday, a study commissioned by Lien Foundation found that while seven in 10 respondents support the idea of inclusive education, only about half also said that they are comfortable with their child being in the same class with another with special needs.

Pre-school educators interviewed by TODAY agreed that parents’ acceptance on special needs will shape children’s attitudes on special needs.

Mrs Denise Lai, founder of Wee Care inclusive pre-school, noted that parents might fear their child imitating the behaviour of another child with special needs.

However, educators said with trained teachers and sufficient therapy before the child with special needs joins a mainstream setting, integration is possible and teachers can help other children learn to assist their peer with special needs.

PAP Community Foundation (PCF) centres enrolled about 20 per cent more children with developmental needs over the past year. A spokesperson said staff will try to seek parents’ understanding on accommodating children with different needs, adding that educators have also observed that inclusive education classrooms have allowed other children to be more empathetic too.

A mother of two boys, Mrs Alison Chung, said she would be concerned about her child’s safety if a classmate with special needs has aggressive tendencies. However, she added: “Being in a class with other kids could (also) allow (the child with special needs) to observe and imitate what is acceptable social behaviour.” Ng Jing Yng

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