Monday 2 March 2015

Help for special needs kids in mainstream schools

Trained educators provide support for children with special needs in mainstream schools
By Lea Wee, The Sunday Times, 1 Mar 2015

When Montfort Secondary School normal academic student Eidren Loy emerged second in the school's academic ranking last year, he did not show any feeling.

But his allied educator June Yeo was "very proud of him".

Madam Yeo, 52, who provides learning and behavioural support to children with special needs at Montfort Secondary, says: "It's hard enough for a child with autism to cope in a mainstream school, but to be able to do better than so many of his peers academically, that's something worth celebrating."

Eidren, now 15, is one of 13,000 students with mild special educational needs in mainstream schools, or about 2.7 per cent of the total student population. Those with more moderate and severe symptoms are supported by special education schools.

In mainstream schools, students with dyslexia form the largest group of students with mild special educational needs. As they have a very good chance of overcoming their literacy difficulties with early intervention, the ministry, in 2012, piloted the School-based Dyslexia Remediation programme for Primary 3 and 4 pupils in 20 primary schools.

Under the programme, now expanded to 42 more primary schools with more in the pipeline, students attend a 45-minute literacy session four days a week after school. They are taught by allied educators specialising in learning and behavioural support.

There are about 400 allied educators across primary and secondary schools since they were introduced under the system 10 years ago.

Armed with a diploma in special education from the National Institute of Education, they are trained to provide learning and behavioural support to students with special educational needs, such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. They also teach these students social and behavioural skills and, when necessary, counsel them on emotional issues.

Madam Yeo, who works closely with 20 such students under her charge, says: "It's tiring because the job scope is wide. Besides dealing with the special needs student, you need to liaise with his teachers, parents and external parties such as psychologists to ensure that he has holistic care."

Part of her job requires her to ensure the student has a smooth transition from primary to secondary school and from secondary school to higher education.

A former manager in a travel company, she took a "significant" pay cut to make the career switch in 2006. So far, she has no regrets. The mother of three says: "It's satisfying when you see the students make progress and they all do to varying degrees, be it socially or academically."

Eidren finds Madam Yeo's office a "safe place". He drops by almost every day during his break to play chess by himself or with another student.

He says of Madam Yeo: "She helps me to do things like take a deep breath when I have difficulty in class. She is kind, patient and helpful. She is like a mummy to me."

Dyslexia programme rolled out to 60 more primary schools this year
By Olivia Ho, The Straits Times, 2 Mar 2015

More primary school pupils with reading difficulties will get help, as the Ministry of Education expands its School-based Dyslexia Remediation Programme to 60 more schools this year.

The two-year intervention programme, which was piloted in 2012, helps Primary 3 and 4 pupils who struggle with reading and spelling to catch up with their peers through specially-designed extra-curricular classes.

The programme will now cover 121 primary schools, or two-thirds of all primary schools in Singapore. It will be made available to all primary schools here in 2016.

An additional 290 students are expected to benefit from this year's expansion, on top of the 1,510 who have already gone through the programme.

Minister of State for Education and Communications and Information, Ms Sim Ann, said: "Over the years, awareness about dyslexia has been increasing and also more students are being put through the diagnostic process."

"Reading forms a very critical foundation for learning. For most of our students who experience persistent difficulty with reading, we want to support them with targeted and effective measures," she said.

Reading forms a critical foundation for learning. For students who have persistent difficulties in reading, it is...
Posted by Ministry of Education, Singapore on Monday, March 2, 2015

The classes are conducted after hours by Allied Educators and English language teachers with specialised training.

They focus on overcoming challenges such as difficulty in connecting letter sounds with letter names, and weak memory. Teachers incorporate sensory methods such as writing the word with a finger in the air and the use of visual props.

A majority of students from the 2012 two-year pilot showed an improvement in reading and spelling skills, gaining more than two and a half years in reading age, or the average age at which a comparable reading ability is found.

Learning to read at Primary 3
By Lea Wee, The Sunday Times, 1 Mar 2015

When Mrs Chua May Ling first met Toro Kang, he was in Primary 3, but he had the reading skills of a preschooler. Mrs Chua, an allied educator in her mid-40s at White Sands Primary School, recalls: "He could not recognise or spell common words such as there or they."

His writing was so illegible it was "like Greek". Due to these difficulties, he tended to lose focus and daydream in class.

In Primary 1 and 2, he was placed in the learning support programme for English and mathematics. His grades improved, but he still failed the subjects.

When he was in Primary 3, his school referred him to the Ministry of Education's educational psychologist, who diagnosed him as having dyslexia. It is a condition that affects the learning of reading and spelling skills and, in Toro's case, also causes poor concentration and organisation skills.

Mrs Chua met him soon after the diagnosis and started literacy classes with him. For one hour twice a week, she taught him reading and spelling skills using a multi-sensory approach.

She also taught him how to better organise his schoolbag and homework, as well as trained two of his classmates to help him in class whenever he encountered difficulties in reading, writing and spelling.

During the training, which was done for all buddies of those with special needs, they learnt about the learning difficulties that dyslexic children faced and also underwent empathy-inducing exercises such as trying to spell unfamiliar looking symbols, to get a taste of what it felt like to have difficulties with spelling.

Toro's Primary 3 form teacher, Madam Rahanim Shukor, 48, pitched in by giving him more attention during lessons. She sat him in the first row and also checked on him to make sure he was on track. She also wrote him encouraging notes in his homework whenever he did well.

She says: "Once he found he could read and write, it set the ball rolling and he became more motivated to want to do better. He also started to pay more attention in class."

In Primary 4, he passed his English and Science examinations for the first time. Now 11 and in Primary 6, he has done well enough to be able to take his English, mathematics and science at the higher standard level instead of the foundation level. He is exempted from mother tongue because of his condition.

Although reading still takes effort, he says he enjoys it more these days. Among his favourite books are the best-selling Geronimo Stilton children's book series.

His single-parent mother, Ms Lem Tsu May, 37, a senior medic, is happy with the progress that her only child has made.

She says: "I have seen a gradual improvement in his results from Primary 4 onwards. I hope he can do well enough to at least pass his PSLE this year."

Angry corner for Ronaldo
By Lea Wee, The Sunday Times, 1 Mar 2015

White Sands Primary School pupil Ronaldo Christiano Garnell used to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.

In one incident, he crept under his table in the classroom and yelled at the top of his voice for more than half an hour over a minor incident.

Says Mrs Chua May Ling, an allied educator in her mid-40s: "We had to move the whole class to their next lesson earlier and wait for him to calm down."

Indeed, the first half of Ronaldo's Primary 1 year, starting from the first day when he refused to step into his classroom, was eventful, to say the least.

Mrs Chua recalls with a laugh: "There was hardly a day when I didn't get at least one call from the teachers about him."

During assembly, he could not stand still in his assigned spot - he would walk around or climb up the stage and roll about. In class, he could not pay attention and played with his stationery or walked around the class, sometimes dashing out. He also cut queues to buy food in the canteen.

Worst of all was his temper tantrums when he lashed out at anyone and anything in his path, including tables, chairs and, sometimes, classmates.

Ronaldo, who was diagnosed with delayed speech in preschool, was referred to a Ministry of Education psychologist and diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. This is a developmental disorder characterised by inflexible thinking and great difficulty in communicating and socialising.

He was put in the school's learning support programme to learn how to read. To help him better manage the transition from home to school, Mrs Chua received him at the gate every afternoon and spent about half an hour with him to prepare him for the day. During this time, she taught him social and behavioural skills and how to adhere to school routines.

As his meltdowns tended to happen in the late afternoon, he was allowed to go home two hours earlier, at 4pm, in the first few months.

Mrs Chua also modified his timetable. Instead of attending music, art and physical education classes, where he tended to have more meltdowns because they involved more interaction and were less structured, he would have lessons with her.

Later, to ease him back into these classes, she roped in parent volunteers to act as mediators.

His teachers were trained on how to engage him in a classroom and how to manage him when he had a meltdown.

Two of his more mature classmates were selected to be his buddies. They would look out for him, for instance, inform the teacher or allied educator if he were to suddenly disappear from the class or if he had a meltdown or got bullied. Says Mrs Chua: "Some students tried to provoke Ronaldo because they find his response funny."

In the second half of Primary 1, he started to show signs of improvement. Says Mrs Chua: "By the time he was in Primary 2, I hardly got any calls from the teachers about him." He was able to follow the normal timetable.

Now in Primary 3, Ronaldo has a "calm down" corner at the back of the classroom near the window. His form teacher Nadia Hezryn Osman, 37, says: "When he gets angry, he goes to the corner, looks out of the window and calms down."

Pupil Uzayr Williams, who sits beside Ronaldo in class, recalls being hit by him once. He says: "But Ronaldo apologised to me and I forgave him. I understood that he could not help himself."

His father, Mr Steven Wilfred Garnell, 43, a construction driver, says the school has done a good job: "In preschool, he was often left alone. But now, he can mingle with his teachers and students. His speech has improved. He can also control his temper better, even at home."

Ronaldo, who has a sister, nine, and whose mother, 39, is a housewife, can feel the change in himself. "Last time, I would just beat people when I was angry. But now, I know it's wrong to do that."

A FM hearing aid to hear better
By Lea Wee, The Sunday Times, 1 Mar 2015

Every night without fail, Tan Hao Yi, 14, charges a hand-held device called an FM transmitter system.

At the start of each class, he passes the transmitter, which comes with a microphone, to his teacher, who clips it against his shirt. The transmitter sends speech sounds via radio waves to two FM receivers attached to the hearing aids behind Hao Yi's ears. The wireless system helps him to hear more clearly in noisy situations.

The student was diagnosed with profound hearing loss in his right ear and severe hearing loss in his left ear when he was four. The causes were unknown. He was fitted with hearing aids and underwent speech therapy for three years.

His mother, housewife Tang Hwee Fong, 40, says that even with hearing aids, her eldest child still has difficulty hearing others, especially when they speak too fast or too softly or when there is a lot of background noise. She has two other sons, aged 12 and nine.

"He learnt to lip-read and relied quite heavily on it," she adds.

Hao Yi's school results were affected and his grades for English, maths and science were "always on the borderline".

When he was in Primary 5 at Maris Stella Primary, Madam Tang managed to acquire an FM system from the Ministry of Education through the school's allied educator. Says Hao Yi: "The FM system cuts out environmental noise. So even when it's raining, I can tell the difference between words such as 'it' and 'eat'."

That same year, the hearing in his right ear deteriorated and he underwent a cochlear implant. During the procedure, an electronic device was surgically implanted in the ear to provide a sense of sound.

He managed to score an aggregate of 209 at the PSLE to enter the Express stream in Montfort Secondary.

Besides being able to hear better with the FM system and cochlear implant, his mother attributes his good results to his teachers at Maris Stella, who gave him extra coaching.

At Montfort Secondary, he has been able to cope well academically with the help of his teachers, who make a conscious effort to get his classmates to pipe down whenever they get too noisy.

But he had some social issues. "I didn't make any friends at first. My classmates spoke too fast and when I kept saying, 'huh, huh', they got frustrated."

But after he explained his condition to them, they became more understanding and spoke more slowly. He has since made a number of friends, with whom he enjoys playing soccer and badminton.

As he is good at maths, he hopes to enter polytechnic to study accounting.

Madam Tang is concerned if Hao Yi would be able to hear in the lecture hall. Her husband, 44, helps out in his family business.

She says: "By that time, we would have to return the FM system to the education ministry. Hopefully, there will be some other kind of system installed in the lecture theatre that would allow him to hear clearly with his hearing aid and cochlear implant."

Otherwise, she will consider buying an FM system, which costs at least $2,000.

School made more accessible
By Lea Wee, The Sunday Times, 1 Mar 2015

Ansel Lim dreaded his first few months in secondary school. The Secondary 4 normal technical student recalls: "My classmates would make fun of me. They did actions I could not do, such as jumping and stretching, and said things like, 'I can walk, you cannot.'"

Ansel, 15, suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a condition which causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. He lost the ability to walk when he was in Primary 5 at Kuo Chuan Presbyterian and started to use a wheelchair. He also has mild autism and dyspraxia, a developmental coordination disorder.

When he entered Montfort Secondary, Madam June Yeo, the school's allied educator, informed his teachers of his condition so that they could be more accommodating towards his needs. When she found out he was having issues with his peers, she talked to the class to let them know about his condition.

"He has limited use of his hands and can do only simple writing and manoeuvre the joystick of his motorised wheelchair," says Madam Yeo, 52, who also put in place a peer buddy system for him.

He needs his buddies to help him press the lift button, pick up things he drops and buy food for him and transfer the food tray to his wheelchair top during recess.

A good friend, Shaun Tan, even spoonfeeds him if he is taking too long with his meal and helps him with his toileting needs.

When Ansel's wheelchair runs out of battery power, Shaun knows how to switch it to manual mode.

Other school staff have also chipped in. A canteen operator cuts Ansel's noodles so it is easier for him to eat. The operations manager makes himself available almost every morning so that he can help Ansel's mother, Mrs Arina Lim, retrieve the motorised wheelchair from the office and walk with Ansel to the lobby. She leaves the wheelchair in school as it cannot fit into her car. He uses a manual wheelchair at home.

Mrs Lim, 47, a housewife, is happy with the support Ansel receives at Montfort. Her husband, 50, is a civil servant

In fact, Ansel has been receiving "a lot of support" since his primary school days at Kuo Chuan Presbyterian, she says. The school built a ramp to the canteen so that she would not have to carry him up the stairs. He was also allowed to sit at the staff table because it could accommodate his wheelchair better.

Ansel says he now enjoys secondary school life too. He has some learning challenges due to his autism and dyspraxia, but Mrs Lim, who has a daughter, 19, is not too concerned. She says: "For me, so long as he has done his best and is able to pass most of his subjects, I am happy. I just want him to enjoy himself at school."

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