From preschool to home: supporting a child with learning needs

Ethan Wong, like any other preschooler, enjoys playing with toy cars and Lego blocks. The bubbly five-year-old attends NTUC First Campus’ My First Skool @ Punggol Place. According to his mother Mrs Wong however, he used to have some difficulty following instructions and would be easily distracted in class.

After a screening assessment by his preschool, which identified him as eligible for early intervention services, his parents enrolled him in the Learning Support (LS) programme in September 2018. Under this programme, children with learning needs receive support in their preschools from Learning Support Educators, in areas such as handwriting, social communication, language development and literacy.

In addition to supporting Ethan once a week at his preschool, the Learning Support Educators also taught Mrs Wong how to better support her son at home. She conscientiously incorporates the toys that her son likes into step-by-step instructional games to increase his attention span for example.

Today, after eight months of early intervention support, Ethan is able to stay attentive in class and follow two- to three-step verbal instructions. Mrs Wong says such improvements take time and require support both within and outside of the classroom. “I believe parents need to take part. Parents need to go back and practise more with their kid at home,” she says.

It helps that the LS programme is conducted within the preschool. Mrs Wong does not need to seek external sources of help and can spend more time supporting her child’s development. She also finds it a useful resource for parents who may not be familiar with such programmes, and is a “good start” for children with mild learning needs.

In preschool, Ethan was supported by Ms Veronica Tang, a Learning Support Educator from NTUC First Campus. Ms Tang – or “Teacher Veron”, as students affectionately call her – gives extra guidance to children from My First Skool with developmental needs. Over the course of three months, she conducted 10 early intervention sessions with Ethan. These sessions were customised to Ethan’s specific learning needs, targeted at focusing on tasks at hand and following step-by-step instructions through the use of play and daily routines. Ms Tang provided a progress report to Mrs Wong after each session.

Ms Tang says early intervention services give “peace of mind to parents” because they know they have “additional support” at their children’s preschools.

Recognising the importance of such support, MSF announced in January 2019 that spending on early intervention programmes would be raised to around $60 million per year, up from $45 million previously.

The Ministry further announced in April 2019 the setting up of a cross-sectoral inclusive preschool workgroup to study and develop recommendations to further support children with moderate to severe developmental needs within preschools. The workgroup is co-chaired by Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim and National Institute of Education Associate Dean (Education Research) Kenneth Poon.

And progressively from July 2019 till end 2020, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will oversee both early intervention services and preschool services.

These initiatives will ensure better coordination and delivery of the various services for children with developmental needs.

Ms Deniece Bidhiya, Senior Manager (Learning & Developmental Support) at NTUC First Campus’ Child Support Services, says more parents have been enrolling their children in such programmes since the school started offering them in 2012.

Initially, she shares, some parents were apprehensive. A common concern was that their children might feel singled out through such intervention lessons, or be viewed differently by their friends.

“I always assure parents that the Learning Support Educators are professionals and know how to build a relationship with not just the child, but also their peers.”  She adds that the children find Ms Tang’s activities so fun, they sometimes cannot wait for their turns with her.

As Ms Tang describes her approach to education, “Learning cannot be just: ‘Sit at the table, read a book and then write, write, write’. It needs to be engaging.”

Judging by the scene when she walks around the preschool, the students are certainly engaged. They crowd around her, eager to chat and share their latest drawings with her.