KidSTART: Kickstarting better child development

KidSTART officer Lee Wei Qi finds joy in “being on the ground, and working directly with parents and young children”. As part of the Home Visitation Team of the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA)’s KidSTART programme, she makes her way to their homes, to equip and empower parents in caregiving.

Since the programme started in 2016, over 900 children have received KidSTART support, in the pilot regions of Kreta Ayer, Bukit Merah, Taman Jurong, Boon Lay and Geylang Serai.

One of KidSTART’s guiding principles, as Wei Qi puts it, is “Parents are the children’s first teachers.” It is therefore crucial to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to nurture their children effectively and independently.

One parent who has benefited from KidSTART support is Nurhidayah Binte Abdullah, a mother of three. Initially, she had allowed her children excessive screen time on the television and their electronic devices, thinking that games and videos would suffice as learning. Following Wei Qi’s visits and advice on the importance of outdoor activities, use of language to engage children and the harmful effects of excessive screen time, she now regularly brings her children to the playground, conversing with them as they develop psychomotor skills.

From being completely silent during Wei Qi’s initial visits, Nurhidayah’s three-year-old daughter is now chatty and vibrant. “When we go outdoors, they are running, climbing and observing things around them,” says Wei Qi, explaining the importance of developing a child’s different senses for learning.

KidSTART’s methodology in this area is guided by the Abecedarian Approach, which is evidence based and developed in 1972 by Dr Joseph Sparling and Dr Craig Remy. Its hallmarks include turning everyday experiences into opportunities for learning, conversing and adding educational content.

KidSTART officers, like Wei Qi, also teach parents songs and rhymes that can be incorporated into daily routines to enhance the quality of interaction for parent and child.

Wei Qi and her team are currently working on a guide with more tips for KidSTART parents to incorporate into their routines. One challenge is customising resource material to make it more accessible to parents, she says, joking that the English in some of the existing textbooks is “a bit cheem” (Singlish for profound).

With her fellow KidSTART colleagues, Wei Qi is also looking to incorporate infographics and localised examples as illustrations for learning. For example, instead of telling parents to bring their children to the backyard, as is common in Western countries, they would tell them to bring their children to the void deck or playground.

It has not always been smooth-sailing for the KidSTART home visitor. Wei Qi says that when she first started, some parents would challenge her, questioning her ability to teach about parenting given that she is not a parent herself.

However, over time, the former early childhood educator and preschool principal managed to build rapport with the parents and they began to see how Wei Qi was able to engage them and their children through her warm, intentional interactions and extensive knowledge of early childhood development. They saw for themselves how well their children responded to the techniques taught by Wei Qi and eventually “let their guard down” and trusted her.

Besides giving individual attention to parents, KidSTART also leverages on peer support through its Group Connect sessions. At these sessions, parents are invited to connect with one another and are happy to exchange telephone numbers. Knowing that they all have common concerns, such as tackling sibling rivalries and ensuring child nutrition, helps to bond the parents too, says Wei Qi. KidSTART also works closely with community partners and if families require additional support, they are referred to Family Service Centres (FSCs) and Social Service Offices (SSOs)

Parents who have completed the programme still keep in touch through a WhatsApp group they created. They share baby items with one another and set up play dates among themselves. They have built their own social support network and are independently keeping their networks going, something which KidSTART supports.

For Wei Qi, KidSTART is not a one-way process. “As much as we are sharing parenting strategies with them, I think we as officers also learn a lot from the families—they are very resilient…despite the stresses they face in their lives.

“Seeing their love and care for the children is really touching and inspiring.”

Community support – key to successful probationer rehabilitation

Toh Yue Sen, a 25-year-old Sports and Exercise Science student at Republic Polytechnic, hopes to get a degree after completing his diploma. A decade ago, pursuing an education was the farthest thing from his mind.

Back then, as a teenager, he had committed theft and robbery and was ordered to reside in Singapore Boys’ Home for two years. A few years later, he was remanded in prison for acting on behalf of an unlicensed moneylender.

During the prison remand, Yue Sen met Selina Yeo, his Investigating Probation Officer. Guided by Selina, he re-looked at where he was headed and took stock of his life prospects.

“I cried because I was touched when she talked about my family, my sisters,” he says. He realised how his incarceration would affect his loved ones and was relieved when he was placed on probation by the Court.

That was just the start of his rehabilitation. Supported by MSF’s Probation and Community Rehabilitation Service, Yue Sen started to make positive changes to his life.

He performed community service at a welfare home at Pelangi Village where he befriended elderly residents. He viewed his time there as “a gift” instead of a mere assignment, thanks to the friendly staff and residents. Yue Sen’s parents told Selina that he became more patient after serving at the home.

Yue Sen’s class advisor, Cass Lim, in ITE College East also played a crucial role in his rehabilitation. She recommended him for various courses and worked closely with Selina to guide him. With their support, Yue Sen became a role model in his fitness training course at ITE, where he was selected to be the class discipline master. He was also awarded the National Youth Achievement Award in 2018 for his leadership qualities and exemplary conduct in school.

This network of coordinated care across organisations is a key focus in MSF’s community rehabilitation efforts. To support probationers in their rehabilitative journey, MSF collaborates with many corporate and community partners to provide them and their families with diverse types of support. Strong community and family support were key factors that supported a high probation order completion rate of 84% in 2018.

Yue Sen shared that his parents played a big part in his rehabilitation. His father began taking an active interest in his boxing hobby, and supported him during a competition in July 2015. This helped to bond the family together.

Selina says Yue Sen’s parents acknowledged and supported his efforts to change himself, which improved their relationship. Yue Sen shared that he is now able to communicate openly with them without worrying that they may end up arguing or disagreeing with one another. He added that poor family communication could be the reason why some probationers struggle.

“Successful rehabilitation really starts with the family,” adds Selina. Recognising this, MSF is collaborating with Functional Family Therapy LLC to implement Functional Family Probation that focuses on the involvement of everyone in the family to strengthen support for the probationer.

Selina says some probationers do not succeed in rehabilitation because of the lack of family support and unconstructive engagement. “If the probationers are able to focus on developing better relationships with their family and commit to being constructively engaged in their studies or at work, it will encourage them to make amends and be more responsible.”

Yue Sen is committed to staying on the right path. He says he leads a “normal” life, going to school and working part time in the Food and Beverages industry.

His teenage follies and time on probation have taught him about the consequences of wrong decisions, and he is determined to stay out of trouble.

“It’s not worth my time.”

ECDA Fellows Talk Series

Do you know how to turn ordinary life moments to authentic learning experiences for our children? Build our children’s confidence and resilience to prepare them for transition from preschool to primary school. Use the V.A.L.U.E. model to communicate with teachers effectively to support children’s holistic development. These are some tips and advice shared by eight of our ECDA Fellows in the 2nd ECDA Fellows Talk Series.

The ECDA Fellows Talk Series is a collection of short videos on various topics related to early childhood, such as Mother Tongue Teaching and Learning, Pedagogical Practices, Partnerships and Support and Staff Development.

The EC​DA Fellows programme is one of ECDA’s key initiatives to recognise pinnacle leaders in the early childhood profession. It also expands opportunities for these leaders to further develop their careers to fulfil their aspirations. The ECDA Fellows work closely with ECDA to drive quality improvements in the sector, as well as inspire and contribute to the professional growth of the current and next generation of early childhood leaders.

The World is Your Classroom

It may just be a convenience store, bakery, and a recycling bin to you. But, ECDA Fellow Ong Siew Teng sees them as learning opportunities for the children in her centres. The entire neighbourhood can be a classroom for the little inquisitive minds to have “Authentic Learning Experiences”.

Strengthening Roots

ECDA Fellow Suhana Binte Salleh is excited about the government’s initiatives to expand the provision of mother tongue languages in preschools. She believes in teaching beyond the Malay language. With a creative touch, she helps children understand their heritage and culture to find their own identity.

School Starter

Making the leap from preschool to Primary One can be a daunting experience for some children, but preschools can smoothen the adjustment with different strategies. Learn how ECDA Fellow Seri Rahayu Binte Ariff helps prepare children in her centres for this transition with the “P1 Starter Kit”.

Nurturing Place for All

Novice early childhood educators often face challenges that cause them to burn out and leave the industry. ECDA Fellow Sylvia Yeo has designed an induction programme to help new teachers ease into the new preschool environment and their new roles, with guidance from their mentors. She believes in creating a “Nurturing Place for All”.

The Trusty Teacher’s Assistant

From the moment children step into a preschool, their learning begins. The environment is the third teacher, which opens up educational possibilities for children to express themselves, engage with their peers, and respond with thoughtful decisions. See how ECDA Fellow Melissa Goh jazzes up an environment and grooms it to become a child’s third teacher.

Learning Together

Learning Mandarin may be difficult for children with parents who “grew up in an English speaking environment”. ECDA Fellow Chua Lay Mui believes that parents play a huge role in “cultivating a child’s love for the language”. Learn how she designed activities for parents and children to learn their mother tongue together.

Journey Together

Ms Zaiton, a pinnacle leader and a mother, understands the struggle that many parents go through to balance work and childcare commitments. Watch how preschools can “Journey Together” with parents using strategies (such as the VALUE model) to build positive relationships and enhance children’s learning.

Sparking Change

While many centres understand the importance of raising the standards of early childhood education, the hassle that comes along with SPARK certification drives many away. ECDA Fellow Hephzi Tee spent six months convincing her staff and teachers to embark on the SPARK-certified journey. Today, her centre is happily SPARK-certified with commendation!

Marriage, according to our young Millennials

Asked about her plans for marriage, 19-year-old Tang Wen Yu imagines herself tying the knot in her late 20s or early 30s, once she has completed higher studies and her “finances are secure”.

On the other hand, 23-year-old Fong Yu Yang is already engaged. “Some of my friends don’t really put marriage as their first priority because they have other personal achievements that they want to accomplish first, like a good career or to travel around the world,” he says. But, having been with his girlfriend for seven years, they find that their relationship has not held them back from pursuing their goals.

Wen Yu and Yu Yang are among 30 students who are partnering MSF to redesign our iconic ROM and ROMM Building. It is part of our ongoing collaboration with Institutes of Higher Learning – including Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Ngee Ann Polytechnic(NP) and Temasek Polytechnic.

Wen Yu recalls being slightly “shocked” when fellow participants shared their dreams of marrying early. Although marriage is not yet on the cards for her, she says that the involvement to redesign ROM and ROMM project is special because it gives her a chance to make an impact “on the real world”. “It’s cool to know that we might be married in the very same building that we [helped to] design,” she says.

Currently studying Sustainable Urban Design and Engineering at NP, she says one possible idea for the revamp is replacing the prosaic seats at the waiting area with a comfortable lounge. Perhaps inspired by the coffee culture of her generation, she suggests setting up a café to serve couples waiting for their turn for solemnisation.

As for Yu Yang, he imagines a special area for love locks which couples can attach to bridges, fences and other public fixtures to symbolise their love. If there is insufficient space for this, this feature could be digitalised. Taking inspiration from Changi Airport’s Social Tree, he also suggests creating a similar installation at ROM and ROMM for people to upload and share photographs. Yu Yang is currently studying Engineering Systems and Design at SUTD.

On Valentine’s Day earlier this year, MSF collaborated with the Singapore Memory Project to launch “MyROMStory”, a portal for couples to share such photographs and their memories. MyROMStory encourages couples to remember their special day and inspire those who have said “I do” to re-commit to each other and say “I still do”.

As a designer herself, Wen Yu would like her own wedding to be “decorative, but still very intimate”, with only her close family and friends in attendance. Wen Yu has been with her boyfriend for four years. When he found out about her participation in this project, he was excited like her, she says.

Yu Yang’s girlfriend was also delighted to learn of his participation in the project. They had not previously thought of having their solemnisation in the ROM building, but are now considering it. His participation in the refurbishment project is “going to be a special reason why we should get solemnised and married in the ROM building itself”.

A youth caseworker’s reflections

The rehabilitation of youth offenders may begin in the Singapore Boys’ and Girls’ Homes, but it should not and does not stop there. Once they are discharged from the Homes, the youths face the sometimes daunting task of reintegrating into their schools and families.

Guiding them in this transition is key to keeping them on track in their rehabilitation journey. This is where caseworkers like Ms Lim Li Min play a pivotal role. Having served as a caseworker for seven and a half years in MSF, Li Min’s job entails conducting individual and family counselling, helping youths gain new skills, and linking them up with opportunities in the community, to address the risks and needs of those under her charge.

Ranging from displays of anti-social behaviour and violent tendencies to estrangement from family members, the challenges the youths face are increasingly complex. “Caseworkers need to be agile and resourceful to support them in personalised ways so they can have a good re-start in our community,” says Li Min.

Currently, youths are given post-care support for two months after they are discharged from the Singapore Boys’ and Girls’ Homes. After assessing that some of them continued to feel lost after the two-month period and unable to approach someone they could trust for advice, MSF will extend post-care support to one year. The pilot with about 15 to 20 selected youth will commence this year and will be progressively expanded in 2020 to include every youth discharged from the two Homes.

Under the initiative, MSF will work with appointed Voluntary Welfare Organisation partners to assign post-care workers to journey alongside the youths in the community. The post-care officers will engage the youths at least six months before they are discharged from the Singapore Boys’ and Girls’ Homes. Caseworkers like Li Min will then have a longer time to partner with these post-care officers to work out discharge plans and facilitate relationship building between the youth and their post-care officers. This will ensure a smooth reintegration and sustained rehabilitation.

Jervin Tay, now 19, is one of the youths counselled by Li Min. In 2017, after a rioting case, he was ordered by the Youth Court to reside in the Singapore Boys’ Home for 12 months. With the help of his parents and Li Min, Jervin turned his life around and even completed a barista programme.

Li Min helped Jervin to better communicate with his parents. Since his discharge in July 2018, Jervin has committed himself to making the best out of his life. He is currently in National Service and hopes to complete his ‘O’ Levels and get a diploma in the F&B industry.

Rehabilitation is not always smooth sailing, and Li Min says schools, employers and families should be prepared that these youths may “require a lot more support in the community” than in Homes.

“Building rapport and a relationship is key to being able to support a youth effectively”, she says. Only then will caseworkers be seen as “trusted adults” by the youths. “This gives them some motivation to change and move forward with their aspirations in life, knowing that they are safely anchored in someone who believes in them and whom they can fall back on.”

And relationship-building will continue to play a key role as caseworkers, and in the near future post-care officers, work hand in hand to support our youths.

 

 

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.

A social enterprise on a mission to nurture individuals with special needs

For husband and wife duo Soek Ying and Barry, giving differently-abled individuals a space to grow and develop skills for gainful employment motivated their founding of social enterprise Mustard Tree. Their son, Ryan Koh, an autistic young artisan with an affinity for arts and crafts, was the main reason why Soek Ying and Barry started Mustard Tree. Now, an omni-channel retail platform, Mustard Tree shows no signs of slowing down on its mission to empower its beneficiaries to make a dignified living.

We speak to Barry about Mustard Tree, his philosophy, and hopes for the enterprise.

Could you tell us more about Mustard Tree? 

Mustard Tree was founded by my wife, Soek Ying, and I. We run an omni-channel retail platform (Bricks & Mortar & Online) and a modest training outfit in the hope that we can better target and enable those who have fallen behind (above 18 years old & unable to land a permanent job). We aim to build capabilities in art/craftwork and retailing and to help our clients regain self-worth.

What inspired Mustard Tree to give people with special needs a space to shine?

Soek Ying and I are parents to Ryan, now 22 years old. What started as a mummy’s pride to showcase her son’s work on Facebook quickly transformed into a little enterprise. People were reaching out to ask about his work and how to go about purchasing them. In fact, some of his initial craft work which were so rough and not well made at all were snapped up quickly. One of the buyers shared this: “”Everyone leaves different fingerprints on a piece of work. If this is his style, you can’t ask him to change.” We were so touched and inspired by these encouraging words that it bolstered our confidence to part with his very first batch of felt frogs. Spurred by this experience, we continued exposing him to different forms of materials and craft work. A dear friend of ours also volunteered to come over to our house once a week to teach Ryan how to sew. Although we were wary of his sensory issues to certain noise, we ventured to buy him a sewing machine. We were all amazed by the results. Today, our aim is to impact lives of people with special needs just like Ryan – who did not have the opportunity to uncover their God-given talents or offered a chance to showcase their talents. With like-minded partners, we develop customised training courses for people with special needs, so that they can be empowered with industry standard skills, which will either enable them to seek gainful employment or set up shop as a home-based entrepreneur like Ryan.

How are these individuals empowered through your enterprise?

We train them, we hire some of them, refer them for job placements if possible. If they cannot be placed at that time, they would continue to pursue their craft with us, as we curate these products and retail these items on their behalf.

Could you share more about a few of your artists and how they have been empowered by Mustard Tree?

Madam Tay, a 68 year-old physically handicapped artisan, has been with us the longest. We met her during an SG Enable training session. After Madam Tay attended a floral arrangement trial in Mustard Tree and was accepted into the class, she said that she was very appreciative that she was able to fulfil her childhood dream of learning how to do flower arrangements.

50709910_2326630474036724_9134586262458466304_n
Madam Tay joined Mustard Tree two years ago to show that her physical disabilities will not stand in the way of getting a job

Before we met Madam Tay, she was staying at home and did not have much to occupy her thoughts as she was unable to find work. When our physical retail store at Ng Teng Fong Hospital opened two years ago, she joined us to prove to naysayers that her physical disability will not stand in the way of her getting a job.

Another artisan with Mustard Tree is 28-year-old trainee Madelene Tan, who has learning delay and hearing impairment as a result of a brain tumour. She attended SPED Schools and was working at her father’s company for eight years. She first started attending our weekly craft classes around middle of last year. In Oct 2018, she joined us as a full-time trainee. Since then, she has progressed well. From a relatively quiet, less confident individual she has now blossomed to be more independent and vocal. She helps us to tend to the huge amounts of flowers that pass through Mustard Tree on a weekly basis – she carries, stores, conditions, trims these flowers and is now able to do simple flower bouquets. She also adds the finishing touches on our products.

50831177_2326630424036729_6971385289012936704_n
Madelene Tan tends to the large volumes of flowers that pass through Mustard Tree every week, and even puts together simple flower bouquets for sale]

Support Mustard Tree in training people with special needs and empowering them with skills to seek gainful employment by checking out their  online store and physical store located at Ng Teng Fong Hospital at Jurong East, Level 2.