The Circle of Care programme, piloted five years ago at two pre-schools, has shown how early and holistic intervention can change the outcomes for children from disadvantaged homes.
The scheme, which has since been extended to 10 pre-schools, brings together teachers, social workers and education therapists to identify the root causes of a child's difficulties and provide help on different fronts. It has resulted in higher school attendance rates and has seen the children improve their reading and numeracy skills.
Now, doctors and nurses from the National University Hospital (NUH) have joined the team of experts providing care for the children. They conduct medical screening for children at the pre-schools, which includes checking their vision and hearing, and whether they have proper nutrition.
The doctors and nurses also look out for developmental delays, be it in language or motor skills.
They also check on the social and emotional health of the children - like whether a child suffers anxiety and is able to pay attention. If a child is found with any concerns, the doctors discuss it with the parents who attend the screening and refer the child to specialists at NUH.
To date, 121 children from five pre-schools have been through the health checks and 60 of them have been referred to specialists for various health and developmental issues, including asthma, hearing difficulties, hyperactivity and lag in literacy development. Social workers will help families apply for subsidies to defray the costs.
Philanthropic group Lien Foundation and welfare organisation Care Corner, which piloted the programme, said the health services component is important for at-risk children.
Other than early identification of children with health and developmental needs, healthy habits are also built as the doctors and parents discuss and exchange information on the development of the child.
NUH doctors who use the Brazelton Touchpoints approach developed by Harvard Medical School view the parents as experts on their children and work hand in hand with them.
Lien Foundation chief executive Lee Poh Wah said that by sending doctors and nurses to the pre-schools, NUH bridges the physical and psychological barriers that families at risk may have towards seeking professional help, and improves access to early intervention.
He said: "When children spend their early years in an unstable and chaotic environment, they are subject to intense, chronic stress that could seriously disrupt their physical, cognitive and emotional development, as well as cause behavioural issues."
Paediatrician Chong Shang Chee, head of NUH child development unit, said: "Good physical health and healthy social-emotional development are the foundations and building blocks in which cognitive skills develop.
"Research is robust around the role of early intervention in children with development or health issues - in reducing further down trajectories of later-onset health problems or learning delays."
Madam Noryati Selamat, 43, who accompanied her five-year-old son Mohamad Roskhairunnas for his medical screening at the PCF Sparkletots Preschool in Taman Jurong, said the doctor had highlighted some possible issues that called for further checks.
Said the housewife: "I told the doctor about some of the things that have been worrying me. My boy is hyperactive. We discussed it and she gave me good advice on how to help my son, such as cutting down on the time he watches television.
"It was very useful advice."