She wants to build a more inclusive learning environment for children with learning difficulties

Research assistant Jane Sum of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore (NUS Medicine) is working on a new school readiness assessment with an algorithm to identify at-risk children

Ms Sum is interested to see how innovations and technology can be implemented to promote executive function learning in children.

A child’s schooling years should be a time of exploration, curiosity and discovery, building up to a lifetime of learning. However, the reality is that some children, particularly those with neurodevelopmental disorders or from disadvantaged backgrounds, may be unable to keep up and end up falling through the cracks. 

Ms Jane Sum, research assistant at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine’s (NUS Medicine’s) Centre For Holistic Initiatives For Learning & Development (CHILD), remembers her encounter with a boy diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) while volunteering at Pathlight School in 2016.

The boy started talking to her excitedly about MRT stations in Singapore and asked if she knew what station EW16/NE3 was. Ms Sum did not know the answer, but the boy quickly informed her that it was Outram Park, and went on to list all the different MRT stations on the East West Line, station after station. 

“It was such an amazing encounter with a child with such a great memory! The experience struck a chord with me, and after that, I became more curious about the neurodevelopmental disorders associated with the brain and the neuroscience behind it.”

After her A Levels, Ms Sum initially wanted to pursue Psychology in an overseas university in Australia or in the United Kingdom (UK), but a friend told her about the Psychology programme in James Cook University’s (JCU) Singapore campus.

“I did further research on the school and was attracted by the pedagogy it offered. I also liked that it is also accredited by the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council,” she shares. She enrolled in the Bachelors of Psychological Science (Honours) course in 2017 and graduated in 2020.

Now 26, she is using what she learnt to build a more inclusive learning environment for children with learning difficulties at CHILD.

Her key project is developing a school readiness assessment to screen preschoolers aged four to six years old. It features an algorithm that helps to identify children at risk of developmental, learning, and behavioural delays in early childhood, particularly when brain plasticity is the most favourable. 

The assessment consists of a set of questions and tasks to measure children's general knowledge, executive functioning (a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control), social-emotional and learning skills. Ms Sum’s team is looking into deploying user-friendly technology and machine learning to help capture the child's learning profiles more efficiently and accurately.  

“Getting better at identifying children who are at-risk of learning and behavioural challenges will help address social disparities to inform better early childhood education strategies. It will also help to manage resources efficiently and facilitate policy planning in education and healthcare,” she explains.

Ms Sum initially wanted to pursue Psychology in an overseas university, but changed her mind when a friend told her about the Psychology programme in JCU’s Singapore campus.

Ms Sum is also developing a cognitive training intervention programme that trains children on executive function skills such as to sustain attention, plan, remember information, exercise self-control and to manage multiple tasks successfully. Studies have shown that these skills are crucial for the child’s learning and development, and contribute largely to their success in school achievement and emotional regulation skills. 

Through these new programmes, Ms Sum hopes to raise greater awareness and collaboration among teachers, parents, specialists and agencies to help young children prepare for the rigours of school life. 

“I am interested to see how current innovations and technology can be implemented to boost children’s mental skills. These will help to shape a more inclusive learning environment in Singapore,” she says.

Best of both worlds

Ms Sum loves that her job at NUS Medicine allows her to experience both the research and clinical side of child psychology.

As a research assistant, Ms Sum’s role also involves data analysis, data collection, designing of research projects and writing of academic articles. She gathers and analyses research data with a team made up of clinicians, psychologists and researchers.

The statistical skills that she picked up throughout her time in JCU have given her an added advantage when dealing with statistics at work. 

“The skills and lessons were thoughtfully catered to my learning needs and are highly transferable to my current job which prepared me well with the statistical knowledge required to do various analyses for our research project in my lab,” Ms Sum says.

The development and validation of the new school readiness screening assessment also requires her to meet teachers and children to better understand learning needs in preschool settings. 

Since NUS Medicine is also part of the National University Health System (NUHS), she also gets to shadow a psychologist and a paediatrician to learn more about cognitive and behavioural difficulties children face. Furthermore, the exposure helps her to frame research questions from a clinical perspective. 

All in all, Ms Sum highly recommends JCU’s Psychology courses to future students. 

“There are many areas of psychology to explore, be it in healthcare, business or community settings. If you are interested in the hows and whys of human behaviour, Psychology will be a great area of pursuit for you.”

Visit JCU’s Accessible 24/7 Open House to learn more about their Bachelor of Psychological Science.

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