Support available in schools for families caring for special needs children: Chan Chun Sing

The number of students reported as having special educational needs has risen by about 5 per cent in the last three years, said Mr Chan Chun Sing. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE

SINGAPORE - As the number of students with special needs continues to rise, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said support is available for families caring for special needs children in each stage of their lives.

Acknowledging the concerns of parents in Parliament on Monday (Feb 14), Mr Chan added that the Government is prepared to try out new ideas to better help them and their caregivers.

Responding to questions from MPs such as Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) about what more can be done to support children with special needs, he also outlined the range of existing support structures for children in both mainstream and special education (Sped) schools.

The discussion in Parliament comes after two 11-year-old boys were found dead in a canal in Upper Bukit Timah last month. The twins are believed to have had special needs, and the father has been charged with the murder of one of the boys.

Without going into details of the case, Mr Chan urged the public to step up efforts in caring for families whose children have special needs.

"It is our goal for children with special needs to reach their potential, to be confident in themselves, and to be equipped with life skills and values so that they can grow up to lead, as much as possible, an independent and meaningful life," he said.

About 27,000 students with mild special educational needs in mainstream schools are supported by teachers who implement inclusive classroom practices, and allied educators who specialise in learning and behavioural support, he said.

Some of these students may need pull-out sessions during or after curriculum time because of additional needs, he added.

Another 7,000 students with moderate to severe needs attend 22 Sped schools currently. This is about 20 per cent of all students reported with special educational needs.

"In Sped schools, teachers work closely with parents to exchange information on their children's progress and support the application of skills at home and in the community," said Mr Chan.

The number of students reported as having special educational needs has risen by about 5 per cent in the last three years, he added, largely due to growing awareness and early identification.

From the early years, early detection and timely intervention are critical, said Mr Chan. Parents are encouraged to refer to developmental milestones in children's health booklets as reference points, and take them for regular developmental screenings.

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Children who need early intervention will be referred to the appropriate programmes based on the level of support required, and this could be provided within their pre-schools or at early intervention centres.

Within mainstream schools, those who need additional support in literacy and numeracy join the Learning Support Programmes for English language and mathematics in Primary 1 and Primary 2.

Primary 3 and Primary 4 pupils can access a school-based dyslexia remediation programme, and the Ministry of Education (MOE) also announced last year a transition programme for Primary 1 pupils with social and behavioural needs.

Thirty-seven schools have implemented the Transition Support for Integration scheme, and more will be coming on board, said Mr Chan.

For children with higher needs, professionals recommend Sped schools, which have "specialised instruction and customised facilities, specially trained teachers and allied professionals", he added.

Parents can also switch their child from a mainstream environment to a Sped school if they find that he may be better supported there.

Mr Chan said MOE provides emotional support and guidance to parents in the journey towards accepting their child's special needs.

Each Sped school has a social worker who can help families with additional emotional or financial needs, if required, he said. Families can also take part in programmes outside of curriculum hours such as holiday activities and outings run by the schools or social service agencies.

Mr Chan said the MOE works with Sped schools to plan transitions for students at the secondary years beyond school life, through a school-to-work transition programme, for example.

"All parents plan on providing for their children in every possible way until they reach independence as adults. So, when parents discover that their child will need a lot more support and for a lot longer, even into adulthood, they experience heartache, shock and even fear," he said.

"This is an unplanned journey and can be a challenging one. Many of us know such families, among our friends, relatives, or in the community. Some of us are ourselves a family of a special person."

Mr Chan said parents are key partners of schools, in providing valuable insights about their children's unique needs. "When schools and families communicate, they build relationships and share strategies that can be used in school and at home."

In response to Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) who asked how MOE tracks the progress of students with special needs in schools, Mr Chan said it does not use the same academic benchmarks for them.

"The goal is really for them to improve over what they have been able to achieve the previous day, the previous year, to give them a sense of confidence, a sense of independence," he added.

"While we generally use the word special needs, the special needs community is not homogeneous. Every special needs child is special in his own way," he said.

Thanking educators, professionals and families in the special needs community, Mr Chan said: "I know it's very difficult. When such an unfortunate incident happens, we will always ask ourselves if we could have all done more together to avoid this tragedy.

"Deep in our hearts I think we also know that sometimes such cases are very hard to prevent altogether but because it's so hard, we all are even more determined to want to do better."

He said the MOE and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will "double down our effort to see how we can provide a more seamless continuum from the school years to the post-school years, both in terms of care arrangements and also financial independence", to help ease parents' worries about their children's future.

"Both MSF and MOE would like to work with our partners, volunteers or caregivers and we are prepared to try out different ideas, new ideas to cater to the spectrum of needs... because we really need a variety of solutions, a variety of know-hows, a variety of resources.

"And many of these things are very difficult to do because they require staying calm, they require us to walk through those dark valleys of life with the person in need and their families."

Encouraging the community to also play their part, Mr Chan said: "We cannot say, 'Let the other neighbour help. Let the other relatives help. Let the other company hire him.'

"We need not wait for one another - let us all make the first step. Let them know that we value them and their children. Let us remind them that they are not alone."

Being an inclusive society means that no Singaporean is left behind, he said.

" When the parents need a break, let us step in to play with or accompany their children. When they seek an understanding employer or colleague, let us be that understanding employer or colleague. Let us be a community that reaches out in both words and deeds to demonstrate care and kindness."

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