Parents have many worries when they place their children with special educational needs (SEN) in a mainstream school. Can they cope? Will they fit in? Principal Educational Psychologist, Associate Professor (Dr) Mariam Aljunied, shares what children with SEN can expect in mainstream schools and how parents can make the adjustment process as smooth as possible.
For most of his life in primary and secondary school, Kim (not his real name) was experiencing difficulties. He had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and was frequently disruptive in the classroom.
He was unable to sit still for long and simply could not pay attention during lessons.
But his parents and teachers never gave up on him. Instead of putting undue pressure on him, they allowed him to develop at his own pace. They also made the effort to support and mentor him with extra classes.
Today, he has made the transition from being someone who needs extra attention to a scholar at A*STAR.
Kim’s journey is one of many that Dr Mariam Aljunied has seen in her 24 years as an Educational Psychologist at the Ministry of Education.
Her experience has shown that, given the right support at home and in school, children with SEN can cope, and even thrive, in a mainstream school.
“If we can help children enjoy their time in a mainstream school, this will ensure that they will continue to persist in the learning journey, despite the difficulties,” observed Dr Mariam.
Understanding the rigours of a mainstream school
About 80 per cent of children with SEN study in mainstream schools. Most of them have dyslexia, ADHD, or mild autism.
Dr Mariam advises parents to be clear about their child’s needs and their own expectations, and consider the demands that mainstream schooling will have on their child on a daily basis, before sending children with SEN to a mainstream school.
“There is a difference between simply coping, and thriving in a mainstream environment. The question that most parents usually want to know is ‘Will my child thrive?’. For some children, there can be a mismatch between what parents want, and what the child is able to do – so parents themselves must be clear about what they want for their child,” she noted.
“There is tendency to focus on the academics, but that alone will not determine your child’s success in a mainstream school. Instead, it’s the work habits that are important,” she said.
These habits include the ability to follow class routines, being able to work independently and learn in a large group setting. Children usually learn these skills incidentally as they mature, but a child with SEN may have to be taught these skills explicitly.
For instance, class sizes, which range from 30 to 40 pupils, may be an issue for these children if they do not understand the concept of learning together in a group setting.
“Some children may have difficulty understanding that group instructions are also directed to them personally. If their names are not mentioned, they don’t follow,” she explained.
They may also struggle to assimilate well with their peers, as they tend to lag behind in developing social skills. “As children grow older, they tend to interact more with their peers. But the social skills of a child with SEN can lag by two to three years,” she noted.
Steps parents can take
To address these issues, Dr Mariam shared that parents can do the following before sending their children to a mainstream school.
First, they should consult professionals who have worked closely with their children, such as psychologists, developmental pediatricians and early intervention teachers on whether the child should consider attending mainstream or SPED schools. As children with more severe SEN require intensive specialised support in the long-term, their learning needs can be better supported in special education (SPED) schools.
“These are the professionals who have a clear idea of the children’s needs and areas of strengths. It is important to heed their advice. Talk to them about their child’s options and what his or her long-term pathways would be,” she said.
Secondly, if parents are clear that the child is suitable to be in a mainstream setting, they must prepare the young one for it. “Focus on developing habits such as staying seated, paying attention and following instructions from young. It will really help their child adjust better” she added.
Thirdly, parents must also prepare the mainstream school for the child. This means having the confidence to share information on their child’s learning needs with the school – a critical step, stressed Dr Mariam.
“Some parents might think the schools wouldn’t notice if they don’t say anything, as they want to avoid their child being stigmatised or labelled,” she said.
A failure to share information, however, may in fact worsen the situation for the children.
Providing the school with clear information will allow them to have a better understanding of the child’s needs. The school can then take the appropriate steps and provide the necessary support to help the child make the transition into a mainstream setting.
What mainstream schools provide
Mainstream schools are also equipped with the resources, such as specialised manpower and programmes, to help children with mild SEN.
Each school has teachers trained in SEN and Allied Educators in Learning and Behavioural Support, who are equipped to teach specific skills such as reading, spelling, and social skills. These personnel are also deployed as advisors for other teachers.
In addition, mainstream schools provide programmes to help further develop the social and academic skills that a child with SEN may require.
For instance, students with dyslexia – who make up the majority of children with mild SEN in mainstream schools – can attend the school-based dyslexia remediation programme, which was introduced to all primary schools in 2016.
These students attend regular after-school classes in small groups of four to five, taught by specially-trained teachers, for a period of two years. This enables them to close the reading gap, relative to their peers.
Mainstream schools also conduct social skills training for children with SEN. Sometimes, these training sessions may also involve their classmates so that they can learn how to communicate better with each other.
Dr Mariam stressed that “success stories” are often the result of good school-home partnerships to help the child with SEN better manage his area of need.
She shared the story of Sam, a student with mild autism, who has a flair for playing the ruan, a Chinese stringed instrument, but was fearful of speaking or performing in front of others. With support from the school personnel who worked closely with his teachers, parents and peers to help him manage his anxiety in social situations, Sam eventually stepped out of his comfort zone, to put up a performance in front of his entire secondary school. As he overcame his social anxiety, he gained stronger self-confidence and became more participative in class, and was able to express his views and ideas openly.
Nurturing the love of learning
Most importantly, parents of children with SEN ought to instil the joy of learning and help them enjoy school – whichever school that may be. This will not only boost their morale and confidence, but also nurture happier children.
“If a child is dyslexic, requires a lot of support for literacy, and is scoring Cs in exams, and at the same time is a happy, well-adjusted child that is thriving in non-academic areas, that’s excellent. However, if his parent has different expectations of excellence, for example, focusing only on the academic and expecting all As, then it puts a lot of undue pressure ,” shared Dr Mariam.
“Focus on their strengths, as every child has a gift, and develop them holistically. You want them to be happy learners, no matter how long the road is,” she said.
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