Monday, 15th July 2024

Monday, 15th July 2024

Steep learning curve, but this principal let her heart lead the way

18 Apr 2024

Introducing some mainstream school practices – starting with a fire drill – at Eden School, a school for students with autism spectrum disorder with intellectual impairment, was not without its moments. Principal Jenny Lai reflects on the leaps made and lessons learnt, including some wise words that have helped her to lead effectively for the past 16 years.


“It takes the heart.”

Sixteen years back, when I was being inducted as a Principal of a Special Education (SPED) school, those were the words of Mr Ho Swee Huat, then chairman of Autism Association (Singapore).

Those words have shaped my approach to leading as a SPED Principal ever since.

Unfamiliar lingo and unexpected triggers

I was introduced to the world of autism when I started my journey at the Singapore Autism School (SAS) in February 2008, before its name was changed to Eden School.

I learnt so much in my first year at SAS. There was no morning assembly as students went straight to class. I was not invited to enter their classrooms as teachers told me that strangers might trigger their students adversely.

Staff used words like “task analysis, visual supports, work system…”, lingo which I was not used to. When I tried to introduce a new activity in my first year as principal, be it a fire drill or a celebration in the school hall, my staff were doubtful of its success.

The students in SAS had autism spectrum disorder with intellectual impairment. I quickly learnt that they required predictable routines and to be surrounded by familiar people. Any deviation from their established routines would cause distress, so more care and preparation were necessary when introducing change.

I remember a student who ran into my office one morning, climbed onto the cupboard and refused to come down despite all my reasoning and pleading. His class teacher ran in soon after, flashed a visual, and the student came down and left my office with his teacher without any fuss.

Students with autism may find it difficult to process spoken words because they hear and process sounds and words differently from us, often at a slower pace. Visual aids help our students because they provide clear, concrete examples, making abstract ideas more tangible. In the case of the student above, the visual used by the teacher helped him process what to do next.

In that episode, observing how the teacher calmly and swiftly acted, without drama or judgement, it spoke to me of “heart” in action.

Visual supports, such as words, symbols, pictures, photos and objects, facilitate student learning, communication and social interactions.

Months later, their first fire drill

To build students’ self-esteem and sense of belonging within the school community, I was eager to roll out communal events such as assemblies and celebrations. I also wanted to introduce safety drills to prepare students for emergencies.

It took three months to prepare the students for the school’s inaugural fire drill. To support those who faced additional challenges adjusting to new routines, we used supports like visual schedules and calming tools like drawing materials. These were to familiarise students with the drill process, making the experience predictable and less intimidating. Several practice drills were conducted to help students get used to each step of the fire drill. We also taught them to express dissent or concerns calmly and respectfully, rather than through yelling or physical aggression, especially when panic set in due to a change in routine. Additionally, we involved parents by providing them information about the fire drill to discuss with their children at home.

Through the process of preparing students for the fire drill, my understanding of how individuals with autism perceive and experience the world deepened.

To support them, we ought to understand the individual — what they like, what they need, their strengths, and what triggers them, and then provide the appropriate accommodations.

With this new lens, I better understood how learning could be supported. This new understanding gave us fortitude to introduce out-of-class activities such as learning journeys to the Singapore Zoo and Marina Barrage.

Venturing into new territory – overseas

‘Stepping Out’ initiatives challenge our students to step out of their comfort zones and take on new experiences in unfamiliar environments.

The real test came when our school’s ‘Stepping Out’ initiative was launched in 2011. We progressed from day trips to overnight camps and then overseas trips to Malacca, Beijing and Perth. For many of our SPED students, it would be their first experience abroad, and away from home and their loved ones.

Muhammad Aqram Bin Mohd Yazed, who has challenges coordinating his gross motor skills, expressed his enthusiasm for climbing the Great Wall of China. Before starting, I vividly remember him proclaiming, “I will try my best to climb the Great Wall of China, and I can do it!”

Nurshalini Binte Sahnef, who was naturally shy, was transformed after her first plane ride to Penang. Long after the trip, she could not stop sharing her excitement with everyone, “I like flying in an airplane. I want to go again!”

Before every trip, we primed the students for the activities ahead. They were shown pictures of the places they were going to, the activities they would be doing, and ways to manage their own actions and feelings when faced with unfamiliarity.

We also invited parents to share any concerns during trip briefings.

By outlining the trip’s goals, detailing our preparation efforts, and highlighting our safety protocols, we eased any worries their parents had. The parents were given simple instructions and clear pictures showing what to pack and the best way to arrange everything for their child’s day-to-day needs. At the end of every trip, parents received a progress report detailing how well their child applied skills learnt in school in various settings.

Admittedly, not every day in this process of ‘stepping out’ unfolds perfectly for our students and us. But, the joy evident on our students’ faces during the learning journeys reaffirms the value of our efforts in ensuring good preparation, appropriate support, and family collaboration.

How we prepare students for the world of work

A question we often ask ourselves is, “What pathways can our students pursue after graduation?” To build more opportunities for students beyond graduation, the school works hand in hand with the Employability and Employment Centre (E2C) to assess students’ employability potential and address their skill gaps.

Yu Ming Cheng graduated from Eden School in 2013 and was the first from the school to undergo training with E2C, starting employability training at an orchid nursery after graduation.

It was not smooth-sailing, as Ming Cheng initially faced difficulties understanding expected behaviours at work, further challenged by insufficient stamina to fulfil job demands. When stressed, he would throw things. To help him cope, his job coaches introduced frequent movement breaks during his work hours. Visual supports were also provided, to give further clarity on the duties he had to carry out at the nursery.

After two years of employability training, Ming Cheng was officially employed in 2015. He continues to diligently fulfill his responsibilities at the nursery, from meticulously removing peat moss from orchid roots to carefully arranging orchid stem holders, to this day.

To empower more individuals like Ming Cheng to navigate challenges at work and secure meaningful employment opportunities, we continue to collaborate with E2C to develop tailored support strategies based on the needs of the students.

After graduating from Eden School, Yu Ming Cheng has been working in a nursery for the past nine years.

Doing our part for the SPED community

As a SPED principal, I have learnt that I do not need to know everything. I have learnt to trust the rapport my teachers have with their students.

As SPED educators, we can make a difference in the lives of our students. It all depends on how willing we are to: 

  • stretch and test the limits of what we understand about the needs of those we serve
  • ‘listen’ and give heed to the voices of our students
  • change our perceptions and beliefs if needed
  • be nimble and responsive to changing needs and priorities.

All of us can make this journey for our students a meaningful one. Although there has been increasing awareness and accommodation made for people with autism in the community over the years, to be truly inclusive, our societal mindset must be one where we embrace everyone who is differently abled. I am proud to be a part of that movement for change.

Mrs Lai (first from the right), together with the school staff, go ‘to Infinity and beyond!’ for their students. Here they are at last year’s Teachers’ Day (STARS) celebration.

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