More special needs children joining regular schools

Photo above: Caleb Loh with his mother, Madam Lau Lee Fang.

SINGAPORE - Although Caleb Loh, now 15, suffers from a severe form of autism, his mother enrolled him in St Gabriel's Primary as she wanted him to learn independence.

However, his time in a mainstream school was short-lived. His mother Lau Lee Fang, 49, transferred him to special education (Sped) school Pathlight when he was in Primary 5 because she was worried the bullying he was already experiencing would worsen.

The behavioural therapist explained why she plumped for starting him in a mainstream school initially, where teachers may not give as much attention as compared to a Sped school: "It's like throwing him in the deep end of a pool so he will learn to swim."

Statistics show more parents of children with special needs, such as Madam Lau, are opting for regular schools for them.

The number of children with special needs in mainstream schools has doubled from about 5,000 to 10,000 in the last five years. The increase has been steady but significant. In 2010, there were 8,700 such students in mainstream schools, up from about 4,400 in 2006.

The latest spike is due to more awareness of special needs among teachers and parents, and better identification of the condition at pre-school or lower primary level, the Ministry of Education (MOE) told The Straits Times.

But as their numbers grow, teachers and psychologists are concerned if students with special needs can benefit from a regular setting and curriculum.

In a similar vein, MOE told The Straits Times that those with severe special needs - who number around 500, or 5 per cent of the 10,000 - would be better served in Sped schools where there is customised curriculum and long-term specialised support.

These students are mainly those with intellectual disabilities and have difficulty in concentrating, formulating ideas and remembering. They also struggle with communication, social and daily living skills.

However, most of the 10,000 students have mild special needs - dyslexia, mild autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - and can continue learning well with support from the schools.

Ms Gwendolyn Bava, an allied educator from Zhangde Primary School, said: "The increase (to 10,000) does not mean that there are also more children with severe special needs, but it is a concern that those with severe needs are still in mainstream schools."

A space crunch in some Sped schools - there are 20 here with a total enrolment of about 5,000 - was another reason cited by parents as to why children with special needs are in mainstream schools. Sped schools, especially those which cater to children with autism, have long waiting lists.

Psychologists also said that some parents are reluctant to place their children in Sped schools either because they are in denial about their child's condition, or because they fear the perceived stigma of having their children attend Sped schools.

Other parents may be unwilling to send them to Sped schools because they are unaware of the benefits of a special education.

To assist them, MOE and two voluntary welfare organisations launched a new service in schools this month to provide parents who need to send children to Sped schools with advice on which one to pick.

Over the years, the ministry has also deployed more trained teachers and professionals to help students with special needs.

From this year, all new trainee teachers at the National Institute of Education will also need to learn how to support students with special needs and learning differences.

Schools also support children with special needs by providing them with extra remedial lessons, among other things.

There is anecdotal evidence that switching schools works.

Mr Francis Foo, principal of Temasek Primary School, said his school had a pupil with special needs who transferred to a Sped school as he could not keep up with the curriculum and had poor attendance. The pupil is much happier now as he can manage the work that is pitched at his level.

But there are others who would rather go against the grain, like Madam Lau, who does not regret placing her son in St Gabriel's.

"Caleb was oblivious to his environment and totally dependent on people so I wanted him to learn to take ownership of himself."

jantai@sph.com.sg

staceyc@sph.com.sg

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