Personal help for special needs kids

SINGAPORE - For the past six months, one eight-year-old has been accompanied by a chaperone in class and even during recess.

The pupil in a primary school in the east suffers from mild autism and needs personal attention to help regulate his behaviour in class. He has been known to walk out when the going gets tough.

He is among a handful of children with mild special needs in mainstream schools who have shadow teachers. The latter could be a therapist, child-minder or parent.

Parents who can afford outside help said it allows their children to get undivided attention, something that school teachers and learning and behavioural support teachers may be unable to give.

But some experts question its effectiveness, saying it works only for children who have a mild form of learning disability.

They also raised concerns about the uneven standards of shadow teachers because there is no professional body governing this service.

Shadow teachers help guide their charges to tackle class assignments and boost social skills. They also work with parents and teachers to achieve results.

Dr Noel Chia, assistant professor from the Early Childhood and Special Needs Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, said though classroom teachers are instrumental, they may not have the training that a qualified shadow teacher has.

There are no statistics on the number of shadow teachers but service providers said more mainstream schools are open to the idea. Fees range from about $3,000 to $5,000 a month.

More mainstream schools open to shadow teachers

Mr Alex Liau, clinical director of Nurture Pods, a therapy centre for children with autism, has nine shadow teachers in various schools, up from three last year.

The eight-year-old boy's mother, an executive assistant who wanted to be known only as Ms Chan, is paying $5,000 for a shadow teacher who is a therapist.

She said her son used to run out of class when he had to do something he found unpleasant. She was advised to hire a shadow teacher by his occupational therapist, mainly to focus on helping him correct his behaviour.

"It's only more successful when there's intervention as he acts out, rather than talking to him at the end of the day," she said. There are about 10,000 students with special needs - dyslexia, mild autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - in mainstream schools.

Most can continue learning well with support from the schools.

All primary schools and 64 secondary schools have at least one allied educator to provide learning and behavioural support. Teachers also undergo training to handle students with special needs.

A Ministry of Education spokesman said that in a few cases where parents are unable to directly support the child's transition, a shadow teacher can help him settle into the school.

This arrangement is made by parents and the school on a case-by-case basis.

But shadow teachers are not meant to provide permanent support. Mr Liau said they will gradually "fade away" and turn up only during lessons where the child shows challenging behaviours, to help them develop independence.

Dr Chia said the effectiveness of shadow teaching depends on how much follow-up there is from parents at home or by the teachers when the service is no longer available. He also noted that there is no professional body governing this service.

Shadow teachers, he said, should ideally have an associate degree in early childhood education, child development or special education.

Ms Carrie Lupoli, founder of Live And Learn, a special needs consultancy firm, said there are shadow teachers who have "very limited training, knowledge or supervision" but parents turn to them as they are more affordable.

But Ms Chan, who is willing to pay for quality, is getting results. "The shadow teacher is now with him only during a few lessons," she noted.

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