From 'hopeless failure' to school librarian

8-year-old Joe (not his real name) was regarded as a hopeless case.

He could hardly read or write, and was lagging far behind his fellow pupils in Primary 2.

Teachers told him he'd never make it past primary school. One teacher even told him and his mother that he should drop Chinese as a subject since he would never pass PSLE.

Mrs Koh knew that there was something different about her son, but had always thought he was being lazy. Hearing his Primary 2 teachers say that her son was doomed to failure was a tremendous blow.

"I was at my wits' end," the housewife recalled in Mandarin. "Who could help him? Who could we turn to for help? What should we do next?"

Joe's problems were not purely academic. He could not coordinate his body movements well and tended to drool. He had difficulties speaking, reading and writing. This made communication - and learning - a huge challenge. His average score in class tests was 20/100.

His abysmal performance in school made him an object of ridicule among his schoolmates. No one wanted to befriend the boy who everyone had labelled 'stupid'.

Joe's repeated failures in his studies as well as with his peers left him bewildered and frustrated. He would throw tantrums when he could not make himself understood, and this often resulted in harsh reprimands. His self-esteem and confidence plunged with each failure and taunt.

His desperate parents engaged a tuition teacher in an attempt to help him. It was this tuition teacher who urged the Kohs to take Joe to KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), where he was diagnosed with learning difficulties and a speech impediment. He began occupational therapy at KKH and was referred to Students Care Service (SCS) in Jan 2009.

At SCS, Joe attended Learning and Social Support Programmes (LSSP) which helped him improve his language abilities and reading skills. The boy saw significant improvement after a year and a half.

Joe also attended the Pre-Teens Club and the Youth programme, which provided a structured and non-threatening environment to help him improve his social skills. Weekly tuition sessions helped Joe to improve gradually in his studies. Through these programmes, Mrs Koh saw a marked change in her son's attitude.

"He used to hate going anywhere," she said. "He would try to find all kinds of excuses to skip school, but for the activities at SCS, he'd just pack his bag and go. He actually looks forward to going to SCS."

At home, Joe also received support. After the Kohs had realised that their child was not lazy or rebellious, they rallied around him. Through SCS, Mr and Mrs Koh joined a support group for parents of children with special needs. There, they found understanding and encouragement from other parents, which alleviated some of their fears and concerns. Social workers also taught them more effective ways of communicating with their son, helping the whole family to understand one another better and reducing Joe's tantrums.

2012. Primary 6. PSLE.

Naysayers - including some teachers and schoolmates - said that Joe wouldn't pass. The educational psychologists and social workers at SCS thought otherwise. They helped Joe in his revision in the months leading up to the exams, encouraging him and building up his confidence. They also appealed to the Ministry of Education to give Joe additional time to complete his papers, on account of his poor body coordination which hindered his ability to write properly.

"While other parents were discussing over which top secondary school to send their child to, I just hoped that he'd make it to secondary school," said Mrs Koh.

And he did. Joe passed his PSLE, qualifying for the Normal (Technical) stream in spite his learning difficulties. Now in secondary school, the once friendless Joe has his own little clique of buddies who help each other with their schoolwork. One of their favourite pastimes is going to the library together. In fact, the child who could barely read when he was eight years old is now a librarian in his school. And his favourite books are often the ones in Chinese - even though his former Chinese teacher had considered him a lost cause.

Joe's articulation is still sometimes unclear, but he is a lot more willing to socialise with others. Once a sullen and misunderstood loner, Joe now actively takes part in volunteer activities organised by SCS. He says that it gives him the opportunity to help other people, to "pay it forward". Joe knows that his language and communication skills have room for improvement, and is continuing to work hard in those areas. Joe has also discovered a new hobby - cooking. His favourite subject in school is Home Economics where he gets to whip up cupcakes and other goodies which he brings home to his family.

The SCS programmes have brought out Joe's learning potential and helped him to develop a greater sense of self-worth. He may never be like the rest of his peers in terms of academic achievements, but he has become more confident, sociable and independent. Once deemed a hopeless case, Joe now faces the future with optimism.

The Learning and Social Support Programmes (LSSP) is a suite of programmes that helps students who have learning difficulties like Joe through proper assessment and interventions, as well as parent education and support. SCS is raising funds for LSSP through the Kits for Kids event on May 16 at Kampong Ubi Community Centre. For more information, visit

AsiaOne is the official media partner for Students Care Service (SCS).