More special needs schools using arts to help students

MORE publicly funded special needs schools are embracing the arts, amid growing recognition that children with autism and other learning disabilities learn better through things such as music or drama.

These special education (Sped) schools run by the Education Ministry also have more funds to tap the arts for learning.

The National Arts Council (NAC) has tripled the grant amount for Sped schools to take part in arts education programmes each year.

The schools can get up to $9,000 from this year, up from $3,000 previously. Mainstream schools get up to $15,000 a year.

An NAC spokesman said that funding has increased because more Sped schools have been taking part in its arts schemes in recent years, as they see potential benefits.

This year, 19 out of 20 publicly funded Sped schools used the grant, known as the Tote Board Arts Grant, up from nine in 2010.

The grant was introduced in 1995 to encourage schools to involve students in arts initiatives, such as in the visual arts and film.

Schools can choose from a list of about 800 general programmes organised by nearly 240 artists and arts groups. Sped schools can be subsidised up to 70 per cent of the programme cost.

Special needs teachers said research shows that music, dance and drama have positive effects on children's minds, bodies and moods, and can help those with special needs focus better.

Ms Esther Kwan, Grace Orchard School's aesthetics programme head, said: "(The arts) also encourage them to better understand themselves and engage with the world they live in, including the people they interact with."

For example, music activities help them to pay attention and maintain eye contact. The students can also express themselves through art and drawing.

Rainbow Centre Margaret Drive School is using the $9,000 it received this year for music programmes. In one course, 38 students learn to play percussion instruments such as cymbals. In another, 10 students create songs using devices such as tablets.

Ms Siti Marliza Mohamed Ali, a teacher from the school, said: "They learn things like tempo and rhythm, following instructors and listening to the different sounds that they make.

"Initially, it is difficult for them to follow. But we start slow and they get excited when they progress and hear a song."

More schools are taking part in another scheme that gets artists to train Sped teachers to run arts programmes independently.

Under the NAC Sped School Partnership Programme, each school gets up to $17,000 over two years. This has been taken up by nine schools, up from five in 2012 when it started.

Grace Orchard School engaged Mr Michael Cheng, artistic director of Tapestry Playback Theatre, a non-profit community theatre company, to coach teachers and students in drama.

About 210 students aged seven to 16 went through several weeks of drama sessions with him last year, learning social skills such as cooperating with others, creativity and expressing their emotions.

Students, including the quieter ones, are now more expressive, said Ms Kwan. "They use language that is more directed and expressed with clarity. Some have started to show understanding of social rules such as turn-taking."

She added: "The goal is to develop a drama curriculum and to train teachers so that there is sustainability in the programme."

At St Andrew's Autism School, students have - since July last year - a weekly drama session with theatre company directors Amy Cheng and R. Chandran. They take part in activities such as learning song actions, acting out scenes, or making props.

Teacher Vickneswary Rajo Mutaya said: "Some students come forward and do the steps on their own. It shows that they remember what they learnt."

Mr Belmont Chia, 46, an architect, said he hopes his 14-year-old daughter, who has moderate autism, can pick up simple communication skills.

"It is too soon to tell if it is effective, but she is very sociable and she likes being around people. So I think she enjoys it," he said.


This article was first published on May 9, 2015.
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