Pre-school scheme leads to big gains

SINGAPORE - The six-year-old boy used to be hyperactive and aggressive and lagged behind his peers in English and maths. But he became more focused and did better in his studies after an educational therapist taught him to focus better.

"Now in Primary 1, my son's behaviour has improved, he is able to focus on his studies," said his security guard mother, who took on a new job with more stable hours to spend more time with him.

The mother and son are participants in a scheme that ropes in educational therapists, social workers and pre-school teachers to help disadvantaged children and their families, and has already seen results.

The Straits Times was asked not to reveal identifying details of the children to avoid stigmatising them.

Called Circle of Care and piloted by welfare organisation Care Corner and philanthropic group the Lien Foundation, the scheme has led to big gains in learning for children after just one year.

Under the scheme, which started in February last year, 159 pre-school children from two childcare centres at Leng Kee and Admiralty received a high-quality pre-school education, which included music and movement classes, field trips and literacy and numeracy programmes.

The Leng Kee centre charges $560 a month for full-day childcare, but needy families pay just $3 to $6 a month.

Children who need help in areas from learning to health and finance were identified early by social workers. They and their families were given appropriate help, often at the centre itself.

For instance, the six-year-old boy was taught how to focus better and given help to develop his reading and maths skills; his mother learnt effective parenting techniques, including how to coach her son.

The scheme has had encouraging results. Not only did the children go to pre-school more often, but they also showed big jumps in reading and numeracy skills.

Children at the Leng Kee centre used to attend class only five days a month on average. Now they attend an average 12 days a month.

Twenty-four children at the two centres, who could read only a few words such as "I" or "me", also received educational therapy. Among other things, they were taught reading and told stories by students from Wheelock College, a pre-school teacher training institute.

After more than six months, the children could recognise the sounds that accompany the letters of the alphabet, noted early childhood expert Khoo Kim Choo, who designed the curriculum and trained the teachers.

The centres also ran talks and workshops for parents and invited them on field trips. This has made the parents more involved in their children's education.

For a start, they are taking their children to the centres on time, at 9am. Previously some would arrive as late as 4pm.

And before the programme started at Leng Kee, only one parent turned up to meet her child's teacher. Last year, 25 parents attended the meeting.

Mr Lee Poh Wah, chief executive of the Lien Foundation which has pledged $1.8 million to run the programme for four years, said the results so far have shown that the pilot scheme, which brings together various kinds of help for children, can improve outcomes for pre-schoolers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But quality pre-school education alone is not enough to meet the needs of children from poor homes, he said. Other services such as educational therapy and counselling should be within easy reach of these families.

He said: "Young children are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of poverty. We need to think of ways in which we can increase the odds for these children who had lost out in the lottery of life."

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