SingTeach talks to Educational psychologist Geraldine Nguang and Learning Support Specialist Magdalen Loh about what it’s like to help children struggling with learning issues.
Ten-year-old Ming (not his real name) has difficulty paying attention in class and likes to disturb his classmates and teachers. Seven-year-old Ben gets angry with himself when he cannot read or spell a word.
All students face different challenges in the classroom. However, kids like Ming and Ben need more than just a remedial class to help them with their work. Geraldine Nguang and Magdalen Loh are two former teachers whose jobs revolve around providing this extra support.
Geraldine (left), an educational psychologist, assesses each child’s situation and tries to find a suitable intervention.
Meanwhile, Magdalen runs the Specialised Learning Support Programme and a reading programme, which caters to primary school students with learning needs.
Both work for the Students Care Service (SCS) where they help children with learning difficulties.
With more children being referred to the SCS every year, Geraldine and Magdalen have seen a wide range of learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and autism.
But if there’s one thing that experience has taught them, it’s that things are never as simple as putting a name to a condition.
Kids in need
Many of the children helped by the SCS also come from difficult home environments. Usually referred to the centre by hospitals and schools, a majority are from lower income families and have difficulties with the English language.
As a result, learning issues are often compounded by other behavioural and emotional problems. Magdalen believes that one way to deal with this is to first manage the emotional aspect, and not just address the learning disability or bad behaviour.
With every new student she meets, she makes sure that she observes them in class in order to understand where the real problem lies. This includes taking time to speak with the child and, more importantly, listen to their problems.
Ben, for example, could not read when he first came to SCS. When asked to spell the word “PLAY”, he gave up after the first two letters. With his fists clenched and his body tense, he would scold Magdalen when she encouraged him to “just try”.
As she took time to talk to him, Magdalen realised that Ben was afraid to try because every time he got something wrong, his parents would beat him. With her help, Ben has learnt that it is ok to get the answer wrong, but it is not ok to get so upset with himself and with others.
“Sometimes it has gone on for quite a while, and they do not know how to speak up,” explains Magdalen. “You have to initiate it.”
Parents in distress
Besides working with the children, Geraldine and Magdalen also try to help the parents in supporting their child. At times, this can be a challenging task.
Ming, for example, has been with SCS for 6 years now. When he was first brought to the centre, Geraldine worked with Ming and his mother to create simple tasks for him to complete. As she explained to Ming’s mother, “We have to start from where he actually can succeed first and then go on.”
Ming’s case has been difficult to diagnose because his behaviours keep changing and his mother is not keen on a formal diagnosis. “My goal is to help the parents cope because the problems will change, especially when they become adolescents…to help the parent understand the child,” says Geraldine.
“You just have to take time,” adds Magdalen, who makes an effort to speak with the parents of the children she works with. “You can’t change them. But by helping the parents to understand their kids, I think it’s a much greater success than what we can do for the child.”
A holistic approach
Geraldine and Magdalen strongly believe that a holistic approach is best, where the parents and school teachers are involved in helping the child.
In Ming’s case, for example, Geraldine keeps in touch with both the mother and his school teachers. “Where possible, everyone is in the loop,” she says. “This way, the child gets support in a few ways.”
Even then, Geraldine and Magdalen recognise that what they do cannot resolve the problem completely. The journey to recovery is often a long-drawn one, with many hurdles along the way, but the little rewards keep them going.
“Any little improvement is really very fulfilling,” says Magdalen. “Success doesn’t need to be big. I feel a sense of satisfaction also when they come back years later and they still remember this place.”
For Geraldine, it is when parents express gratitude “in their own way”. “I always tell the parent, you are actually the important person,” she says, “we are just here to help and also journey together.”