Going to school each day is exciting for Miss Lourdes Maria. As an Allied Educator (AED) for Learning and Behavioural Support, her role is to attend to the needs of her students with special needs, and this is something she thoroughly enjoys.
Miss Maria believes it is important to help students with special needs to thrive within the school setting. This includes students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), visual impairments and, in rare cases, muscular dystrophy.
The teachers at Jurongville Secondary School also share the same passion. Backed by a committee of teachers trained in special needs, Jurongville is one of the 64 secondary schools resourced for special needs (MOE, 2013).
Understanding the Students
Dealing with special needs students requires a tremendous amount of patience and commitment. “I work with the students one-to-one very closely,” shares Miss Maria, who has been at Jurongville for 5 years.
For each student with special needs, she would gather as much background information as she can from various sources. She then formulates an intervention plan before sharing with the teachers how they can provide these students with continual support.
Veteran teacher Mrs Philip feels that to be able to provide the student with such care, one has to understand the child very well. For that to happen, the teacher has to be passionate about their job and what they do.
“We have to look at the teachers’ willingness to take on the job, and then we give them the support,” says Mrs Philip, who has been teaching for 25 years. To help teachers who are not trained in special needs, the school conducts training sessions for them.
During Autism Awareness month, the school also conduct awareness programmes for both teachers and students. Increasing awareness allows them to be more understanding towards those with special needs.
Creating an Accommodating Environment
Other than increasing awareness, ensuring that these students settle right in at school is also a priority in Jurongville. As the school is seeing a rising number of students with special needs each year, the committee strives to accommodate the needs of these students.
A student with difficulty reading small print will receive exam papers with larger print in A3 size, rather than the usual A4. A student who has ADHD will be placed in a separate exam room to reduce possible sources of distraction. Many of the special needs students will sit closer to the teacher and have a “buddy” to help in the learning in class.
At times, students with ASD or ADHD may have a “meltdown”, where they experience high anxiety and react by being difficult. They will be referred to Miss Maria.
She gets them to process the problem, express themselves, and then help them to calm down. She also teaches them various strategies, which may differ from student to student, as each student is unique and may require different ways to calm themselves down.
Teaching Social Skills
Miss Maria sometimes has one-to-one sessions with the students in the special needs room, which she feels is like a sanctuary for them. There, she conducts lessons on social skills.
“We teach them skills like social communication, social interaction and classroom work habits,” Miss Maria shares. These sessions are usually very detailed and structured, and require a lot of co-operation from the students.
– Miss Lourdes Maria, Jurongville Secondary School
Students are taught to submit their homework on time, pay attention during lessons and be less fidgety, so that they learn to manage daily routines without any problems. They are also taught to manage themselves so that they can learn together with the class.
Most of the students with special needs have difficulties interacting with others in a social setting. Miss Maria teaches them skills such as asking for help and talking to others, like the teachers and peers, in an appropriate manner.
She also coaches them on how to make friends and interact with them. This will often be the last goal to be achieved as the students must first want to make friends.
“To force it upon them is not fair,” says Miss Maria. “I will only teach when the child is ready.”
Equal Opportunities for All
To ensure the well-being of the students, teachers work very closely with Miss Maria. She will inform the teachers of the students’ special needs, and likewise, teachers will also keep her updated about the student.
Teachers of special needs students need to be alert at all times. They must be able to identify the student’s behavioural patterns during lessons. They need to be aware of tell-tale signs that the student is on the verge of a meltdown. In such situations, help is available and intervention is immediate.
At times, the students might use their special needs as an excuse to get their way. And though a certain leeway is given to such students due to their needs, the school makes it clear that they should be treated in the same manner as any other student as far as it is possible.
Math teacher Miss Han Hui Chin notes: “We must make it clear to them that despite their special needs, though the teachers will be more understanding, they should not expect special treatment and will be treated the same way as the rest of the students.”
This is because the school firmly believes one of its key roles is to prepare these students not just for life in school but also beyond, where they have to fend for themselves. They may not always have the luxury of being supported or being treated differently by others.
A Whole Community of Support
All the skills taught to them will enable these special needs students to be more independent and get them ready for post-secondary life outside of the school gates. At the end of their schooling years, they must learn to integrate into mainstream society.
To this end, the special needs students are given the same opportunities as their peers. The school treats them as any other student, albeit with customized support due to their needs. They go for all camps, learning journeys and other activities.
“We want the special needs students to have a sense of belonging to the school and for their peers to accept them,” says Miss Maria.
Another important factor is having good contact with the student’s previous school because that is one of the sources through which the AED can discover more information about the child’s history. This allows for appropriate follow-up by the AED.
Parental involvement is also key to their growth. Teachers’ efforts to help the students thrive in school may go to waste if parents are not well informed. They have to provide their children with continual support, especially during after-school hours.
“Their parents are very important because we need their support both here and at home,” Miss Han notes. “It is a whole group of us supporting that one child,” Miss Maria adds.
Every one in contact with the child plays a huge part in contributing to the child’s growth and learning. As Mrs Philip says, “We are all a community; we all sing the same song.”
Ministry of Education. (2013). Support for children with special needs. Retrieved from MOE website: http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/support-for-children-special-needs