Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong asked the Minister for Social and Family Development whether the Ministry will strengthen its support for (i) parents and caregivers of children with special needs and (ii) ageing parents who are caring for their grown-up children with special needs.
Ms He Ting Ru asked the Minister for Education (a) how many students are there currently in mainstream schools who have been diagnosed as requiring extra learning support or having special needs; and (b) what additional support has been mandated and available to these students and their families.
Mr Chan Chun Sing: Mr Speaker, we are all deeply saddened to learn of the deaths of 11-year-old twin brothers Ethan Yap and Aston Yap on 21 January. My MOE colleagues and I mourn their passing, and we extend our condolences to their family, friends and schoolmates. I believe all Members of this House will agree with us that the pain hits especially hard, because such young lives have been lost.
Soon after the twins’ deaths were made public, the media reported that the boys had special needs. Today, I will not touch on the specifics of this case as it is before the Court, and I urge members of the public not to speculate on the incident or to prematurely draw conclusions on what should be done. But today, together with Minister for Social and Family Development Minister Masagos, I will address how the Government and all of us can take a whole-of-community approach to provide targeted support to children with special needs and their caregivers across different life stages.
Mr Speaker, Sir, it is our goal for children with special needs to reach their full potential, to be confident in themselves and to be equipped with life skills and values so that they can grow up to lead, as much as possible, as normal, as independent a life as possible.
This starts from the early years, where early detection and timely intervention are critical. Parents are encouraged to refer to the developmental milestones in the Health Promotion Board’s Child Health Booklet as reference points and take their children for regular childhood developmental screenings at General Practitioners, clinics or polyclinics. If any delay in the child’s development is detected, the child will be referred to paediatricians for further diagnosis of developmental concerns. In the preschool, teachers may also flag up children with suspected developmental delays to early intervention professionals, who will work with paediatricians to determine the children’s needs. Those children identified to require early intervention, or EI, will be referred to the appropriate EI programmes based on the level of support needed. Depending on the programme, children may receive EI support within their preschools or at EI centres.
For the schooling years, to help parents decide how to best support their children’s special educational needs, MOE has collaborated with hospitals, EI centres and special education, or SPED, schools to develop common standards to guide professional assessments and align the recommendations we give to parents. Based on these assessments and recommendations, parents decide whether to enrol their children in a mainstream Primary school or a SPED school. MOE also holds an annual Parent Forum, in collaboration with KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and National University Hospital (NUH), to help parents better understand how mainstream and SPED schools can support their children’s needs. Parents of children with special educational needs are invited as speakers to share their experiences in choosing a school and working with the school to support their children.
Mr Speaker, Sir, today, some 27,000 students with mild special educational needs attend mainstream schools, supported by teachers who implement inclusive classroom practices and Allied Educators who specialise in learning and behavioural support. Because of their additional needs, some may need pull-out support during or after curriculum time. Those who need additional support in literacy and numeracy join the Learning Support Programmes in English Language and Mathematics in Primary 1 and 2. And those with Dyslexia may join the School-based Dyslexia Remediation programme for Primary 3 and 4. Last year, we announced that we are rolling out the TRANsition Support for InTegration, or TRANSIT programme, for Primary 1 students with social and behavioural needs. Thirty-seven schools have implemented this programme, and more will be coming on board.
When children have higher support needs, professionals will recommend a SPED school because these schools have specialised instruction and customised facilities, specially-trained teachers and Allied Professionals. Currently, approximately 7,000 students, or about 20% of all students reported with special educational needs, attend the existing 22 SPED schools. These students have moderate to severe special needs. Across mainstream and SPED schools, the number of students reported with special educational needs have risen by about 5% in the last three years, largely due to growing awareness and early identification.
Parents are our key partners as they provide valuable insights into their children’s unique needs. This is why schools engage families early to find out their children’s needs. Schools then provide details of the support available in school and how the school and parents can work together to support their child. When schools and families communicate, they build relationships and share strategies that can be used both in school and at home.
In some cases, parents of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools may find that the mainstream environment does not suit their child. With the advice of MOE Educational Psychologists and the school’s teachers and Allied Educators, they may conclude that their child is better supported in a SPED School. MOE also provides Post-Diagnosis Educational Guidance to render emotional support and assistance to parents in the journey towards acceptance of their child’s special needs.
In SPED schools, teachers work closely with parents to exchange information on their children’s progress and support the application of skills at home and in the community. Each school has a Social Worker who can help families with additional emotional or financial needs, if needed. Families can access programmes outside of curriculum hours such as holiday activities and outings run by the schools or Social Service Agencies (SSAs), in collaboration with external organisations and volunteers. There are also Special Student Care Centres, which provide before-and-after school care services for school-going children with special educational needs. SG Enable as well as SSAs also organise parent and sibling engagement activities, including workshops and camps, where participants provide mutual support by sharing experiences and advice.
To help students and families transit from SPED to post-school life, MOE works with the SPED schools to implement school-wide processes of transition planning for students at the secondary years, where each student has an Individual Transition Plan reflecting his or her post-school interests, strengths and aspirations. MOE also works with MSF, SG Enable and the SPED schools for the School-to-Work Transition Programme, to support work-capable students in transiting from school to work. For SPED graduates who do not transit to employment due to higher needs, MOE works with SPED schools and SG Enable to facilitate their transition to post-school options based on their abilities and needs, including for students identified for MSF-funded services.
Mr Speaker, all parents plan on providing for our children in every possible way until they reach independence as adults. So, we can all understand when parents discover that their child will need a lot more support for a lot longer, even into adulthood, we can experience the heartache, shock and even fear. This is an unplanned journey and can be a challenging one. Many of us know of such families, amongst our friends, relatives or in the community. Some of us are ourselves family of a special person.
I am heartened to hear of families who have drawn strength from circles of support and who have in turn given support to others allowing them to cope with the stress and challenges of journeying alongside their special child.
So, let us do our part to serve as a circle of support for these children and their families. We cannot say, “Let the other neighbour help. Let the other relatives help. Let the other company hire him.” We need not wait for one another – let us all make the first step. Let us all let them know that we value them and their children. Let us remind them that they are not alone. When the parents need a break, let us step in to play with or accompany their children. When they seek an understanding employer or colleague, let us be that understanding employer or colleague. Let us be a community that reaches out in both words and deeds to demonstrate care and kindness. Let us be an inclusive society that uplifts one another, leaves no Singaporean behind and moves forward as one.
Mr Speaker, Sir, may I have Mr Masagos make his reply?
Mr Speaker: Yes, please.
The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Masagos Zulkifli B M M): Mr Speaker, Sir, may I take Question Nos 37 to 39 together, please?
Mr Speaker: Yes, please.
Mr Masagos Zulkifli B M M: Minister Chan spoke about the support available for children with special needs and their caregivers during the schooling years. I will share more on the support available for caregivers of persons with special needs or disabilities beyond the school setting.
SG Enable was set up in 2013 to support persons with disabilities and is now the single touchpoint for disability and caregiver support services, as well as public education efforts. Caregivers of persons with disabilities who need information to better care for their loved ones and themselves may access the Enabling Guide at http://www.enablingguide.sg. This is SG Enable’s first-stop resource portal for caregivers to learn more about disabilities in general, as well as available disability services, schemes, caregiver training opportunities and informal caregiver support groups. Caregivers of persons with disabilities who need more information on caregiver support services can also contact SG Enable at email@example.com.
Aside from the Enabling Guide, MSF and SG Enable work with Social Service Agencies to increase awareness of services. Touchpoints occur early as children are diagnosed with special needs at birth or as they develop. This is also the opportunity to begin better equipping caregivers of such young children. For example, SG Enable runs the “Start Right” workshop twice a month to provide information on Early Intervention (EI), the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children, or EIPIC, strategies for caregivers to engage their children at home, as well as available community resources and support.
EI centres also provide caregiver engagement and training under EIPIC, so that caregivers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to support their children at home. ECDA is also developing a guide for parents of preschool-aged children who require early intervention, arising from a recommendation by the Inclusive Preschool Workgroup to strengthen support for parents. The parents’ guide will include information on developmental needs, ways to access EI services, support available to facilitate the child’s transition from the preschool years to school-age provisions, as well as self-care strategies and resources. We expect the guide to be ready by April this year.
We want to assure caregivers that they are not alone in providing care for their loved ones. There are various care services that they can tap on. EI centres, as well as many preschools, provide support for children under the age of seven with developmental needs. Special Student Care Centres, or SSCCs, provide before-and-after school care service for children aged seven to 18. Day Activity Centres, or DACs, offer day programmes for adults with disabilities aged 18 and above on either a full-time or part-time basis. Children Disability Homes, or CDHs, and Adult Disability Homes, or ADHs, provide both long-term and short-term residential care services for persons with disabilities.
SG Enable’s “Take-A-Break” Pilot Programme provides short-term home-based respite services.
Supporting the mental health and well-being of caregivers is essential to enable them to take good care of their loved ones and themselves. Caregivers who are distressed and need someone to speak to can call the National Care Hotline, the Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline, or the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) for support. In addition, MOH and the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) have worked with Social Service Agencies to set up caregiver community outreach teams, to provide emotional support for caregivers of persons with mental health conditions, who have or are at risk of developing mental health needs. Caregivers of seniors and persons with mental health needs can visit the AIC website for information on eldercare services, community mental health services and caregiver support measures, such as financial support schemes and respite care.
MSF has also appointed 10 Parenting Support Providers that offer evidence-based parenting support programmes for parents and caregivers of children. These include the Triple P Programme and Signposts that equip parents and caregivers with strategies to manage the child’s behaviour. MSF’s evaluations indicate that attendees reported sustained reductions in parenting stress and improvements in children’s behaviour.
Parents and caregivers of children who require low levels of early intervention support and whose children require behavioural support can tap on such programmes as well.
Mr Speaker, supporting caregivers requires many helping hands. It is a whole-of-society effort involving not just the Government, but the community as well. One example is Project 3i, under the SG Together Alliance for Action for Caregivers of Persons with Disabilities, formed by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and SG Enable.
Project 3i was started by CaringSG, an organisation set up and led by caregivers, for caregivers. Project 3i aims to strengthen community support for caregivers by connecting caregivers with others in the community, providing befriending and peer mentorship by trained caregivers, and providing caregivers and families with complex needs with advisory support from professional volunteers including doctors, therapists, teachers and psychologists, to help them better navigate and access mainstream health and social services. We welcome more of such community-led and caregiver-led initiatives.
To all caregivers who are facing the challenges and stressors of taking care of their loved ones, please do reach out if you need any assistance. The caregiving journey can be a stressful one and caregivers need our strong support. In addition to having services and programmes available for them and their loved ones, it is equally important for family, friends and other caregivers to provide emotional support. Let us all play a part by extending a helping hand or a listening ear when we see someone in need.
Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang): Thank you, Mr Speaker. My question relates to children who need extra support in schools. I will have a few questions. First, how does the Ministry track how these children are doing in school? Secondly, how does the Ministry track how successful these measures of support are? And finally, are there any proactive steps being taken within a framework, some kind of formal screening available, to identify students who might have learning difficulties or special needs and benefit from these forms of support, and also their families, their parents and their caregivers?
Mr Chan Chun Sing: Mr Speaker, Sir, in response to Ms He Ting Ru’s questions, I will just make the following points. The tracking is on a continuous basis. Of course, the tracking is not based on the usual academic standards that we use. Very often, for the students with special education needs, if they are following the mainstream curriculum, then we track their progress. But very importantly, in this progress, we are not trying to measure themselves against other people. As I have always say, for us, it is more important to surpass ourselves than to surpass other people. For many of our children with special needs, the goal is really for them to improve over what they have been able to achieve the previous day, the previous year, to give themselves a sense of confidence, a sense of independence. And that is what, if you like, broadly how we measure our success, in a very broad way.
The second point I would like to make is that, we are always in close contact with the parents and the families, so that we can work hand in hand between the school and the families to help progress our children, each according to their potential. Where necessary, we will bring in the education, the professional psychologist to help equip both our teachers with the necessary skill sets and also the parents with the necessary skill sets to cope and to care for the children with special needs. So, it is not the kind of usual tracking that we would use for the usual academic yardsticks or performance yardsticks for typical children, but I think for each of the children with special needs, we have to customise the programme according to their needs.
And I would like to make this point that, while we generally use the word “special needs”, the special needs community is not homogeneous. Every child with special needs is special in their own ways and they do need different levels of support with different learning needs as well. So, that is why to add on to what Minister Masagos says, because of the spectrum of needs, we also need a spectrum of solutions in order to best cater to the respective needs.
Ministry of Education
Ministry of Social and Family Development
14 February 2022