‘Start young’


Early intervention, integration key to helping special needs students succeed

WITH less than two years to go, educators are stressing the need for early intervention if we are to achieve the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 target of enrolling 75% of the country’s special needs children in inclusive programmes.

When it comes to special needs education, the earlier the intervention, the more effective and successful the result, Tunku Abdul Rahman Education Community College (TAR EC College) senior lecturer Chuah Seok Mei said.

TAR EC College, formerly known as Institute of Childhood Education Studies and Community Education (CECE), was the only private and non-profit institution of higher learning, concentrating solely on preschool teachers’ training when it was established three decades ago in 1993.

“To be honest, special needs students are not easy to handle. It takes a whole village because they need support from every aspect if they are to function in society,” she told StarEdu.

Everyone, from the child’s teachers, therapist, classmates and school bus driver to the other parents in the class, must play a role if we are serious about integrating special needs individuals into the community, said Chuah.

“Inclusion is not just about placing special needs students in a mainstream classroom. We have to look at whether the child is ready.

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“For a special needs student to be fully included in the mainstream structure means they must be able to adapt to the education system with the support needed decreasing over time as they progress.”This, she said, could only happen if the early childhood environment adequately prepares the child for mainstream classroom.

“So it is crucial for intervention to start early because this sets the pace and charts the pathway for the child to develop in a mainstream classroom where most of their peers are not like them,” Chuah explained.

To ensure a smoother transition to primary level education, early screening at the preschool level to identify special needs children and the kinds of intervention required is necessary.

“The screening exercise is not to label the child as ‘special’ in a negative way, but to chart out a pivotal development path for those who need extra attention,” she added.

While parents can bring their children to a government hospital for an assessment to be conducted, the queue is often long, Chuah noted.

Public awareness, she said, could make a huge difference to the lives of special needs individuals as they transition into adulthood and lead to positive changes as the country strives to become an inclusive nation.

Unfortunately, it looks to be a long and challenging road ahead as many mainstream schools and teachers have yet to fully understand the meaning of inclusivity and the need for it, Chuah said.

“They may have heard of the term ‘inclusion’ but they do not have the skills to put it into practice. More training and awareness are needed for them to comprehend the meaning of special needs and to learn how to help.

ChuahChuah

“It boils down to the willingness of educators to work with special needs students, really,” she said, shrugging, while adding that to place the burden squarely on teachers is unfair.

Teachers may not have the capacity to cope with having special needs students in their classes through no fault of theirs, Chuah said.

Most schoolteachers are already struggling with their workload and the pressure of meeting their key performance indicator (KPI), marking papers, and so on.

Calling on the government to increase its funding to promote awareness, to provide training for educators and to give incentives to those who are keen to be involved in special needs education, Chuah said the recently announced Budget 2023 did not specify an allocation for special needs

education, despite the Education Ministry receiving the biggest slice of the pie with RM55.2bil.

“Incentives can motivate more people to be involved in special needs education because financial sustainability is an issue,” she said, adding that public awareness is important because it would remove the stigma parents of special needs children face so that those who are in denial will slowly learn to accept their children and be encouraged to seek early intervention.

Sharing her experience, Chuah said a special needs child had been doing well at a kindergarten that practises a “love all, accept all” policy but this eventually led to the parents being in denial and refusing to seek intervention for the former. “The family was comfortable because the child was accepted but refusing to seek the appropriate intervention would hamper the long-term development of the child.

“Parents have to choose the best and most sustainable support system for the child to progress. This cannot happen if the parents are in denial.

“In such a scenario, the educator plays a vital role in keeping the family informed by approaching the subject tactfully. It is our responsibility to tell, advise and encourage them to seek help,” she said, adding that once a child is identified as requiring special education, a continuum of the learning process will be in place to ensure a smooth transition between the different phases of development, from preschool to secondary school and into adulthood.

Proper planning

An individual transition plan (ITP), stressed Malaysiancare Community Development senior director Pauline Wong, is the bedrock of ensuring quality education for special needs children.

“They need individualised plans. While an individual education plan (IEP) outlines the educational goals and support, the ITP provides a clear roadmap for a special needs student to go from school to post-secondary life.”

Malaysiancare, she shared, has been involved in numerous inclusive education pilot programmes and initiatives at the preschool level with positive outcomes.

“There was one small class of 10 students including three special needs students –an autism child, a Down syndrome child and a dyslexic child.

“They were all able to assimilate well in a Year One mainstream school right up to the secondary level. The autistic child will be sitting for the SPM this year.”

Access to kindergarten for children with special needs has a far-reaching outcome towards future inclusion efforts in mainstream schools. For inclusion to take place, Wong said classroom management is key.

“One classroom can accommodate one to two special needs students and we want to also create awareness among all the parents of how this can also benefit their children.

“This also means having to explain to the majority of students why their special needs classmate sometimes cries and teach them how to be friends with the latter.

“Through these interactions, they will learn important values such as acceptance of those who are different from them and how to care for those in need,” she said.

Malaysiancare’s National Early Childhood Intervention Council, said Wong, conducts biannual conferences that provide parents with a platform to share their challenges and to support each other, as well as workshops for teachers and therapists.

“Perhaps the Education Ministry could provide training for teachers who have yet to receive their postings to become shadow aides in classes with special needs students.

“It would really help improve the management of mainstream classes with special needs students,” she offered.

Towards self-sufficiency

Penang-based inclusive vocational training centre LemmeLearn founder Eileen Soon said the majority of parents share one main worry – where will their special needs children go when they become adults and mummy and daddy are no longer here to take care of them?

“Ask most of them what their hopes are for their children and they will instead share their endless worries.

“Will our son be able to express himself and be accepted by society? Can our daughter take care of herself? Who will be there when our children need help?”

These, said Soon, are very common and understandable concerns as most centres only cater to special needs children until they reach the ages of 18 to 21.

“Ultimately, what we strive for is to equip special needs individuals with the skills to live with minimum support and become less dependent,” she said.

Many organisations are keen to hire special needs individuals but problems arise when co-workers complain about having to work alongside them.

“Getting them hired is not hard but keeping them in the job is a challenge. Their colleagues may not be able to accept them and those who can are clueless about how to deal with special needs individuals,” Soon noted.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit more than two years ago, many employers stopped hiring, which prompted her to start an entrepreneurial project for their charges.

“In 2021, four of our students started a lunch catering business under Project LemmeStart. They have graduated and are now gainfully employed,” she said, adding that the project teaches students the concepts of running a business.

The students are fully involved in the whole process, from the planning to delivery stage. They each chip in RM150 as capital to start a business, plan what they want to do and learn to do everything by themselves, including purchasing and preparing the ingredients, cooking, selling and dealing with customers.

“When the students are involved in the project themselves, they take ownership of the business and experience the pressure of work.

“For vocational training to be effective, they must be able to communicate. It doesn’t mean that they have to speak fluently but they must be able to understand and follow instructions,” said Soon.

LemmeLearn, which operates in Pulau Tikus, George Town, Penang, is working towards making the 1km radius around the centre an autism-friendly township.

The self-contained township has a police station, banks, post office, pharmacies, clinics, hospitals, a market, a supermarket and shopping malls so people do not have to venture far for what they need.

“Prior to the pandemic, our teachers and students would occasionally visit the local businesses and introduce themselves to the hawkers and shopkeepers.

“We would hand out flyers and small handmade gifts to raise awareness about inclusivity. This allowed business owners to recognise our students and help look out for them when they are doing groceries or running errands on their own,” she said.

The effort, said Soon, has paid off as hawkers and cashiers started engaging with the students.

“Our high-functioning students get to stay overnight once a week at a nearby apartment rented by the centre.

“The ‘staycation’ is only for boys and is supervised by a male trainer from our centre.

“The purpose is for them to experience living on their own. Each of them has their own house chores and laundry to do. It’s not a party,” she said with a laugh.

The centre has started a dog treat business to train their low-functioning students who need a lot of support.

“The pet business has less stricter requirements compared to the catering business for our high-functioning students.”

She added that the dog treat business is still a work in progress and the entire process is being documented to provide a successful business model template for parents who are keen to create a startup for their special needs children.

Meanwhile, Soon said their latest venture under Project LemmeEat allows their students to man a stall at a popular coffeeshop in the neighbourhood where they sell their homecooked nasi lemak three days a week.

This would provide good and helpful exposure for the students where people will see the students hard at work.

“We hope this will help people understand how we are establishing our presence in this community,” Soon added.

It’s not easy...

"My 14-year-old autistic son does not qualify for the Integrated Special Education Programme (PPKI) and the Inclusive Special Education Programme (PPI) schools. I hope more can be done to include the lower-functioning group of special needs students in the programme. Like all parents, I want my son to have the chance to experience and learn like every other child but honestly, even some teachers and principals cannot accept or cope with special needs students, despite the government promoting an inclusionary policy."

Gentle Lee, single mother

"My daughter has Angelman Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that causes delayed development, problems with speech and balance, intellectual disability and sometimes, seizures. I can understand that it is not easy to have her in a class with many students. She is 18 years old now but her mental age could be well below five. She loves meeting people and making friends but it is very tough to bring her out with us as she doesn’t understand social norms. We can only bring her to support group activities, and even then, only occasionally."

YY Lim, hawker

Leave no one behind

Under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, the country aims to enrol at least 75% of students with special education needs in inclusive programmes by 2025.

More schools for special kids

THERE are more schools offering the Integrated Special Education Programme (PPKI) as compared to 2018.

Last year, PPKI was conducted in 2,632 schools as compared to 2,343 in 2018, Deputy Education Minister Lim Hui Ying told Parliament.

“Special education schools (SPK) were also able to take in more students by conducting lessons in special teaching and learning rooms.

“The number of special needs students enrolled increased from 2,530 in 2018 to 2,710 in 2022,” she said, adding that these were part of the ministry’s ‘Zero Reject Policy’ efforts to ensure that all students, including those with special needs, receive education that is suited to their abilities as enshrined in the Education Act 1996 (Act 555).

She said government had allocated a total of RM137.68mil for special needs education from 2018 to 2022.

“From RM2.3mil in 2018, the amount was raised to RM34.07mil in 2019, and RM39.61mil in 2020.

“Subsequently, an allocation of RM33.5mil was given in 2021, and RM28.2mil last year, to ensure the facilities are maintained and utilised by special education needs students,” she said in reply to Mohd Hasnizan Harun (PN-Hulu Selangor) during Question Time on March 6.

Under Wave 1 of the roadmap towards inclusive education for special needs students, schooling options for these students will be linked to competency levels identified.

> High-functioning students who can cope with the mainstream curriculum and assessments will be encouraged to attend inclusive education programme (PPI).

> Moderate-functioning special education needs students will attend the special needs integration programme (PPKI).

> Low-functioning students will be encouraged to attend special education schools to learn a simplified curriculum focused on basic skills, life skills, and social skills.

CLICK TO ENLARGECLICK TO ENLARGE

What it means...

Special needs students

Students certified by a medical practitioner, or an optician, audiologist or psychologist, whether in government or private services, as students with

Visual impairments

Hearing impairments

Speech disabilities

Physical inabilities (disabilities)

Learning disabilities

Any combination of disabilities

Special education schools (SPK)

Mainstream schools that implement the Integrated Special Education Programme (PPKI) or Inclusive Education Programme (PPI) at pre-school, primary, secondary, and tertiary education or secondary education, for students with special educational needs.

Inclusive Education Programme (PPI)

Placing children with special needs in the mainstream classrooms with their peers without disabilities. Some of this inclusive programme only happens for non-academic subjects like art, music and sports, instead of a full school day.

Special Needs Integration Programme (PPKI)

Children with special needs still need to meet certain criteria set by the Education Ministry’s checklist for inclusion readiness before they can be considered for participation in the programme.

For more info on special needs education, logon to www.moe.gov.my/en/special-education

Source: MyGovernment (www.malaysia.gov.my/portal/content/29488) and Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025

DON'T MISS IT

Pentaksiran Alternatif Sekolah Menengah (PASM) 2022

> The Education Ministry will release the PASM results for students with special educational needs on Tuesday (March 21).

> A total of 3,667 students from 730 schools nationwide have completed the 2022/2023 academic school session and are eligible for the Sijil Alternatif Sekolah Menengah (SASM).

> The SASM can be collected from the students’ respective schools from 10am onwards.

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