THE National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC) would like to respond to the letter “An inclusive education minefield” (The Star, July 29) by Jerrica Fatima Ann who suggested putting away “the roadmap to inclusive education until the state and civil society awaken to their responsibility.” We would like to highlight constructive and workable solutions that can be implemented now as our children cannot wait.
We are sharing the experience of children (names changed to protect their privacy) here to show that inclusion is possible with caring teachers who are flexible. There are many similar cases happening in the country as well.
Jia Qi is a girl with Down syndrome. Many people, including teachers, have doubts about a child’s educational prospects whenever Down syndrome is mentioned. But there are many exceptions and Jia Qi is one. When she was five, she could read and write in two languages and outperformed her kindergarten classmates academically. This was possible because Jia Qi’s teachers allowed her mother to sit in and support her learning.
When Aisha first started primary school, her father communicated with her principal and class teachers about her needs and strengths as well as strategies on how to support and help her in school. With help and compassion from her school principal, teachers and classmates, Aisha thrived despite having autism.
When the kindergarten where Lina is a teacher announced its decision to integrate children with disabilities in the school 10 years ago, she was worried, scared and stressed. She had no experience teaching children with disabilities and had minimal understanding and knowledge of disabilities. She was worried that she would not be able to manage unexpected behavioural challenges. Her fellow teachers felt the same.
Lina’s kindergarten is now one of the few inclusive kindergartens in our country. The transition was successful because the kindergarten received regular itinerant
support from early intervention practitioners to make adaptations to children’s needs and learning. They also collaborated with doctors, therapists and parents of children with disabilities to foster understanding and acceptance within the school and community.
Now, when you talk to Lina, her eyes sparkle with joy and confidence as she describes the children in her class, especially how they all help and play with each other.
These children with disabilities are participating meaningfully and are truly included in the classrooms.
Inclusive education is never about “one size fits all”. Neither is it solely about educating children with and without disabilities in the same space – that is integration, which, unfortunately, is also the definition adopted by our Education Ministry.
Besides being a right to equal education for all children, inclusive education in its truest sense is about the continuous effort of responding to diversity, identifying barriers to participation, changing attitudes and improving teaching pedagogy so that all children can participate meaningfully.
No doubt there are still huge gaps and barriers in our education system to make inclusive education a reality.
None of us can make it alone – we all need support. As a nation, we need to work together to change the system and support our schools and teachers to become more inclusive so that all children can learn together.
The question should never be “When will we become ready for inclusion?” Instead, we should ask: “How can we become more inclusive?” This is when we focus on inculcating an inclusive culture where diversity is embraced, respected and valued.
We agree that in order to implement inclusive education with fidelity, there needs to be a lower teacher-student ratio, such as one teacher to six or eight children.
Considering that most preschool classrooms of 20 to 25 children have two teachers, an interim solution is to have the support of a teacher aide (assistant), or like Jia Qi’s case, allowing her mother to be in the classroom.
Many parents and teacher aides are willing to provide such support to mainstream teachers.
The reality, however, is that few schools offer such support, and most are not keen to have a parent or teacher aide (assistant) in the class.
Flexibility in curriculum and classroom management allows the smooth running of the inclusive process, in particular the use of reasonable accommodation such as extra time and use of adaptive devices.
At the same time, we need teachers who are trained to teach and respond to the diverse needs of children in their classroom.
On that note, all professional training of our teachers – both pre-service and in-service – must be underpinned by the inclusive perspective.
Principles and strategies of teaching to diversity must be embedded into professional development courses so that inclusive teaching will become our teachers’ second nature.
NECIC, the Early Childhood Care and Education Council (ECCE) and other non-governmental organisations have started working on the in-service, hands-on training for preschool teachers to make inclusive preschool a reality.
Besides producing sufficient numbers of qualified teachers in early childhood education, we also need to recruit the best talent to teach our children. Teaching is a work of the heart and a profession with great intellectual, physical and emotional rigour. Teaching should never be just a job that puts bread on the table.
Neither should early childhood education tertiary programmes be the “leftover” choice for our secondary school-leavers. In fact, we should be encouraging the high achievers to pursue teaching as a career of their first choice.
The roadmap to inclusive education must continue at all levels of education and begin from early childhood.
Like Jia Qi and Aisha, many similar children who attended mainstream preschools thrive and grow exponentially in the environment, so much so that they continue to attend mainstream primary and secondary schools.
We have also seen the positive impacts they bring to their preschools, where teachers improve their teaching skills, and all children, regardless of their disabilities, gain better literacy, communication and Math skills and become more caring and respectful.
As the late Canadian theologian and humanitarian Jean Vanier wrote: “A society which discards those who are weak and non-productive... becomes a society without a heart, without kindness – a rational and sad society lacking celebration, divided within itself and given to competition, rivalry and, finally, violence” (Man and Woman, God Made Them).
We cannot emphasise this enough: Include children with disabilities in the regular classroom, physically as well as educationally. We must progress towards the inclusion of all children with different abilities and needs into our education system so that they will be fully accepted as part of society.
DR WONG WOAN YIING
(President, NECIC and consultant paediatrician)
PROF DR TOH TECK HOCK
(Vice-president, NECIC and consultant paediatrician)
NG LAI THIN
(Project officer, NECIC)
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