worth fighting for

This Teach­ers’ Day, we talk to the mother be­hind Sin­ga­pore’s first in­clu­sive preschool and dis­cover her in­spir­ing jour­ney of hope.

Young Parents (Singapore) - - THE TRAVEL ISSUE -

Lit­tle Khloe Gan is mer­rily am­bling towards the child­care cen­tre’s play area when Lena Koh stops the tyke in her tracks.

“Khloe, have you nished your snack? Can you put your bowl in the pail, please?” coos the prin­ci­pal of Kin­dle Gar­den.

The child du­ti­fully does as told, earn­ing a beam­ing smile from Lena. “Good girl,” she says. And Khloe – a three-yearold with Down syn­drome – hap­pily goes off to join her friends, most of whom are typ­i­cally de­vel­op­ing chil­dren.

Lena has good rea­son to be pleased. A year ago, when Khloe came to Kin­dle Gar­den – Sin­ga­pore’s rst in­clu­sive child­care cen­tre lo­cated at the En­abling Vil­lage in Lengkok Bahru – she could not even walk.

“She had low mus­cle tone, so she moved around on her bum,” the prin­ci­pal says.

But with help from the child­care cen­tre’s res­i­dent oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist, the lit­tle girl can now run.

Run by vol­un­tary wel­fare group Awwa and funded by the Lien Foun­da­tion, Kin­dle Gar­den is a dream come true for Lena, who has spent nearly three decades in early child­hood education.

The mother of two boys, aged 17 and 13 (pic­tured, next page), has a soft spot for chil­dren with spe­cial needs. Her younger son Dex­ter is autis­tic and she un­der­stands only too well the chal­lenges par­ents with spe­cial needs chil­dren have to grap­ple with, es­pe­cially when it comes to education.

“A lot of heart­break can be pre­vented if only we try. In­clu­sion works and while the jour­ney is not easy, the re­sults make it worth ght­ing for,” she says.

AC­CI­DEN­TAL CAREER

Petite but feisty, she is the el­der of two sis­ters, and grew up in a one-room at in Kim Keat.

Her fa­ther was a car­pen­ter who had to stop work­ing af­ter suf­fer­ing a heart at­tack in his early 50s. Her mother was a stall as­sis­tant and dish­washer.

To sup­ple­ment the fam­ily in­come, the for­mer stu­dent of Chong Boon Pri­mary and Mayower Se­condary started work­ing dur­ing school hol­i­days from the age of 12.

She washed dishes and served drinks at can­teens in ship­yards and other in­dus­trial ar­eas, waited on ta­bles in Ja­panese restau­rants and worked as a sales as­sis­tant in de­part­ment stores.

“I think work­ing from such an early age taught me re­silience and made me street-smart,” she says.

Her foray into early child­hood education was ac­ci­den­tal. Given her fam­ily cir­cum­stances, she knew that fur­ther stud­ies were out of the ques­tion. Her plan was to join the army af­ter her O lev­els.

“I thought it would be in­ter­est­ing and dif­fer­ent. I wanted to join the Na­tional Po­lice Cadet Corps while I was in school but they re­jected me be­cause I was too short,” she says. Her fa­ther, how­ever, nipped that idea in the bud.

“He said: ‘Even boys nd Na­tional Ser­vice tough, and you want to join the army? No.’ ”

He told her to stay put at the kinder­garten where she had found a job as an as­sis­tant teacher while wait­ing for her O-level re­sults.

“I was so dis­ap­pointed. I was just an as­sis­tant then and my job was to wash lit­tle bums. I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life,” she says.

For­tu­nately, it did not turn out so dire. Teach­ing tiny tots, she found, was re­ward­ing. She stayed at Twin­kle Child Care for 10 years, dur­ing which she ob­tained her certicate as well as her diploma in preschool teach­ing.

She left only af­ter she got mar­ried to an elec­tri­cianturned-en­gi­neer when she was 28 and had her rst son.

Her next stop was at Kin­der­land, where she was made prin­ci­pal af­ter eight months.

By then, she had come across her fair share of chil­dren with spe­cial needs. “I re­mem­ber this boy who would eat raw mac­a­roni and chew pa­per clips. I had lit­tle knowl­edge of spe­cial needs then. I couldn’t even get his at­ten­tion,” she re­calls.

LIFE AF­TER DEX­TER

Her life changed when she had Dex­ter in 2004. There were in­di­ca­tions that he was dif­fer­ent from other chil­dren.

“He didn’t speak and would carry his milk bot­tle all over the place. I didn’t think any­thing was wrong be­cause my el­der son also had speech de­lay and didn’t speak un­til he was four,” she says.

She ad­mits she was in de­nial un­til she en­rolled him in a nurs­ery. “The teacher could get all his class­mates to sit down but not him. He would be in a cor­ner, lin­ing up his toys in a straight line. She could not get him to join in ac­tiv­i­ties; she couldn’t cope,” she says.

Lena took Dex­ter out of the kinder­garten and sent him for an as­sess­ment at a hospi­tal.

The re­sults shook her. Her son was di­ag­nosed with autism spec­trum dis­or­der (ASD). Among other things, the as­sess­ment re­port in­di­cated that he had “speech ab­nor­mal­ity”, showed “so­cial im­pair­ment” and lacked “imag­i­na­tion”.

ASD is a life­long neu­rode­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der and is char­ac­terised, in vary­ing de­grees, by difcul­ties in so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, ver­bal and non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and repet­i­tive be­hav­iour.

She and her hus­band de­cided to seek a sec­ond opin­ion from a spe­cial­ist who was more re­as­sur­ing. She said Dex­ter was high-func­tion­ing and had an IQ of 107.

Ac­cord­ing to the IQ scale – de­vel­oped from a sys­tem de­vised by psy­chol­o­gist Al­fred Binet in 1904 – a score of be­tween 90 and 110 in­di­cates av­er­age or nor­mal in­tel­li­gence.

Lena re­calls: “She said, ‘You’ve got to work with your son. It’s not that bad.’ “She did just that. “I worked with him ev­ery night at home. I taught him the al­pha­bet. Within two weeks, he mas­tered it. I next worked on num­bers and he got it within two weeks, too. That was a real achieve­ment for me,” she says, adding that Dex­ter started speak­ing at six.

He started Pri­mary 1 in a neigh­bour­hood school when he was seven, af­ter get­ting the go-ahead from his psy­chol­o­gist.

Lena in­formed the school about Dex­ter’s con­di­tion. Al­though some teach­ers were sup­port­ive, it has not been an easy jour­ney.

“Some teach­ers were not re­cep­tive towards chil­dren with learning needs. They tended to com­plain more about his con­di­tion in­stead of giv­ing me con­struc­tive or help­ful feed­back in help­ing him to cope in class.

“They don’t know how to han­dle him. They take things away from him, which just makes him act up,” she says.

Like many “PSLE mums” who have chil­dren tak­ing the Pri­mary School Leav­ing Ex­am­i­na­tion this year, the diminu­tive woman says she is fraz­zled.

Dex­ter, whose el­der brother Max is now in Ngee Ann Polytech­nic, is less anx­ious.

Lena says: ‘He will tell me, ‘Don’t worry, Mum, I will try harder.’

“And when I ask, ‘What hap­pens if you fail?’, his re­ply is, ‘Then I will be a Youtu­ber and make lots of money re­view­ing toys.’

“I just hope he will pass his PSLE. At least with that, he can go to the In­sti­tute of Tech­ni­cal Education and pick up a skill.”

DREAM JOB

While her sit­u­a­tion made her em­pa­thetic to the par­ents of spe­cial-needs chil­dren in the child­care cen­tres she worked in, it also frus­trated her.

“There were kids with spe­cial needs, but I couldn't help their par­ents by get­ting ed­u­ca­tional ther­a­pists be­cause it was just too ex­pen­sive,” she sighs.

Three years ago, she was called up for an in­ter­view by Awwa af­ter she sent out her re­sume.

“When I met them, they told me about this in­clu­sive day­care cen­tre they wanted to run. I was think­ing to my­self: Wow, if this is re­ally true, then there will be hope for so many par­ents.”

Not long af­ter, she came on board as prin­ci­pal of Kin­dle Gar­den, funded by the Lien Foun­da­tion, which has been push­ing the en­ve­lope in the ar­eas of el­der­care and early child­hood education.

Ini­tial fears that the con­cept – to pro­vide all chil­dren, with or with­out spe­cial needs, a “val­ues­based, in­clu­sive and nondis­crim­i­na­tory learning en­vi­ron­ment” – may not go down well with par­ents evap­o­rated. About 30 per cent of the chil­dren have spe­cial needs.

“Even be­fore we opened, par­ents started walk­ing in from the neigh­bour­hood. The rst par­ent I talked to was a Mrs Chia. I told her about the pro­gramme and that about 30 per cent of the chil­dren are those with spe­cial needs. She said: ‘That’s ne. It’s good.’ She en­rolled her child. It was the same with the sec­ond par­ent, too. That gave me a big booster.”

Kin­dle Gar­den opened in Jan­uary last year with 20 chil­dren. By the third month, it was over­sub­scribed with a wait­ing list.

“Yes­ter­day, a cou­ple with a nine-month-old child walked in to nd out what we’re all about. We have preg­nant moth­ers queue­ing up for va­can­cies, too,” she says, adding that Kin­dle Gar­den now has more than 80 kids.

In ad­di­tion to chil­dren with Down syn­drome and autism, it also has young ones who have speech, vis­ual or mo­bil­ity is­sues.

Lena started out with ve teach­ing staff mem­bers, but now has 14, in­clud­ing an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist, an as­so­ciate psy­chol­o­gist and an early in­ter­ven­tion­ist.

The jour­ney, she says, has been ex­hil­a­rat­ing. Be­cause it is such a novel con­cept, she and her team of­ten have to gure out their own so­lu­tions to prob­lems. But the work is ex­tremely re­ward­ing.

“A cou­ple of kids could not walk when they came in. Our ther­a­pist would come in with Kaye Walk­ers and work with them,” she says, re­fer­ring to the wheeled walk­ing aids.

“It’s so good to see the kids gain condence and out­grow their walk­ers,” adds Lena, who is now study­ing for her ad­vanced diploma in early in­ter­ven­tion at Ngee Ann Polytech­nic.

In­clu­sion has be­come her mis­sion. “When you see a vis­ually im­paired per­son with a walk­ing stick in an MRT sta­tion, what do you do? Most will tend to walk away. But have you thought about of­fer­ing your arm?

“This is what in­clu­sion is all about. It’s about ac­cept­ing him into your life. He may not even need your help, but it’s good for him to know that you are here and you will help if he needs it.

“It’s em­pa­thy, not sym­pa­thy. It’s in­clu­sion.”

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