Do we ever truly plan to face challenges in life?
Do we truly want to test our resilience in face of life’s unexpected turns?
The answer to both questions would probably be “No.” Nobody really wants things to go differently from what is planned or hoped for; nobody really wants to face challenges. Nonetheless, it is also a fact that life doesn’t always work as per our blue print. It has its twists and turns, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot always dodge them. And an ever bigger fact is that we do live through most challenges thrown upon us; whether through hope or sheer resilience, with little help or a lot, we sail through.
Parenting is the most special part of someone’s life. I could only understand this when I became a mother myself. As a parent, you want to give everything to your child. You want to protect him from pain and see him grow – physically, emotionally and socially – there is nothing more amazing. A child with special needs is one of the biggest challenges a parent can be faced with. Neither can they give up, nor can they let go. They have to take their child through the journey of life; a journey that neither they nor their child chose for themselves, but which was chosen by God.
It is in times such as these that some individuals and institutions provide support, in the form of compassion, shared experiences and practical help. One such organization is Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS), which offers a unique way of educating children with special needs. MSIS is the product of collaboration between Port Phillip Specialist School (PPSS) in Port Melbourne, Australia, and Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS). When White Lodge director, Jayne Nadarajoo, saw the need for a modern special needs school, she travelled to Australia seeking out the best of its kind.
The school is located in the lush green surroundings of Loewen Gardens on Loewen Road; a single-storey building, MSIS has a large open area outside the building where children partake in outdoor activities. It was in this open area that we were greeted with a basketball bouncing towards us as Juliet, principal of MSIS, cheered on a boy trying to basket the ball. We stayed outdoors so she could continue to supervise the children as we spoke.
Juliet shared that MSIS uses dance, drama, music and visual and performing arts to teach functional English, Mathematics, daily life skills, personal/interpersonal and behavioural skills to children with special needs aged 3 to 12 years. Apparently, just explaining this methodology to parents proved to be a challenge initially. This evidence-based methodology makes MSIS the first of its kind in Singapore. Some of the techniques used are rather unconventional, but have a multi-dimensional impact. For example, while cooking classes are used to teach students how to be independent, use cutlery and set up the table, they also teach basic Mathematics, counting and numeracy through recipes etc. Juliet emphasised that the objective of the programs at MSIS is to make children as self-reliant as possible. It continues to work closely with Port Phillip Specialist School through its partnership agreement.
Upon admission, there is a protocol at MSIS to reach agreement with parents on every child’s individual needs and capacity. Once this is established, every child is dealt with in accordance to his/her capacity and interests. For example, if a child has an interest in cycling or learning Mandarin, the school includes that as a component of their Individual Learning Plans (ILP’s). MSIS has an assessment system where students’ performances in each discipline are rated from 1 to 5. Students often display different strengths of different disciplines. Progress of the students’ performances is tracked over time, and regular updates provided to parents. MSIS programs are age-centric, starting with Pre-Kindergarten for 3-year-olds, followed by Kindergarten, Early Years and Foundation Programs from 7 years of age onwards.
Teachers at MSIS hold a minimum of Diplomas in teaching, and have experience in special needs education. The school also engages psychologists where appropriate and speech and occupational therapists to form a network of support around the students. Handling children with special needs is a challenge. Many of MSIS’ students have autism, and some have Down’s Syndrome; some need communication sign cards and pictures to verbalise, while others may need constant shadowing. The children’s lack of understanding and inability to communicate often leads to frustration. Some children, realising they are different, can develop behavioural, social and emotional issues. This is where the expertise of MSIS’s team of integrated professionals proves vital, in the designing of coping strategies and techniques for the children.
MSIS offers a rather flexible school fees structure, depending on the child’s needs and affordability. Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten range from S$10,000 to S$24,000 per annum, depending on the number of days of attendance. Advanced programmes are full-day, and cost between S$25,000 and S$30,000 per annum. While, currently, there is no scholarship program in place at MSIS, the timing and attendance flexibility allows parents to create an arrangement within their means.
As we talked, a young student approached me and tried to see the notes I was taking on my phone. I could see his keen interest in gadgets. Students at MSIS are friendly, confident and curious, asking questions regarding our presence on the campus. It was nice to see their sense of ownership to the school.
While it may not always be the case depending on the extent of the special need, some MSIS students eventually go on to find jobs, mostly in the hospitality industry, as independent and contributing members of society.
My experience at MSIS was a humbling one, as I realised and appreciated the courage of the students and staff of MSIS to fight their way through this world, which can be fast-paced and materialistic. It is an uphill task to prepare students with special needs to be self-sufficient and productive members of society. While we may not be able to change their circumstances, what we can do is support them, even if moving an inch at a time, by joining hands with organizations like MSIS.
If you know a child who could benefit from an environment such as MSIS’, or want to support the school, please call +65 6634 8891
About Kiran Khurram
Kiran Khurram confesses to being a shopaholic and watching Friends almost daily. She is stuck in the '90s, and likes to believe Pakistan’s cricket team is still doing wonderfully well. Kiran collected twelve years of generalist Human Resource experience. A Master in Public Administration, Kiran plans to return to full-time work once her 7-month-old daughter starts school. Read more about Kiran in Contributing Writers.