Special Educational Needs

From the Topic Lead

Kenneth Poon (resized)

What do we know about Special Educational Needs

By Prof Kenneth Kin-Loong Poon
Co-Director, Centre for Research in Child Development, NIE, NTU
Published: 1 August 2022

A child is identified with special educational needs (SEN) when he or she meets the diagnosis of a disability AND need help more in learning, accessing the educational environment, or have more difficulties than their age peers; hence requiring support beyond what is typically provided (Ministry of Education, 2018). The exact numbers range widely due to differences in definitions and resources employed for diagnosis. There are few studies of such nature in Singapore and the 3rd Enabling Masterplan reported that there is a reported 2.1% of school going children with a disability (most of which would also be considered with SEN).

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Topic Lead

Kenneth is Lien Foundation Chair Professor of Education (Psychology and Human Development) at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. He is also Dean, Education Research, as well as Centre Director of the Centre for Research in Child Development. Trained as a clinical psychologist and as an early interventionist, he has spent the past 20 years of experience working with children and persons with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Kenneth is leading/has led, as principal investigator, research projects with a combined quantum of over SGD$7 million. His research has focused on the development of children (especially children with neurodevelopmental disabilities and children from low income families) examining how the home and school environments impact development. He is Lead Principal Investigator of the ongoing Singapore Longitudinal Cohort Study (SG-LCS) and was Principal Invesitgator of the completed Transition and Adjustment of Children with Special Educational Needs (Tran-SEN).

In the Singapore Context ...


What do we know about Developmental Disabilities and Its Associated Conditions

What do we know about ADHD in our learners

What do we know about Behavioural Disorders

By Asst/P Dutt Anuradha
Psychology and Child & Human Development Academic Group, NIE, NTU
Published: 1 August 2022
By Dr Loh Pek Ru
Psychology and Child & Human Development, NIE, NTU
Published: 1 August 2022
By A/P Yeo Lay See
Psychology and Child & Human Development, NIE, NTU
Published: 1 August 2022

According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), developmental disabilities consist of a spectrum of conditions that affects an individual’s physical, cognitive/learning, communication/language, social, and/or behavioral facets of day-to-day living. These conditions could be identified at birth or at early developmental stages of childhood. Developmental Disabilities is pervasive throughout the individual’s lifetime.

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ADHD is one of the most common childhood condition (APA, 2013) occurring in different cultures and countries (Biederman, 2005; Rhode et al., 2005). It has a worldwide prevalence estimate of 5. 29% (Polanczyk, de Lima, Horta & Biederman, 2007) and an estimate of 3% to 7% in school-age children (Faraone, Sergeant, Gillberg, & Biederman, 2003).

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Behavioural disorders fall into a category called ‘Disruptive, Impulse-Control and Conduct Disorders’ in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). A key characteristic is difficulty in controlling one’s emotions and behaviours. Under normal circumstances, over a long period of time, having a behaviour disorder can adversely affect a student’s day-to-day functioning ...

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What do we know about Language Disorder

What do we know about Dyslexia

By Dr Goh Kok Yew Shaun
Education Research Scientist, OER Centre for Research in Child Development, NIE, NTU
Published: 1 August 2022
Dr Wu Chiao-Yi
Education Research Scientist, OER Centre for Research in Child Development, NIE, NTU
Published: 1 August 2022

A sizeable number of children enter school with very low verbal language, with a disorder in language described as a ‘commonly-occurring disability’ in Singapore (pp 27, Ministry of Education, 2018). In fact, international estimates from the US and UK suggest that up to 2 to 3 children per classroom reach ‘disordered’ levels of verbal language ...

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Developmental dyslexia is characterized by persistent difficulties in reading and/or writing that cannot be explained by sensory or cognitive deficits, lack of motivation, or inadequate reading instruction. Dyslexia is a heritable learning disability, and thus it is common for siblings or parents of children with dyslexia to show ...

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In the News


Related Projects

Developing and Piloting an Assessment Tool of Daily Living Skills for Students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in Singapore 

2020-2022 Dr Chen Mo (OER) 

This study seeks to understand the classroom engagement of students with special educational needs (SEN) in classrooms. Our previous study on the engagement of children with special educational needs in early intervention classrooms reveals the importance of how the classroom environment influences engagement. This was examined via the use of FACES Engagement Codes for children with developmental disabilities in early intervention classrooms with EIPIC centres (Poon, Chen, Xie, Waschl, under review). However, to our knowledge, the engagement of children with SEN has not yet been examined with this level of detail within primary levels in Singapore. A related issue is that whilst engagement could be reliably coded, the extent to which it is stable and valid remains a concern. One issue that remains unresolved is the relationship between engagement and outcomes, as well as the question of the number of observation sessions that is required for a valid sampling of classroom engagement. The classroom environment, including teaching practices and teacher-student interactions, has been examined using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) in 184 preschool classrooms and 194 EIPIC Classrooms in Singapore (Ng, Bull, Bautista, & Poon, under review) suggesting that the CLASS shows promise as a means of examining teacher-child interaction within Singapore preschool classrooms. However, the previous studies have been conducted among preschool children and the findings can only be cautiously extended to children with SEN attending Primary and Special Schools. Likewise, the structural aspects of the classroom have been examined by the work of Poon and colleagues (Poon, Chew, Lee, & Ng, 2019). The extent to which the classroom environment has been customized for students with SEN and student engagement can shed light on how students with SEN can be further supported in school environments. The purpose of this proposed study is, hence, to investigate the engagement of students with special educational needs in Singapore primary school classrooms and special school classrooms as well as the factors influencing classroom engagement. Next, the issues pertaining to the measurement of classroom engagement will be examined. Specifically, the following research questions are proposed: 1. What is the engagement level of students with SEN in Singapore primary and special school classrooms? 2. How do classroom structuring, teacher-student interactions, student characteristics and teacher factors influence student engagement? 3. To what extent can engagement be reliably measured with six observation sessions? Method. Participants In an ongoing study on the adjustment and transition of students with special needs (Tran-SEN), information teacher practice and instructional support for children with SEN in classrooms is also currently being collected. It is proposed that this study will involve the observation of 40-60 students with SEN in Primary or Special Schools in Singapore. Instruments Measures for this study include the Autism Spectrum Disorder Classroom Environment Rating Scale (ACERS; Poon, Chew, Lee, & Ng, 2019); the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS; Pianta, La Paro, & Hamre, 2006); and the FACES Engagement Codes (Poon et al, submitted). Procedure. Six observation sessions, about 30 to 60 minutes per session, will be videotaped for each student. Observations will be conducted a range of lessons in Primary and Special schools. This video recording allow for more extensive analysis of student engagement and student-teacher interactions . Significance of the Current Study This study serves as a pilot for upcoming study seeking to study the engagement of children with SEN in naturalistic environments. It is expected that this study will serve as developing the empirical basis for the science of learning in special education settings linking findings from the cognitive, behavioural, and proximal environments.

Differentiated instruction to address diverse needs in the Singapore classroom 

2021-2024 Dr. Letchmi Devi PONNUSAMY (PCHD) 

Today's youth have to be self-directed, lifelong learners in order to deal with the complex and networked global challenges they will face in the future. Schools consequently have to adopt the goal of ensuring that all learners, not just the academically successful, will benefit from education. However, given the learner diversity in Singapore's classrooms, there is a realization that the current one-size- fits-all educational strategy is inadequate to ensure parity in education, and that teachers need to adopt differentiated instructional practices to meet the diversity of learner needs. This exploratory mixed methods study sets out specifically to look at this phenomenon of differentiation, with three specific goals. It seeks, firstly, to investigate the self-reported attitudes and efficacy of mainstream primary school teachers towards differentiating instruction in mainstream primary classroom. Secondly, it studies primary school teachers' experiences, perspectives and challenges as they carry out differentiation. Thirdly, the study will understand the actual instructional practices the teachers favored and used to differentiate in the mainstream primary classrooms. It is hoped that this study will provide a deeper understanding of the 'when', 'why' and 'how' of differentiation as well as the challenges, barriers and benefits of the use of differentiated instruction to address student diversity in the Singapore context.

Artist-in-Schools Scheme (AISS) in SPED schools: Examining AISS through the lens of student engagement and pedagogies in and through the arts 

2022-2024 Dr. Jennifer Wong (VPA) 

The researchers of this proposed study have started an interview series “Examining practices and pedagogies in the arts in the AISS (Artist in school scheme) for Special Education (SPED) Schools in Singapore”. The interview series examine the works of 21 artist educators in 4 arts disciplines that have worked in the AISS for SPED programmes in 2018. The interview study is aimed at getting a sense of the arts pedagogies and practices through self-reported means (from the artist-educators) that has been pervasive over the years of working within the AISS SPED structure. Building on the findings from the interview series, the purpose of this proposed research project is to further explore and examine the AISS in SPED schools by focusing on: i) how the students are engaged in and through the arts; and ii) specific pedagogies and practices of 4 artist educators working within the AISS for SPED schools programmes.

Mobile Web App for Preschool Screening of Language Weakness in English and Mandarin (MAPS-LEM) 

2022-2025 Dr. Shaun Goh (CRDC) 

This research proposal addresses this Early Life Grant Call’s desired outcome of (1) “reducing children requiring learning support” by accurately screening for low language proficiency in English and Mandarin at K1, before support for these are provided in Primary School. Specifically, learning support in English and Mother Tongue is provided in early Primary School (P1-P3; Learning Support Programme; MOE, 2021). Here, Singapore’s first scalable mobile screener with a battery of tests for accurate screening of low English and Mandarin proficiencies is proposed. This forms the basis for large-scale targeted interventions addressing early language weakness and co-occurring behavioural-emotional difficulties. This proposal, therefore, also addresses this Grant Call’s outcome of (2) “emotionally stable, resilient children with high self-regulation”, as low language proficiency associates with poorer regulatory, emotional, and behavioural competencies found in local GUSTO studies authored by the PI (Goh et al., 2017; Goh et al., 2020), such that addressing low language yields improvements in these areas, in a randomized control trial (Curtis et al., 2019).

Randomised Pilot Control Trial for Reducing Anxiety Problems among Children indicated to have Developmental Language Disorder (RAP-iDLD). 

2021-2023 Dr. Shaun Goh (CRDC) 

This study aims to pilot a world-first intervention, a mental health intervention augmented for children indicated with developmental language disorder (DLD). It serves as a proof-of-concept of how existing observational studies on these topics at the Centre for Research in Child Development (c.f. Tran-Sen; Gibber) can be translated into interventions. Mental health problems here are defined as anxiety type problems of social anxiety, specific phobia, separation anxiety and generalised anxiety. DLD is defined as a marked difficulty in oral language in the absence of biomedical causes (Bishop et al., 2017). This randomised pilot answers three uncertainties in preparation for a future definitive randomised control trial (RCT). These uncertainties are elaborated as three research questions as follows Children with developmental language disorder (DLD) are at elevated risk of emotional problems such as anxiety, estimated as one of top 5 causes of years of healthy living lost to disease across Singapore. However, no intervention designed to reduce anxiety among DLD children currently exists. Specific Aims: To pilot a world-first intervention of an anxiety intervention adapted for children indicated with DLD. This pilot answers three uncertainties for a future randomised control trial (RCT), namely (1) Is the proposed intervention's efficacy sufficient (2) Are the proposed methods of recruitment sufficient (3) Are the proposed measures of evaluation sufficient Hypotheses: (1) Piloted intervention is sufficient for definitive RCT as 90% confidence intervals contain expected improvement versus treatment-as-usual (2) Piloted recruitment methods are sufficient for definitive RCT as recruitment rate is >4/month, dropout rate<25%. (3) Piloted measures are sufficient for definitive RCT as rates of unuseable data are <20% and reliability alpha >.70. Methodology: A randomised two-arm pilot with active intervention (n = 21) and treatment-as-usual (n = 21) with between-group comparison on structured interview of anxiety by clinically-trained staff. Primary School children (age 7-12) in Singapore with a diagnosis indicative of DLD and assessed on a structured interview to have symptoms of anxiety will be recruited. Children in the active intervention receive a 8-session cognitive-behavioural intervention, while those in treatment-as-usual will be referred back to services to continue receiving standard help from those services. Approach: The intervention is a cognitive behavioural intervention, which is known to be efficacious and recommended by the Ministry of Health for Anxiety problems (Lim et al, 2015). Significance: Translates ongoing observational studies of DLD and mental health (e.g. Gibber, Tran-Sen) into intervention. For the first time in the world a cognitive-behavioural intervention is adapted to help DLD children suffering from problems of anxiety.

Tran-SEN - Transition and Adjustment of Children with Special Educational Needs 

2018-2022 A/P Kenneth Poon 

Background: Transitions, whilst being a part of life, are a challenge, particularly for young children with special educational needs (SEN). Research describing factors affecting the outcomes of transition is limited and the contextual conditions of education in Singapore further limit the transferability of such findings. The recently announced incorporation of children with SEN within the Compulsory Education Act heightens the need for research into transition outcomes of children with SEN. Aims: This proposed longitudinal study seeks to (a) understand the outcomes of children with SEN as they transition into primary or special education and to (b) understand the factors which influence the first three years of outcomes of children with SEN into primary or special education. Method: This multiple cohort prospective study adopts a mixed design. It seeks to recruit 400 children with SEN building upon an ongoing study of young children with SEN attending early intervention programs in Singapore. The outcomes of these children will be examined via child testing at yearly intervals via a battery of assessment activities involving standardized tests and surveys. The information from child assessment will be augmented by surveys completed by parents and school personnel (e.g., teachers, allied educators, or counsellors). Additionally, parents and school personnel supporting 80 children will be purposefully sampled. This subsample would be interviewed annually to shed light on the perceptions and complexities of transition and subsequent adjustment process. Contributions: It is expected that this study would yield insights into the profile and needs of children with SEN accessing both primary and special education in Singapore leading to more accurate educational support. Furthermore, the characteristics of children with SEN who make successful and unsuccessful transitions allowing the development of evidence informed recommendations that can guide the choice of school placements for children with SEN in Singapore.

Understanding the Classroom Engagement of Students with Special Educational Needs: An Exploration of Measurement, Levels, and Factors 

2021-2022 A/P Kenneth Poon 

Daily living skills refer to the skills typically needed to manage basic life needs, such as grooming/personal hygiene, dressing, toileting/continence, transferring/ambulating, and eating. Daily living skills play an essential role in the quality of life for students with special educational needs (SEN) who face challenges in acquiring these skills. According to a recent study by the principal investigator (Grant #: Skool4Kidz-Teachers P), special education teachers in Singapore found a lack of a unified tool to conduct the assessment of daily living skills as one of the challenges in their teaching practices. This project, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education (MOE), is aimed to 1) develop an assessment tool of daily living skills covering five major areas (i.e., Self-care, Home living, Health, Leisure, and Community mobility), and 2) piloting the tool among special education teachers in Singapore. More specifically, at Phase 1, a mixed method research methodology will be utilised to produce the primary deliverable of this project, that is, the assessment tool of daily living skills for students with SEN in school. Subsequently, at Phase 2, approximately 250 special education teachers will be recruited from 19 special education schools and/or at least 20 mainstream schools to pilot out the assessment tool with reliability and validity evidence collected.


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