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).


The Singapore context

Primary education is, from 2019, mandated under Singapore’s Compulsory Education Act for children with SEN who would need to attend either mainstream primary schools or special education (Sped) schools. It is currently estimated that of the children identified with SEN in Singapore, about eighty percent of children with SEN attend mainstream schools in Singapore (Rajah, 2018).

All primary schools in Singapore have barrier free access allowing children with physical impairments to access any school. For children able to access the curriculum (i.e., mild SEN), primary schools have in place resources to include children with SEN. These include Special Educational Needs Officers who can provide either in-class support or small group interventions. Additionally, many teachers in primary schools receive over 100 hours of training as a teacher trained in special needs (TSN). Children lacking foundational skills receive daily small group support from the Learning Support Programme (LSP) to support their literacy skills by specially trained teachers for up to the first two years of Primary school. Those who continue to struggle are screened for placement within the School Based Dyslexia Remediation programme (SDR) by specially trained instructors for Primary 3 and 4. More recently, additional programmes to support the inclusion of children with SEN such as the Circle of Friends and Facing Your Fears (Rajah, 2019).

There are a range of Sped schools serving the needs of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, multiple disabilities, as well as those with sensory or physical impairments. Sped schools are operated by social service agencies. Special schools in Singapore are typically located in purpose-built school buildings, staffed by specially trained special education teachers and supported by allied health professionals (i.e., speech and language therapists/ pathologists, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists), psychologists, and social workers. In contrast to primary schools which are guided by a national curriculum and that culminate in the Primary Six Leaving Examinations at the end of Primary Six, Sped schools, with the exception of the schools serving children with high functioning ASD, as well as those serving the visually and hearing impaired, do not offer the national curriculum. Instead, Sped schools offer an individualised curriculum guided by the Singapore Sped Curriculum Framework. Further, each student receives an individualized education plan (IEP). Additionally, Sped schools in Singapore also have more teachers to serve students leading to smaller class sizes that are also supported by teacher aides. Due to the unique needs of children with SEN, sped schools are also resourced with a range of different equipment and material.


In practice

As the previous discussion suggests, the education of students with SEN requires the support of professionals with a set of specialised skills. However, everyone can play a part. Teachers of both primary and Sped school children with SEN indicated in a study (Poon, Xie, & Yang, in preparation) indicated that they sought to understand the student with SEN and made accommodations to their pedagogical approach when teaching. Teachers in primary schools additionally involved the classmates in the support process, whereas teachers in Sped schools employed more resources and customised curriculum for students with SEN.



The adage that it takes a village to raise a child holds true for the support of children with SEN in schools. Special expertise is needed to guide the child with SEN through the educational process. However, all can, and need to, play a part.

To support this process, ongoing research seeking to understand the development of children with SEN as well as factors influencing the developmental process. Additionally, current research is ongoing to further understand the link between the environment, pedagogy, and the classrooom engagement of students with SEN.



Poon, K. (2022, August 1). What do we know about Special Educational Needs. Child and Human Development, Life@NIE SG®. https://nie.edu.sg/chd/topics/special-education/special-educational-needs