Published on 25 Aug 2023

Making education more inclusive

Prof Kenneth Poon finds ways to better support children with special needs in the classroom.

Research by NTU Singapore’s National Institute of Education finds ways to better support children with special needs in the classroom

In 2013, Singapore ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This puts the island nation in the same group of 185 countries that have articulated their intention to promote, protect and ensure the rights, dignity and participation of persons with disabilities. With education as our primary focus, our team’s research has centred on the participation of children with special needs in education.

However, the inclusion of children with special needs is not always an easy process. Except for a small segment of society, most people living in Singapore have limited experience in attending schools with peers that have special needs.

Our efforts have focused on improving understanding of special educational needs in three main areas to better support children with such needs.


Our team had previously sought to identify inclusive practices in two secondary schools. This was done by surveying around 130 teachers and educational professionals about what affected their sentiments and attitudes towards including children with special education needs in the classroom. The aim was to address any concerns the teachers had during initial training and their subsequent professional development in inclusivity.

From the teachers’ responses, we found several factors that affected perceptions on inclusion: the training teachers received for including students with special educational needs in the classroom, their experience in teaching students with such needs, and their reported confidence in teaching them. For example, teachers who expressed confidence in supporting students with special education needs had more positive perceptions towards inclusion. Together, these factors accounted for 20% to 37% of the variation in how school professionals responded.

Our research continues in a primary school where we are currently exploring whether these same factors continue to impact the attitudes of school professionals. We will also be exploring how these factors are associated with the teachers’ intention to engage in inclusive practices, and the actual practice of being inclusive, in preschools.

Research by NTU Singapore’s National Institute of Education finds ways to better support children with special needs in the classroom


The contexts of education can be quite different across preschools and primary schools. Our recent reviews of over 100 research articles indicate there are several aspects that make a classroom inclusive for students with special education needs.

Some aspects include the way teachers interact with their students and the use of resources to further support students with special needs. While these features require time and funding support to put in place, our reviews indicate that teachers also make use of other factors such as a classroom’s layout, help from classmates, and collaboration with other professionals and the families of students with special needs.

We also found that these same aspects were relevant in a survey of close to 500 teachers from primary and special education schools on what practices they engage in to teach children with special educational needs.

Our team is continuing this research to understand the practices of teachers in another ongoing study involving video recordings of over 40 classrooms in primary and special education schools. The goal is to discern any patterns present in how teachers interact with children.


We seek to further understand the impact of teachers’ practices on students’ behaviour. In our ongoing research on classroom video recordings mentioned earlier, we aim to examine the impact of teachers’ actions on the engagement level of students with special needs in classrooms.

Research around the world indicates that students who are included in high-quality classrooms make gains that are comparable to what they receive in mainstream classrooms.

These are aspects that we are in the midst of investigating in our longitudinal study of the development of students with special educational needs.

The progress of society, as the late Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi expressed years ago, is measured by how it treats its weakest members. The question of how Singapore, with its rising affluence, is supporting and including people with disabilities, grows increasingly salient. Our team’s research continues to inch us towards our goal of refining our practice of educating children with special educational needs at preschools and primary schools. Our next stop: secondary schools.

By Kenneth Poon

Prof Kenneth Poon is the Associate Dean for Education Research at NTU’s National Institute of Education. Trained as a clinical psychologist and in early childhood special education, his research focuses on understanding the development of people with neurodevelopmental disabilities and in examining how the home and school environments impact development.

Read about his research in Social Context, Policies, and Changes in Singapore: Beyond the First 50 Years (2022), DOI: 10.1142/12571; Education in Singapore: People-Making and Nation-Building (2022), DOI: 10.1007/978-981-16-9982-5_3; and Asia Pacific Journal of Education (2014), DOI: 10.1080/02188791.2014.922047.

The article appeared first in NTU's research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #21, December 2022).