“We believe that the goal of education is not to prescribe the same formula and expect similar results from each child, but instead embrace their differences.”

Special needs or added needs education in Singapore is growing, as is the demand for specialised schools. However, a burning question still remains: How to tell if a child has special needs early on? Are you able to tell at home? Tricia Tam, an associate psychologist with Bright Path Inclusive Preschool weighs in. 

With 14 years of experience working with children in the early childhood education field, she is an expert in early intervention teaching and behaviour modification.

Here is what she says about detecting special needs early on in a child’s life and parenting a child with special needs. 

How to tell if a child has special needs or added needs

If you’re wondering how to tell if a child has added needs, you first need to know the most common added learning needs, which include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Tricia says. 

Common early indicators for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may include deficits in two specific areas which are impairments in the social communication aspect and stereotypic behaviours. They can be manifested in the following:

  • avoidance of eye contact, 
  • delayed speech and language development, 
  • not responding to name being called, 
  • having repetitive behaviours and the tendency to engage in a restricted range of activities/interests.  

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) presents itself in three possible subsets:

1) Hyperactivity/Impulsivity: 

  • Fidgety/squirmy on seat 
  • Excessive activeness/talking 
  • Blurts out answers before questions are completed 
  • Intrudes or interrupts others

2) Inattention 

  • Appears to be careless when doing work 
  • Difficulty sustaining attention 
  • Struggles to follow through with instructions 
  • Easily distracted

3) Combination of Hyperactivity/Impulsivity and Inattention

“Children with added learning needs may show deficits in the areas of social communication and stereotypic behaviours,” says Tricia. These functional/behavioural deficits may be observable when a child is in a social setting (with his/her peers).

For instance, a child who shows traits of autism may have difficulties with social communication or interaction. As such, when he or she is in a social setting, he or she may prefer solitary play or requires an adult’s facilitation to engage in meaningful play with the child’s peers.

Of course, Tricia emphasises, that every child is different and develops at his or her own pace.

The first seven years are the most crucial

Research has shown that the first seven years of a child’s life are an important period for his or her development intellectually, socially and emotionally, says Tricia. As such, some children, due to developmental delays in the early years, risk missing some of the most important learning milestones.

That is why, for the first seven years, parents have to carefully observe how their child plays, speaks, walks or interacts with others to know how to tell if a child has special needs. Without keen observation, parents might overlook key signs that their child needs special attention for additional learning needs.

Knowing how to tell if a child has special needs or added needs during their formative years will greatly improve their learning journey, and help unlock their child’s full potential into maturity as an individual, adds Tricia. 

Thankfully, nowadays we have greater access to professional assessment. There also exists a growing recognition that there is a wider spectrum of learning needs than previously known.

How to tell if a child has special needs: Experts weigh in

Of course, it is always best to get an expert’s opinion to formally diagnose your child if you have suspicions. But there are some indicators that you can use before going to the doctor to check.  Most psychological assessments measure and determine a child’s severity according to the following:

  • Level of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) 
  • Areas and degree of developmental delays 
  • Ability to cope in social settings 
  • Single/a combination of developmental delays 
  • Abilities for daily living/functional skills 
  • Level of adaptive/maladaptive skills

“These are just some indicators and areas that psychological assessments focus on but it is best if parents sought the opinion and support from a trained and qualified allied care professional. This will allow for an accurate opinion and diagnosis of your child, should you decide to have your child diagnosed,” adds Tricia.

Added needs education in Singapore: How is it different from mainstream schools?

So what happens after you have had your child formally diagnosed with added needs? What then do you do? Do you enrol your child in a mainstream school or an added needs school in Singapore? 

For kids who have added needs and is advised for them to go to an added needs school, parents shouldn’t take this lightly. An added needs education can greatly benefit your child, while mainstream school might just worsen their development. 

“We believe that the goal of education is not to prescribe the same formula and expect similar results from each child, but instead embrace their differences,” says Tricia. 

Early childhood educators for added needs children go beyond just coming up with a syllabus to educate children. “They work together with counsellors, therapists and parents to create inclusive classrooms that are relevant, flexible and accessible to all regardless of needs, tailored to the strengths and interests of the learners,” Tricia explains. 

Furthermore, the curriculum has activities that are developmentally age-appropriate, with multi-level teaching to take into consideration the diversity within the classroom.

Tricia also says that the programmes are tailored according to the severity of a child’s needs. “Children who have severe learning needs can seek out a more intensive intervention program will allow psychologists and therapists to work on skills that the child may require at a specific time of their development.

It will also empower them with skills and the ability to pick up and work on adaptive skills which are necessary to perform day-to-day tasks and functional living skills.”

When parents enrol their kids in an added needs school, such as Bright Path Inclusive Preschool, they can rest easy knowing their children are well taken care of and they will also receive frequent updates on their child.

“Frequent consultations with your child’s educators and specialists who are involved in their learning journey will be key to receiving feedback on your child’s progress.

This enables us to support the child in promoting the best possible learning and social emotional development outcomes. The benefits of a home-school partnership is to maintain a collaborative relationship and its primary goal is to inculcate positive educational and social communicative effects on children,” Tricia says.