The Challenges of Students with Special Needs in the Mainstream School

Invited article by Mr Yap Keng Ann, parent of a son with special needs

I am heartened to hear the Prime Minister say that “more can be done” and the capacity in the special education (SPED) schools will be expended. This is what many parents of children with special needs have long waited for.

However, I wonder if people are aware that not all children with special needs go to SPED schools? I know, because I am a parent of a child with special needs studying in a mainstream school.

Any additional help by the government for the special needs community is definitely welcomed. Therefore, I am not writing to dampen the mood. Instead, I am riding on the opportunity given by the Prime Minister’s national day rally speech, and the heightened interests of the public and media at this time, to highlight that students with special needs in the mainstream school are also facing certain challenges. And I felt that government should likewise look into this area.


“Special Needs” is a term generally use to describe a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, learning difficulties, and other intellectual challenges. 

I have two points to make as follow:

Firstly, as the Prime Minster had noted, SPED schools have long waiting list. The demand for vacancies is always greater than the supply. Due to this limited supply, SPED schools have to set certain criteria for admission. Children who are not able to get into SPED schools for whatever reason would either continue to be on the waiting list, or enter the mainstream schools; except in cases where a relatively small group of parents who prefers to home-school their children.

Secondly, children may have entered the mainstream schools as a “normal” student but later diagnosed to have special needs. Let me use Autism Spectrum Disorder as an example which I am familiar with.

It is called a “spectrum disorder” because it is a range of conditions range from severe, to mild, and to almost unnoticeable.

My son is now studying in Primary 3 in a mainstream school. When he was in K2, the teachers and principal brought to our attention that he showed signs of having difficulties in learning. Later, an education psychologist we engaged to observe him in class told us that he could have Asperger Syndrome coupled with Sensory Integration Disorder.

However at time, he had already secured a place in his present primary school. We were advised that if we wanted to defer or delay admission to primary one, we had to write in to MOE with supported medical reports.

There was simply not enough time to get a formal medical diagnosis report. The decision then was to let him go ahead with Primary 1. I became my son’s primary caregiver to provide all the necessary support to him as he entered the mainstream education.

After he was already in Primary 1, we got his form teacher to write a referral letter for him to go to Child’s Guidance Clinic. The entire process from making an appointment for the formal assessment (in March) to undergoing the tests (in September) and to finally receiving the diagnostic report (in December) took 9 months.

In my son’s case, we were already aware of his condition before he entered primary 1. Getting the formal diagnosis was just to provide the necessary documentary support in order for the school to justify certain special accommodation measures for him – such as giving him extra time for the year end examination and be allowed to sit in a more conducive and quieter place to complete the examination papers. The irony was that extra time was actually given to him during the examination before the diagnostic report was received in December when school holiday already started.

However, If one were to speak to the school’s Allied Educators (or Special Needs Officers as they were initially called), she would tell you that school teachers monitor and refer those student whom they suspect to have learning difficulties and sometime behavioural issues to them, and through them to education psychologists for assessment.

There are actual cases of students being diagnosed even as late as at primary 4. These cases usually come as a great shock in life to their parents as they could not accept the fact.

One would ask again, if students were diagnosed while in mainstream school, would they be transferred to SPED schools? The answer is it depends on the case itself. Some may be able to get a place in SPED school, but it is also true that many will just continue with the current mainstream school, or transfer to another mainstream school with better support for students with special needs.

Whichever the case, the fact is there are students with special needs in the mainstream school. It may seem that I am stating the obvious but I observed that many parents including myself (before I became a parent of a child with special needs) are not aware of this.


Allied Educators were only introduced into mainstream schools in recent years. It was an effort by the government to help the special needs after realising of such needs. So I really welcome what the Prime Minister said in the rally speech – that more should be done, both at the special education schools and at the mainstream schools. Like others with keen interest in this area, I await eagerly further announcements on these.

Since my son entered the mainstream education about 3 years ago, as an interested parent, I have made some observations which I hope the government can consider.

 1. PSLE

My son is Primary 3 this year. Two months ago, he sat for his first formal Semestral Assessment (SA). For his school, there are no SAs for Primary 1 and 2.

I was not at all surprise when his teachers told me that his result is one of the “bottom” few. The teachers advised me on various options to help my son. One of the recommendations was to take the examinable subjects at the foundation level for PSLE.

I appreciate the teacher’s recommendations and I state without reservation that the teachers and principal are very supportive and caring for my son all these years. But none of them can really help it when it comes to PSLE.

In Singapore, the performance of the schools is somehow ranked according to PSLE results. I can understand why this is done. However, I wonder if PSLE is meaningful for a student who has already been diagnosed with learning difficulties?

To the school principals, HODs and subject teachers, especially those teaching the higher primary classes, they are naturally very concerned when a student is not doing well academically, and the result will eventually pull down the overall performance of the school.

The school teachers, the parents and the child are all stressed out, to order to put in more effort hoping that this child do better for the PSLE.

 What meaning does PSLE hold for children with special needs? They are different from their peers. Their pace and style of learning are different. If they are already being diagnosed as such, why put them through a national examination where the objective is to measure the normal students?

 Therefore, I urge the MOE to consider:

 (A) Exempt students with learning difficulties or with special needs in the mainstream schools from taking PSLE; or

 (B) if they are still sitting for the PSLE either because such exemption cannot be granted based on current education policy, or because the parent do not mind that particular student take the PSLE (because as I mentioned earlier, the degree of learning difficulties varies and some would be able to do so), EXCLUDE their individual results from the computation of the overall ranking in their respective schools.

This way, we take the stress from the school teachers, parents and the students because they will no longer negatively affecting the school’s performance ranking.  The subject teachers can now be more relaxed and have the discretion of giving a reduced workload to the student with special needs.

In my son’s case, I have applied to MOE for MTL exemption following the school’s advice. And after the 3rd school term started, the teacher feedback to me that my son actually performed better and appear to enjoy more in the learning because he is now given much less work. This is a case in point.


 Along with Asperger Syndrome, my son also have visual tracking difficulties. This is part of the overall neurodevelopmental disorder. He had great problem doing comprehension passages when the text was printed on one page and the questions are printed on the back page. He had problem copying the answers from the text as it requires him to flip the page back and forth.

 As he was not able to track where he last copied the word, he ended up spending time looking for where he left off again and again, copying the words wrongly, getting frustrated and in the end gave up writing.

 Once I remembered asking the school if it is possible to print the worksheets or test papers in a A3 size paper and perhaps enlarge it for him so that his eyes can read easier and he does not have to flip the papers.

 I remembered I was told that it is the job of the school to “prepare” the student for PSLE and in PSLE, there is no such thing as a bigger examination paper printed in single side. This is another case in point.

 Once I attended a workshop organised by the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. I remembered a parent stood up and told the story of her daughter failing her science paper because while she correctly answered the questions but failed to darken corresponding small dots on the OCR answer sheet! The father was upset that the school insisted that what was on the OCR answer sheet is the final. This is another case in point.

I hope any inter-ministerial taskforce on this topic will seek out genuine feedback from parents like me. These are important daily issues affecting the students with special needs in mainstream school.

 Often people said that children with ASD seem to have come to a wrong planet. The question is can we make it right for them and how? I believe the government wanted to make positive changes. Perhaps they are not able to identify very specific issues.

 Being a concern parent has led me to become an active citizen. I am putting together a plan to form a non-profit organisation to champion such causes for parents (or caregivers) of children with special needs especially in the mainstream environment.

I hope this effort can be just as successful as the one initiated by those active parents in our special needs community many years ago, resulting in a better SPED school environment in Singapore. The objective is to let the students with various learning difficulties and special needs to be to enjoy at least the first 6 years of basic education at a pace and approach suitable to them, and together with their mainstream peers.

 While there is no doubt definitely a need for government to continue enhancing SPED, as a parent of a child with special needs in the mainstream school, I always have this thought:  if the ultimate aim is to include and accept those with special needs into mainstream society, educating them and equipping them with knowledge and skills, wouldn’t it make sense if a larger percentage of these efforts are put into the mainstream schools where they can integrate at an earlier age?

Yap Keng Ann


Comments by Yee Jenn Jong:

I invited Keng Ann to write this article after PM’s National Day Rally. I have become interested in the situation surrounding children and adults with special needs through the works of people like Keng Ann. Keng Ann gave up his full-time job to be care-giver for his son after finding out his son has special needs. He founded an online forum, to provide support for parents with children with similar needs. I was introduced to some of the parents and have since been running art activities for some of these children, where I experienced first-hand how they function.

Keng Ann is now forming a social enterprise to promote active support for parents of special needs children in mainstream schools.

Last year, I spoke to an educator whose two sons are autistic and are now grown up. He shared how he was planning for start a small business after his retirement so that his sons could run to make a modest living to look after themselves when he and his wife are no around to care for them anymore. They have to choose the business very carefully, to ensure it is something that their sons are capable of handling that do not involve much frontline interaction.

I salute parents of children with special needs. They face challenges that many of us do not understand. It goes beyond providing education for the children in school. The condition follows the special needs children throughout their lives into adulthood, even beyond the point where the parents can help them anymore.


15 comments on “The Challenges of Students with Special Needs in the Mainstream School

  1. It seems the education of our special needs children can wait. They are too expensive to educate and does not make economic sense.This is what MOE is telling us when for decades, parents have been writing in to MOE to include the special schools under their umbrella where funds and resources are definitely more available than the VWOs.

    Sadly, the Ministry is itself so ‘retarded’ that they failed to see the wisdom in taking care of its special needs children. What the MOE has been doing is only tokenism.The education of our special needs children is long overdue. How long more do they have to wait??

  2. It seems the education of our special needs children can wait. They are too expensive to educate and does not make economic sense.This is what MOE is telling us when for decades, parents have been writing in to MOE to include the special schools under their umbrella where funds and resources are definitely more available than the VWOs.

    Sadly, the Ministry itself is so ‘retarded’ that they failed to see the wisdom in taking care of its special needs children. What the MOE has been doing is only tokenism.The education of our special needs children is long overdue. How long more do they have to wait??

  3. Dear Yee Jenn, thank you for taking an interest in special needs persons.
    Certainly, compared with most other developed nations, what we do in special needs area is quite lacking. However, it’s better to start late than never (pretending the problem does not exist).

    A few points for your consideration, perhaps, also to table at parliament at appropriate juncture.

    #1 fundamentally, the government takes a utilitarian view of Singaporeans as economic contributors. They probably view special needs people as liability than economic assets. And that’s why our government has yet to sign the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This has to change. “Liabilities” can be transformed into “assets with diversity” that Singapore so badly needs.

    #2 In order that we can max-out the potential of each special needs person, we need to provide the best and individualised training or support – at every phase of the persons growing-up years. As a country we can afford this investment, and the returns willbe worth it.

    #3 So far there has only been some focus on early intervention, SPED and mainstream education. The challenges go beyond this. What about anti-discrimination laws? What about CPF utilization? What about non-discrimintory health and life insurances?

    #4 National service. How do we handle man with special needs in MINDEF, especially high functioning autistic persons who cannot cope socially, or cannot cope with frequent unplanned changed in SAF? What about exampting in-camp or reservist training for fathers with specian needs children? Don’t they need all the time & effort for their children?

    So, you see. We need inter-ministerial effort and collaboration to deal with special needs challenges (physical, neuro-biological, learning disabilities). The dollar investment may not be as prohibitive as the government imagines (they are OK with burning $200M at YOG), but the return is great for our nation!

  4. As an enrichment workshop provider, i had a chance to witness a few classes with special needs students. While I have some awareness about special needs students in mainstream schools in other developed countries, this was the first time I experienced it in Singapore.

    Firstly, I am happy that a 1st world country like ours, has “caught up” in the integration of these Special Needs students into the mainstream school. I think if a child grows up having Special Needs classmates, they will have the awareness & hopefully develop the tolerance & graciousness to people less fortunate than themselves.

    Having said that, I am not sure if the school, the teaching staff & pupils are ready. In the workshop we delivered where I met these Special Needs students, the other pupils were mean to them; the teacher was an experienced person but clearly frustrated & overwhelmed to have not one but 2 Special Needs pupils in her class. I dont want to say that she’s a bad person / teacher…she’s human too.

    Besides those suggestions given by Mr Yap and others, maybe MOE can also look into the following:

    1)Provide a better environment for the group e.g reducing the class size & the distribution of Special Needs student in each class (although I would argue that 40 to a class is too big a number to begin even for any child);
    2)Provide some training to the teaching staff (I am assuming it’s inadequate judging from the response of the teacher to the 2 kids)
    3)Enable the school to educate pupils about these special kids among them. Tell them how they can help their classmates, not bully or be mean to them.

    We are a developed country, we should be able to help provide for people worse off than ourselves. Thank you Mr Yap for your work. Best regards lanpeng

  5. I have a degree in Special Education . I have been mainly involved in teaching the special children in the main stream. I usually teach the ‘extremes’–the gifted, the dysleic, ADHD , autistic in the main stream. Am a fully trained MoE teacher..not an allied educator.

    Singapore has done her best as I could see over the years…so much so that many from other countries are coming here because they have a special kid and they do not get this kind of support back home.

    I could also create anc change environments to stimulate learning in children …these special children can do it…search for the area which they will or can excel and develop them from there. Got to be real patient with them.

  6. It comes to a big embarkation. More special needs children are growing not only in Singapore. Even the worst extreme remote Third World countries does exist. I am somehow delighted to see the mixtures of SPED in mainstream, which allows peers to understand their needy friends, and in terms of that, they learn the meaning of being helpful and appreciated. Indeed it requires a lot of times and patience but many of them could prove to be talented and good in someway. After all we have same bulit memory only some could be defected as in computer hardrive.(slower pace-motor) I am somehow glad to see those in Singapore, which were given the opportunity in the early years of their education while some are just being branded “problem child” and being rejected to even enter school. Hats off to Mr Yap. Loving your son is priceless and that you have done your best. I totally understand your feelings on this. No one wish their child to be born this way. The government is one body but a society is one that builts its surroundings. I think , you have make a big step to a big change. Not for one but more in the coming futures where the baby booms will hit. And Julie, Many special Needs children will thank you for what you have fight for them.

      • Ms Julie,
        I read about the comment you wrote in the forum yeejj. I am impressed and I do wish for my child further education and yes, I am not from around town. Hope to be able to hear on your feedbacks further. Thumbs up

      • There is a school in Singapore which is fully integrated for special children who choose to go to the mainstream and not the special schools. The mainstream children are really more caring and compassionate towards the special children. I was there as their EL enrichment teacher for three months. Other schools in Singapore may have a handful but this one in Woodlands has a whole system specially catered to these childrenm Very severe cases will have teachers sent to the homes to teach them and all paid for by the SINGAPORE government,

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