Irene Tham – Straits Times Indonesia
These days, enrichment classes are not the only extras in children’s schedules. Parents in Singapore are also packing their children off to see psychologists — paying upwards of $100 per hour — fearing that they may have learning disabilities.
Some do so on the advice of teachers. Others do so because their children have problems coping in school, presumably because of the accelerated pace of learning.
One 42-year-old parent, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Tan, said her son’s Primary 2 form teacher in a local top-tier primary school had complained about his inattentiveness in class and hinted that he might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I was worried when she told me to have him ‘checked’,” said the lawyer- turned-stay-at-home mother, who later consulted a psychologist and found that he was normal.
Even so, she put her son, who is now in Primary 5, through several sessions of psychotherapy over the last three years to help him manage his short attention span.
“He is better now. It could be a function of his maturity as well,” she conceded.
According to Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health, more than one in 10 primary school pupils here had emotional and behavioral problems in 2010.
That year, 685 schoolchildren between the ages of six and 18 years were referred to the IMH’s community mental health program called Response, Early Intervention and Assessment in Community Mental Health (Reach) for ADHD and anxiety disorders, among others.
Psychiatrists also said the number of children who see them had gone up by about 50 per cent in the last two years compared with the previous two years.
But parents are confusing anxiety to perform in school with learning disabilities, they said.
The majority of children who come through their doors do not suffer from such disabilities, despite their parents’ suspicions, but from the stress of being unable to cope academically.
Dr Adrian Wang, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said he used to receive a call from anxious parents once every few months. Now, he gets such calls once a month.
“The learning disabilities I sometimes see in my clinic are not disabilities by any definition. I’m seeing kids from good schools with good grades who feel anxious just because they did not ace their exams,” Wang said.
Parents blame the “academic inflation” here for the problem.
Lecturer David Chin, 42, said that his daughter had a “mental shutdown” last year when she was in Primary 2 as she could not understand the mathematics problems dished out in school.
“Her maths homework in Primary 2 looked like what I did in Primary 4,” lamented Chin. “It’s like she is forced to learn how to cycle and juggle at the same time.”
Another parent, Madam Ng Yoke Sin, 40, brought her son to see a psychologist last year after he failed his Primary 2 mid-term math examination.
The stay-at-home mother had been worried that her son would be “streamed out of the education system” as he had trouble understanding his math coursework for more than a year.
But psychologists said the problem could also be exacerbated by the hothousing that goes on in enrichment classes parents make their children attend. They go to class already knowing all the answers, forcing teachers to raise the standard even more.
Dr Tan Chue Tin, a consultant psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Center, said: “Parents hothouse their child because the child’s classmates are being hothoused. Many young children are stressed because they can see and feel that they have let their parents down.”
North Vista Primary School principal Phua Kia Wang, 51, said teachers have been trained by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to look out for signs that a child may be stressed or having difficulties coping, especially during exam periods.
“The children may be unusually quiet or sleepy,” said Mr Phua, adding that the school works closely with IMH’s Reach to counsel problem cases.
To help such children, psychologists usually teach them relaxation or concentration techniques such as deep breathing or taking breaks to freshen up in the washroom.
They also tap a form of psychotherapy known as mediated learning experience (MLE), typically used to treat autistic children or trauma victims.
MLE is a series of brain exercises aimed at overcoming the brain’s deficiencies that block learning. Its questioning methods can be applied to any subject, be it math or science, to give order and meaning to learning. Parents or teachers have to be involved to help heighten the child’s awareness of, or sensitivity to, a set of stimuli presented by a problem.
“The tools are specifically designed to call into active engagement cognitive skills, which have yet to be developed in younger children,” said psychologist and MLE practitioner Lucy Pou, who has treated more than 200 non-autistic children using this method since 2002.
Another MLE practitioner and special educational therapist Nikki Tay also said he has been receiving many more inquiries from parents of normal children these days.
Last year, he had eight such queries from parents who believed their children had learning issues. He turned down most of them as he deals with only autistic and dyslexic children, and those with ADHD.
“School teachers should move away from focusing on results to managing the process of learning,” he noted.
Failure to do so may result in children losing interest in their studies, which will in turn lead to a decline in learning. They may also be too preoccupied with good grades that they forget the joy of learning, Tay said.
When contacted, an MOE spokesman said that schools here are aware of the need to set age-appropriate assessments and assignments. But she did not say whether schools are complying with the guidelines.
The spokesman also advised parents to be “mindful of the impact that excessive tuition and their expectations have on their children’s learning experiences and stress levels.”
Since 2006, MOE has reduced Primary 1 and 2 class sizes to 30 pupils to enable teachers to give more attention to each child. By 2015, the teacher-to-pupil ratio will be 1:16.
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