Principal DARYL VAN HALE explains how their school, that focusses on children with special needs in Singapore, goes beyond academics to teach kids everything from brushing their teeth to safely crossing the road.
Tell us about the Life Skills programme at Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS).
We developed it to give children the ability to do things in their lives as self-reliantly as possible. This leads to independence and happiness. That’s why we teach the kids everything from personal safety, hygiene and nutrition to how to eat and get dressed properly. At MSIS, life skills are as important as social and academic skills.
How was it developed?
We used the Visual Performing Arts programme from Port Phillip Special Needs School in Melbourne, Australia as the base of our programme. It sets out developmental milestones for children by age. We have since expanded the curriculum, setting the bar a bit higher for our third culture students, but still with a focus on developmentally appropriate skills that our students will need in their lives.
Is it common for special needs children to struggle with skills such as getting dressed and teeth brushing?
Students with special needs often need extra practice to become proficient in a given activity. By working on these skills both at home and at school, they have more opportunities to practise. Additionally, many of our students who are on the autism spectrum have a difficult time generalising a learned skill from one environment to another. If they learn a task at home, they may not be able to easily perform the same task in school, and vice versa. These students need to practise the same task in many different environments to eventually generalise that skill and perform it easily in any environment.
What ages receive these lessons?
The programme is taught to all ages. The earlier we begin this process, the more likely a student will become self-sufficient as an adult.
How much time is dedicated to Life Skills in a given week?
We teach it every day in more than one environment. We’re also constantly encouraging our students to become more self sufficient in their daily routines. Classroom teachers work with our psychologist and our physio, occupational, and speech and language therapists. The teacher breaks the task into small parts and practises with hand-over-hand assistance. We slowly put the parts together until the child can do the activity with help. Then we begin to fade the assistance, moving to verbal encouragement to small gestures to refocus them if they get distracted, until they can perform the task by themselves.
What do parents have to say?
Many have been surprised by what their child suddenly – from their perspective – can do. For example, in the Early Years cooking class we teach the children how to prepare a bowl of cereal with sliced banana. We do this weekly for 12 weeks. One morning a parent watched her child carefully pour cereal and milk into a bowl, add fruit and eat. She was amazed and delighted. We get phone calls and emails with stories like these. It feels good when a student masters a skill and can confidently perform it in their daily life. The child is one step closer to the ultimate goal: becoming an independent and happy adult.
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