Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS) offers an innovative model for teaching students from three to 21 years with intellectual and multiple disabilities.
The school has in-house specialists, as well as a vocational side for students at The Pantry Social Enterprise Café and White Lodge Kindergarten. It taps into the skills of external specialists to guide students where needed including occupational therapy, speech therapy, physiotherapy, psychology/social work, art therapy and music lessons. Teachers, specialists and therapists work together to address the specific needs of each student. We asked Principal, Daryl Van Hale, to give us an example of students who had benefited from this approach.
A Special Needs Story
14-year-old Sean* has been a student here since the school opened in 2015. Sean has had challenges with communication since his early years. He is currently in one of the high functioning classes in the school and is a great example of how a student has grown in the specialised environment.
Sean’s mother decided to trial the speech and language therapy services at RStravantiz Pte. Ltd., a private clinic in the premises adjacent to MSIS in Loewen Road. It’s one of the organisations that works closely and collectively with us to provide a tailor-made education and therapy programme for the school’s students. The main goal of this speech therapy was to help Sean use a louder voice and to develop basic problem-solving and narrative skills during individual therapy sessions; he was having problems being understood socially and would become anxious when encouraged to interact with his peers
Following the initial sessions of therapy and a detailed language evaluation that followed, Sean was given a speech and language therapy programme to meet his needs, centred around language processing, and his ability to express himself using words, narrate ideas in a sequence and above all use his language abilities socially to engage, interact with peers and people around. With the help of the school teachers and parents, the goals were carried out in different contexts such as classrooms, outings and home environments.
Thanks to the therapy, which is still ongoing, Sean is able to initiate conversations on his own with peers in the classroom – something he wouldn’t easily do before. He tries to use a louder voice and responds very well to specific verbal cues. His ability to understand others when they speak to him is also improving and is reflected in his participation both in school and at home.
Sean explains how he loves books, especially fairy tales and Roald Dahl stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. He enjoys talking about the characters and discussing the character’s personalities with people he is familiar with. He is especially interested in whether or not they are nice or mean. When Sean is anxious, he will show verbal self-stimulative behaviour, or talk to himself out loud. As his teachers, we know that this means he requires some time to himself before coming back to the task at hand. His peers are very understanding and are aware that at our school everyone is different in their own unique way.
Sean says that the best thing about coming to school now is that he can use his “level 4 speaking voice” to talk to his friends. He most enjoys hanging out with Daniel because he’s kind to him. Following the rules of the classroom is important to Sean, and he is the only student who knows them all off by heart! If an interaction with another student has upset him, he will always refer back to the rules. In these situations, his teachers are working with Sean to assert himself as he is quiet and placid by nature. Now that he is speaking with a louder voice more frequently, Sean is moving closer towards achieving this goal.
This journey of Sean highlights the importance of collaboration between specialists such as speech therapists with parents and the school team. Information and feedback is shared regularly with the therapists and teachers so that progress can be monitored.
Practical and Vocational Choices
Families with special needs children often share a similar concern: “How will my child take care of themselves when they become an adult? What job will they be able to find?” At MSIS, we’ve asked ourselves, “What skills will our students need as they move from academic to vocational education? How can we teach these skills to prepare special needs individuals for success in the workplace?” Research demonstrates the effectiveness of hands-on learning in preparing young people with disabilities for employment.
Theory is an important starting point in our approach, but nothing replaces real-life experience. Students currently get lessons in Pre-Vocational Training to support employment in food-and-beverage-related work and as teaching assistants in nursery and kindergarten schools. This work-based learning is done close by at The Pantry Social Enterprise Café and White Lodge Preschool, both based in Loewen Gardens.
We’re also working toward partnerships with the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC), and other agencies, where our students can gain recognised certifications in various fields. Currently, Pre-Vocational Training students are working to gain the soft and hard skills needed before taking the certification courses, with the final goal of completing the courses successfully and increasing their chances of employment. The aim is to support each other and our kids as they build work habits and soft skills for employment success. We are always searching for more resources for developing high-quality, work-based learning experiences.
What the students like
Two other students are 15-year-old Jessica* and 19-year-old Emily*. When asked what they like best about school, Jessica said, “I like my teachers because they are fun to be around with. I like the pre-vocational training at White Lodge because I enjoy helping the children.” Emily said, “I enjoy IT things the best, like making power points and summarising news articles.” She also pointed to the real community feel of the school, adding that “everyone is understanding and knows each person has their own special difference. No one sticks out. At this school, I can manage the workload at my own pace and the older students help the younger ones.”
* Names changed for the purposes of this article.
Read other stories on MSIS.