Racing Against Time to Help Special Needs Pre-Schoolers

Racing Against Time to Help Special Needs Pre-Schoolers

Prof. Shui-fong Lam (5th from left) and the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mrs Carrie Lam, visited a kindergarten that participated in the pioneering project of Heep Hong Society and joined the pre-schoolers in fine motor skills training

a model to improve the link between pre-schools and intervention services

Children with special educational needs (SEN) benefit most when they receive early intervention, such as speech therapy. But in Hong Kong, achieving that goal has been difficult. More than 6,000 children are on a waiting list for help, held back by a shortage of services and a disconnect between schools and services. Now, with the government poised to provide free pre-school education from 2017, there is both an opportunity and an imperative to change things.

Professor Lam Shui-fong and Heep Hong Society spotted the opportunity in 2014 when they developed a model to improve the link between pre-schools and intervention services. Over the following school year, they tested their model in 10 kindergartens and showed it can improve children’s outcomes.

The government was so impressed that in late 2015, it announced it would extend the model to 450 kindergartens for a two-year pilot project and thereby cut the waiting list for services in half, to about 3,000 children.

"This is a really big move because the queue is so long," Professor Lam said. "And the timing is so important. With a big leap coming in free education for pre-schools, if we are going to improve things for children with SEN, we have to act now. I'm pleased our model has had this big impact on government policy."

The model calls for specialists to provide therapy for children and training for their parents at their centres, and also visit pre-schools on a monthly basis to provide training to teachers.

"The teachers receive individual coaching on handling children's behaviour, for example when they throw tantrums in class. And they get advice on enhancing the curriculum and the physical environment for children with special needs," she said.

"The experts can give teachers a lot of specific and concrete support on the spot, and even students who are not identified as having special needs but who may be lagging behind can benefit – the entire school can benefit."

In terms of helping special needs children, results from the pilot study, which involved 120 children including a control group, found improvements in cognitive skills, language skills, motor skills and self-directed skills compared to children who did not receive the intervention.

Teachers also reported improved self-efficacy in their teaching. "The growth and development they witnessed were not only in their students with SEN but also in themselves and their schools. The results provide strong empirical support for the success of both centre-based and school-based services," Professor Lam said.

Professor Shui-fong Lam of the Department of Psychology received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange (KE) Award 2016 of the Faculty of Social Sciences for the project 'Evaluation of a Pioneering Service Delivery Model for Preschoolers with Special Educational Needs'.