TWS Notebook

When Schools Playing the Moral High Ground in Education Make Life Cold and Lonely for Students with Learning Challenges

A recent Straits Times article shared a 2011 University College London research study conducted on children with dyslexia in Singapore. Dyslexia, which first came to light more than a century ago, is a type of language disorder that, among other neuropsychological deficits, hinders the development of phonological representation (letter sound awareness and forming sounds into words) which affects reading. The UCL findings spotlights the emotional health and well-being of the student with dyslexia which is important since mental health[1] – once seemingly only concerned with adults – is now a source of concern for a much younger population. The study found that students with dyslexia are likely to have socio-emotional difficulties which range from anxiety and depression to a lack of self-esteem and behavioural issues.

What the research suggests is what the research out there has long found – there are existing disorders – be it externalizing disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and conduct disorder, or an internalizing disorder such as dysthymia (depression). Ongoing research is inconclusive on whether the existing orders are a manifestation of the neuropsychological deficit Dyslexia, or just separate disorders.

Dyslexics have some challenges that affect their performance at school such as reading, writing, spelling and math. And maybe, just maybe, because of all these challenges they face in the classroom, it gnaws away at their self-esteem, erodes every ounce of energy they have in managing the academics because classrooms and resources are not equipped to handle their way of learning. They end up losing focus, get bored and find other avenues to stimulate their senses. School in essence, is designed for neurotypicals. And school is what defines our intellect – according to most neurotypicals.

Singapore is on its way to an inclusive society and according to psychologist Dr Vivien Yang, emotional challenges can be managed if parents and teachers focus on creating positive relationships and a conducive home and school climate for the child. The school climate, in this case, would have to be inclusive.

Integration and inclusion are resounding buzzwords in our society today. And they mean well because outrightly we want to reduce social difficulties and to promote a society of social acceptance (Crockett, Filippi, & Morgan, 2012, pp 405-436). Social interventions are important in every society provided they are well thought through and carried out in their entirety.

Socially Included or Socially Accepted

The UCL study was on dyslexia but it is enough to raise one’s curiousity on other existing learning disorders. What then of those children struggling at school who may actually have a learning disorder and in desperate need of consistent and appropriate support?

When you have a learning disorder (“LD”), your struggles are not just the academics. Schools today are pressured into delivering high scores, investing in the most advanced instructional strategies to tackle curriculum content.

Unfortunately, little can be said for social strategies. For the most part, these are evidently absent. Many LD students have a hard time socially. Tanis Bryan’s (2005) invaluable research and insight in understanding the many social dimensions of learning disorders spurred an entire body of research that looked at interventions beyond literacy and math to help explain the social challenges which surround the LD student. The LD student is at risk socially. This includes the inability to cope and a lack of self-control. Both play a huge part in achieving success at school and in life. Studies in the US show 38%-75% of students with learning disorders as having social problems. The fact is, social skills are not a priority in schools. What matters is that the student complies with the school rules, cooperates, obeys and does not make life a misery for the teacher. However, that does not mean teachers are not open to strategies that promote social skills. They do and in fact, many want so much to, but given the pressure to cover an entire syllabus in nine months, coupled with delivering grades that meet increasing expectations, why then spend time on something that has no quantitative measure and is really not mandated for any achievement test?

Studies on peer interaction in inclusive settings conducted by Salend and Duhaney (1999) showed mixed results when it came to inclusion. There were “temporary social improvements” but for the long haul, there is still no concrete evidence of lasting social benefits. Human nature is full of folly and we find it hard to let go of negative social perceptions. Studies conducted by Kuhne and Wiener (2000) looked at what many understand as “popularity ratings”, for those with LD over one school year. The category on “least liked” was on an increase in tandem with a decrease in popularity ratings for LD students. Peer pressure, a longing to be part of a group, to get along with one’s peers, to be invited to birthday parties and have play dates is so important and something a child and parent values. Peer acceptance is a strong indicator of social adjustment and studies show that this in turn, is a sound predictor of adult social adjustment. Which then makes one wonder about the limitations of social inclusion that does not necessarily result in being socially accepted. Are schools creating limits to student life and expert instruction that hampers learning and achievement?

Included but Underserved

Now let’s consider the conducive climate for the child at school. The UCL survey on children with dyslexia in Singapore “estimated that one to two primary and secondary school students could be dyslexic in a class of 40 students.”

Schools are by and large designed for the norm – the students who are able to do well in a generalized teaching approach. Students with LD are the outliers because the approach to instruction is individualized, personalized, explicit and intensive in order that they may succeed academically. To deliver this unique approach demands time and skills. Generalist teachers may not necessarily come equipped with either or both. It is not about using differentiated instruction and making routine adaptations that are fairly straight forward and easily provided such as reducing homework load, providing various accommodations for tests and exams, and altering assignments and their criteria. What’s missing are specific and individualized approaches that demand modification of the curriculum, teaching delivery and ensuring that everything is well in place for the LD student while being aware of the student’s difficulties. It means allocating time for planning and time for supporting every child. It means acknowledging the LD child as a valued member of the classroom and school and providing sufficient resources for teachers to use and apply in every context without being the first victims to school budget cuts. It means having no compromises.

Just how much can we expect from a classroom teacher to not only attend to the LD student’s unique academic needs and at the same time, address the social-emotional issues? How aware are school professionals today of these unique profiles that exist and how adequate are teachers in addressing issues that go beyond academic difficulties? What really drives education policy today? Perhaps it’s tilting towards society’s values and social needs which feed into political policies. But that is not enough and not justifiable. Not when there is a rich amount of research being conducted and studies with findings that defy simple solutions to some very complex and specialized issues. That is what I call targeted, individualized and accountable. Others call it being idealistic.

Bryan, T. (2005). science-based advances in the social domain of learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28(2), 119.
Crockett, J.B., Filippi, E. A., & Morgan, C. L. (2012). Included, but Underserved: Rediscovering special education for students with learning disabilities. In B. Wong & D. Butler (Eds.), Learning About Learning Disabilities (4th e., pp. 405-436). Gainesville, FL: Elsevier.
Kuhne, M., & Wiener, J. (2000). Stability of social status of children with and without learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 23(1), 64-75.
Salend, S. J., & Garrick Duhaney, L. M. (1999). The impact of inclusion on students with and without disabilities and their educators. Remedial and Special Education, 20(2), 114-126.


[1] Singapore has no actual data available on the mental health of children and teenagers, yet there is a growing number seeking out help through helplines and clinical psychologists-


TWS Talks Animals – and Snakes – with Author Graeme Base
- The Winstedt School, 13 May 2017

Australian picture book artist-author Graeme Base is the creative force behind global bestseller ‘Animalia’ which has been loved by millions of children (and adults!) for more than 30 years. When Graeme popped by the Winstedt School as part of a book tour – thanks to the Singapore Writer’s Festival – he got more than he bargained for. Like other schools he visited, the 59-year-old gave a talk and afterwards, enjoyed an autograph session. What he didn't expect from us was a one-on-one interview with a student and then compete in drawing showdown (or shall we call it ‘drawdown’?) with that same student: Year 6’s Tanzin Caines. More of that drawdown in another TWS news piece! This is 14-year-old Tanzin’s first official interview as a budding journalist. She uncovered interesting facts about Graeme Base: How animals have been his constant life inspiration, how getting fired was the best thing that happened to him and why he raised a snake. Over to you, Tanzin!

Tanzin: What made you decide to draw as a profession, to draw picture books for a living?

Graeme Base: “I did a graphic design course in Melbourne and that was to train me to go into advertising. But I couldn’t bear it! The stuff I was doing was really unimaginative and I felt I wasn’t doing good work. So I tried 3 other jobs and got fired from my third job. And I thought to myself, “I’m not going to keep doing this because I’m not getting anything out of it.” What did I really love to do? I realised that I loved making things up and using my imagination. So I felt I had a better chance doing that in publishing children’s fiction books. That was 30 years ago and I’ve been doing that ever since.”

T: “How did you come up for the idea for 'Animalia'?”

GB: “'Animalia' wasn’t really a new idea. There were lots and lots of alphabet books done before 'Animalia' but I thought, “Why not do one where the letter A isn’t just for Apple or B for Balloon? It could be hundreds of things. What if I write little poems filled with alliterations - where every sentence has words with the same letter? And that could be the main theme linking all the pages in the book together.” And that’s when I began filling the book with hundreds and hundreds of these words! I went through encyclopedias, dictionaries, wrote notes and all of that went into the artwork. That took 3 years. And at the very end I realised, “Wow! I still need something that links all of these things together as they’re all totally separate.” So I invented the idea of this little boy - who is really me as a child – going through these pages, these adventures.”

T: “That was a really good idea. So what’s your favourite picture book and why?

GB: “There’s just so, so many of them! I remember when I was very young, there was this book about a bull that didn’t want to be in bullfights and just wanted to sit under a tree and enjoy himself. The drawings were very simple but it was something I loved when I was very young. Nowadays there are so many beautiful books out there drawn by people all over the world. The problem is I don’t have time to sit down and read them all because I’m so busy working on my own books. I’m not aware of so many of these books and perhaps I should be.”

T: “Do you have any pets?”

GB: “I do. My wife and I used to have lots and lots of pets when our kids were younger. We had rabbits, guinea pigs and we even had a snake for a while! When I first got it, it was only a long as a pencil and then it grew to be as long as the table. We had to let it go after that. We also had lots of fish in a fish tank and lots of cats. And now we’re just down to one cat – a Bengal cat and everyone calls him Ben for some reason. But his real name is Atticus. And we have a yellow Labrador whose name is Lucy.”

T: “That’s a nice name!”

GB: “Yes, it is a very nice name and she’s a very nice dog.”

T: “Thanks for the interview Graeme. I made this for you – it’s a drawing of you that I did after looking at pictures of you on the Internet.”

GB: “Oh look at that – it’s fantastic! Who is that handsome guy? And he’s got tiger eyes too! I love this. Thank you very, very much. Tanzin.”

T: “Well to be honest, on the Internet, the pictures showed you with brown eyes and not green.”

GB: “And what are they, do you think? They’re brownish-green aren’t they? But what you’ve done here is better. So thank you very much, I’ll treasure it.”

- End