At a young age of four-and-a-half, Russell Foo was having a hard time coping with school and communicating with his peers.
Despite the best efforts of his teachers, the preschooler – who was recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder – was increasingly stressed about having to socialise with 15 other kids in a classroom.
The stress exacerbated his behavioural issues, and he would become uncooperative and throw tantrums during group activities and often broke into screaming fits before shower-time while in school.
He also showed little interest in activities like colouring or writing, and began lagging behind his peers.
“If I were a child in that setting, and I am expected to answer questions like, ‘How do you feel?’, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ when I can’t (even) answer ‘Are you hungry?’, it would not be very good for my self-esteem,” explained his mother, Foo Wann Yun.
In June, the 40-year-old decided to “bite the bullet” and transfer her son out of preschool operator Busy Bees Asia’s Pat’s Schoolhouse – where she has been a principal for four years – and into a new inclusive preschool.
Two weeks after joining Bright Path Inclusive Preschool, which is also run by Busy Bees Asia, Russell showed signs of improvement and was motivated to attend school, said Foo, especially in his motor and communication skills. He even began looking forward to a previously much-hated activity: shower-times.
Now, less than two months on, he has progressed from drawing strokes and dots to penning his full name.
Bright Path, officially opened by Guest-of-Honour and President Halimah Yacob on Friday (27 July), provides full-time daycare incorporating early intervention into the base preschool programme for students aged three to six across different needs. School fees are $2,850 per month, before subsidies.
It is one of the preschools in recent years, including Kindle Garden, to offer inclusive education. The latter, the first of its kind in Singapore, opened in 2016.
Bright Path is also touted to be the first preschool in Singapore with an inter-transfer programme, aimed at getting children assimilated to mainstream placement, or vice versa, within Busy Bees Asia’s network of schools.
Four students, including Russell, are currently enrolled at Bright Path, with four to five more expected to join the cohort in August.
Bright Path can accommodate up to 70 preschoolers, with 15 to 20 per cent estimated to be children with special or differentiated needs.
Each student will first be assessed by an in-house psychologist. Learning objectives will then be determined by a team including a speech therapist, an occupational therapist – joining on board in August – and three teachers, including two trained in early intervention.
Foo found that Bright Path’s customised lesson plans and smaller ratio of three kids to one teacher worked well to serve Russell’s needs.
“The curriculum offers an individualised education plan for all children,” said Foo, “Regardless of what age you are, they look at your ability and they pitch (lessons) at where you are.”
Julia Teo, 53, deputy director of operations at Busy Bees Asia, said that the preschool focuses on highlighting the strengths of its young students.
But she stressed that the society at large also has a role to play, by dispelling traditional notions of special needs and removing the stigma felt by children who are labelled as such, stressed Teo.
“Once the child is confident and has the self-esteem, learning comes a lot faster,” she added.
Another key feature of Bright Path is its natural environment to help students improve their learning skills, Teo added.
On its campus at 55 Fairways Drive, for instance, a four-metre-long “sensory” pathway with different textures – such as grass and pebbles – helps “train” the students to manage their elevated sensory perceptions, thus allowing them to concentrate on their lessons.
Next to it is a water “trough” filled with floating foam numbers. It allows the children to tackle math questions by catching the foam pieces with a butterfly net, as opposed to writing answers down on paper.
Horse therapy lessons will also be incorporated into the students’ curriculum in due course.
For now, Foo plans to keep a “very happy” Russell at Bright Path.
“My bottom line is his happiness and that he’s learning and improving. As long as I see those traits, I will keep him here,” said Foo.