A new programme teaches parents of children with behavioural problems to understand and manage their kids better
The mother of four used to dread going on family holidays. Her youngest son, five-year-old Loh Teck Yee, is autistic and a change of environment and routine often set off temper tantrums, turning holidays into a stressful and frustrating experience for the family. “Even at home, we had trouble managing him. Any change to his routine would upset him and trigger meltdowns,” said Mdm Cynthia Ho. “Just going to school left him in floods of tears!”
Like many autistic children, Teck Yee feels anxious if he doesn’t know what to expect in his day. To help Teck Yee’s parents understand him better, his paediatrician at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) referred Mdm Ho and her husband to a pilot programme the hospital had just launched. The programme promised to teach them strategies and techniques to help manage Teck Yee and avoid temper outbursts and tantrums.
Accessible programme for parents
Mdm Ho was among the first in Singapore to attend the Signposts for Building Better Behaviour pilot course. The course teaches parents and caregivers of children with behavioural problems (caused by conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to understand their children’s difficult behaviour, develop ways to manage them effectively and prevent the escalation of behavioural issues. These behavioural problems are often caused by the child’s inability to communicate clearly, which makes him feel misunderstood and frustrated. For parents, such situations can lead to feelings of frustration too, as they may feel that the child is misbehaving. The six-week course consists of one introductory session followed by five modules, each lasting up to two-and-a half hours. After attending these weekly sessions, Mdm Ho felt more confident to try going on another family holiday.
“We were amazed when we learnt how simple things like prior planning and communication could give Teck Yee comfort and security,” said Mdm Ho. This meant that the family’s trip to Japan was nothing like the dreaded experience of past holidays. “To prepare him for the change in routine that he would face on holiday, we showed him photos of how people dressed in winter and what Hokkaido looked like. When Teck Yee had to dress in winter clothes, he did not find it difficult to adapt,” she said. “He was calm and relaxed throughout our eight-day holiday and we had zero meltdowns during the trip!”
The three-year pilot is aimed at reaching 1,500 families, and is open to parents referred by KKH doctors. The fees are highly subsidised. “We wanted to introduce a practical and relevant programme that is accessible to all who need it. We worked with Parenting Research Centre Australia to tailor its curriculum to fit the local context,” said Associate Professor Lim Sok Bee, Senior Consultant and Head, Department of Child Development, KKH.
The pilot will be closely studied to ensure that it delivers the desired results. “We will be doing research as the courses are conducted to measure their impact on these children’s behaviour,” she added. Another parent who now has a much better relationship with his son is Mr Timothy Wang, father of four-year-old Enoch. Although Enoch does not have any developmental needs, his father finds him a handful. “I was having trouble getting him to do simple things like brushing his teeth. My facilitator suggested allowing him to choose a toothbrush that he liked,” Mr Wang said. “To my surprise, he no longer refuses to brush his teeth, but actually enjoys it!” “He has to do it his own way though, so instead of choosing one toothbrush, Enoch now uses two – one for the lower teeth and one for the upper!” he said. “After this programme, my son and I have a much better relationship and understanding of each other,” he said.
Training trainers to benefit all parents
To bring the programme to the community, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital is overseeing the training of more than 70 local facilitators based in the 12 Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children Centres. Already, more than 30 trained practitioners – including psychologists, educational counsellors, teachers and social workers – have been accredited as Signposts facilitators.
Ms Patricia Koh, Senior Social Worker and Head, Special Education Needs Team, PAP Community Foundation, is one of the newly trained trainers who facilitated Mdm Ho’s course. “The course is very well tailored to the local context. The materials provided also give practical tips and strategies that parents can use straightaway.” The programme is funded by grants from the National Council of Social Service and Temasek Cares. With this funding, parents attending the course can benefit from highly subsidised fees.