Four Lessons I Learnt From Managing Students With Special Needs

“Why can’t you allow him to come in with his hair as it is? He is uncomfortable going to the barber, because he is sensitive to the sound of the shaver.”

“School rules are for everyone. If this rule is waived for him, how are we going to explain this to his classmates or teachers?”

And so this set of arguments went back and forth between myself and the parents. It was like both parties have not understood the perspective of the other party, and needed to repeat the same argument ad nauseum.

Children with special needs are not common in society. Or rather, that is what we think. In Singapore, around 2.1 percent of children under 18 have some form of disability. Around 6 percent of children were born with some form of developmental problems of different kinds.

There are many different types of special needs, ranging from the common ones like dyslexia, ASD and ADHD, to the rare disorders such as conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder and dyspraxia. Each need presents different issues and requires different strategies for intervention and support.

Hence working with children (and their parents) can be very challenging, not just because of the type of special needs but also because we cannot apply the same treatment to every one of them, even if the issues are similar. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, the principles we use can be the same though.

So this was what we did as a school when working with the parents in this case.

A bit of background about the parents and the children. Both children were enrolled in my school and had special needs. One was more severe than the other. There was a brief period of time when the children went to another school (overseas), as the parents had hoped that a more ‘open’ environment in the overseas school could help the children learn better. That thinking was in vain.

Both children have a history of school refusal, triggered by various incidents. Some incidents were related to the words my school staff used in their conversations. Some incidents were like the scene above, where the students could not attend school because of their refusal to do something.

The father is a very senior leader in a MNC and has worked with the school over his children’s educational needs over the years, even before I came into the picture. He was used to having his way in the corporate world, I presume, and hence was confounded when the school could not accept the suggestions he made for his children to continue access to schooling.

So when the two refused to attend school, they would stay at home and do their own things. It would take a lot of effort on the part of the parents to coax them into talking about the topic of schooling, and to even consider going to school. Their words often fail to convince the boys.

We met with the father on several occasions over the years, to try and find ways and means to have the two boys attend school. Initially, I was firm with my position, sticking to my stand that school rules have to be followed, no exception allowed. I also stuck to my stand that their absence were considered as without valid reasons.

However as time went by and I got to know more about the two boys and their background, I can’t help but wonder if sticking to my stand would help in their situation. Worse, the father remained agitated because of his perception that the school would rather have them absent rather than go out of the way to accommodate them. Plus, the boys were retained in the same level for at least a year. Retaining them does not make sense.

I think the turning point came when my school counsellor shared how he managed to speak with one of the boys, and heard his wish to return to school. My counsellor had maintained connections with the two boys via messaging over the years, and would engage in small chat with them occasionally. The boy felt apprehensive, having missed out on quite a chunk of lessons, and wondered if he could cope.

We discussed and agreed to allow him attend selected subject lessons, as a way to ease him into schooling. On top of that, I agreed to get teachers to provide individual coaching for some of the subjects if he wished to have it.

I think that broke the ‘stalemate’ between the parents and the school. My counsellor spoke with the student about the arrangements we will make for him over the phone and how he will prepare the class for his return. To our surprise, he decided to go for a haircut on his own before coming to school!

School life was the usual when he returned to school. No big bang, no surprises, no abnormalies.

But only one of the two boys returned to school. The other boy refused to attend school, despite the attempts by both parents, the school and even his brother, to convince him that he should.

This boy eventually cleared his level and progressed to the final year of studies, and graduated after sitting for the national exams. He managed to gain entry into a tertiary institution, into a course of his choice.

What about the other student? Well, we used his brother as an example to continue engaging him to return to school. By this time, I was open to being flexible in my approach with him. We offered him a few suggestions to ease him back to school, including allowing him to wear a hoodie (to cover his long hair), attend selected lessons and sit out of some subject lessons for a start.

After a long while, the boy decided to return to school, taking up the conditions we offered. He tried to attend classes, but would stay out of school for a few days in a row whenever he encountered issues in the classroom. Eventually he sat for the national exams, managed to clear them and progressed to a tertiary institution.

What have I learnt from this journey with the two boys and their parents? I think these are lessons that I picked out from working on this case:

1. Always Flesh Out My Assumptions. I have held adhering to school rules as the condition for the two students to return to school. While school rules are important, I need to question my assumption on the need to enforce school rules in such a way that leads to a very long absence from schooling. What purpose does holding the school rules tightly give, if students with special needs are willing to miss out on school? I may win the battle, but I may lose the war.

Yet the opposite also remains true too. Being too loose about school rules may give the impression that some students can be ‘above’ the rules. Doing the preemptive by explaining the rules and helping the students process them will be key. Equally important is the need to demonstrate a willingness to engage parents on issues and convince them to align with the school, especially for discipline cases.

2. Be Patient To All. It is easy for a leader to want to have his or her way in an issue, especially if the leader holds the idea that he or she has thought through the issue in a comprehensive manner. Yet a leader must remain open to diverse perspectives rather than insist on having things done according to a specific way. Being patient will be important.

To me, patience with self is probably the most important. Knowing how not to go overboard in resolving an issue, how to manage self expectations and persuade other parties to come on board to your direction are indicators of self awareness. At the end of the day, self awareness is a must for leaders. You don’t have that, you cannot go far. Even when you have that, continue to cultivate self awareness.

3. Put Yourself In The Other Person’s Shoes. I find that it is easy to make decisions if you do not have to face the person(s) who will be affected by your decisions. I tend to think twice (or more!) if I know who will be impacted by my decision, and in what way. It is not a luxury to know the person(s) you will be impacting through your decision, so I find it useful to ask if I will accept the decision I am going to make if I were in the other person’s shoes.

But cultivating empathy is not just about thinking about the other party’s perspective. Empathy is so much more. It involves connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance. It involves trying to understand and standing with the person in the emotion (s)he is experiences. It involves withholding judgment, showing our willingness to be vulnerable to another party in reaching out and seeking to understand.

4. Being Student-Centric Is Difficult. I have struggled with the term “Student-Centric” for a while. It is a term we can recognise immediately, but may have difficulty translating into a definitive description. For a start, the word ‘student’ tells you who the audience is. Yet therein lies the complication.

The student exists not in isolation but in relation to others. I can decide what I consider as appropriate for one student, but there are ramifications beyond. For example, choosing to relent on the school rules without clear rationale may cause other students to misunderstand the intent. Worse, there could be comparisons between students and claims of biases. That is why decisions should be accompanied by explanations and engagement of people involved.

Watching over students and helping them have an education is not necessarily an easy task. The students I encountered were people who can access mainstream education in varying degrees, some like the boys mentioned here require more provisions to be made for them, others require fewer provisions or none.

That is why teaching is not an easy job. It takes people with an extraordinary blend to stay in this profession. As a school leader, my role is to help teachers in any way possible to get their jobs done.

How would you have handled these two boys if you were me? What would you have done differently? How can we support students with special needs better?

4 thoughts on “Four Lessons I Learnt From Managing Students With Special Needs

  1. Whew! So much in one article!
    I agree with all of it, and I’m halfway along the journey you described with a spirited child. Point 4 is especially true. I hesitate to say it, but I feel that is where some parents unknowingly perpetuate their struggle.


  2. I hope you will keep loving your spirited child all the way and enable your child to learn to thrive in the world! It’s not easy, and sometimes other parties will not make things any easier for you. Your child will have to learn to make sense of the world, and to learn to thrive on his or her own capability.


  3. Thanks for sharing this. Not every school leader would make provisions to consider the perspectives of a special needs child and his parents. It is very kind of the school to accommodate the resources and expertise of the teachers in the hope that the child will return to school eventually. Having said this, I think that every special needs child is different. Whilst proper academic lessons may work on one child when he comes to school, the other student may not be so keen on the same arrangement. So for instance, the other child may require an AED to supervise him and talk to him more than academic lessons per se. Hopefully, this may entice him to come to school permanently. That is one aspect from the consumer’s perspective. From the school’s perspective, having a teacher to devote an hour to one student (even if it is after school hours) is a luxury. I have heard teachers lament on the lack of time they have in lesson preparation, marking and even monitoring their current students and yet have to stay back to dedicate that precious time to one special need student. From the teacher’s perspective, the opportunity cost maybe too great. If only the school can propose a solution that will benefit both parties (special needs child and teachers) without one party feeling like they are being shortchanged, that will be most ideal. Then again, as you mentioned, it is not easy to engage everyone and enable them to be empathetic towards each other. These are just my two cents worth of thoughts.


  4. I suggest the first place to start for anyone is to empathise. It will be easier to come to the table and talk thereafter. Everyone has issues. It’s only how to work things out with a fuller understanding of all, if not most, issues.


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