When little Eileen Liu first joined her childcare centre at NTUC First Campus, tears and tantrums were a daily affair.
Her father, 49-year-old Liu Kwai Wah, tells The Pride in Mandarin: “She found the environment unfamiliar and was scared of all the new faces around her, which included her classmates and teachers.”
To complicate matters, the Lius soon found themselves struggling to afford her school fees which amounted to some $700 each month. Liu’s wife was pregnant then and unable to work, so the family had to rely entirely on his income as a construction supervisor.
Left with little choice, the couple came close to taking Eileen out of school. This alarmed her Classroom Co-Facilitator, Ms Rachel Teo.
Ms Teo recalls: “I was worried because missing school can really hinder a child’s progress. It’s no coincidence that our weaker students tend to be the ones who skip school often, and many of them happen to come from lower-income backgrounds.”
Fortunately, the centre’s Child Enabling Executive and its Principal were alerted to the family’s circumstances and helped to arrange for financial assistance from NTUC First Campus’ Bright Horizons Fund for the family.
The Fund supports low-income households by providing subsidies, and funding learning support and well-being programmes for their children.
The subsidy covered 80 per cent of Eileen’s school fees, much to Mr Liu’s relief.
Free to return to school, the focus turned towards helping the shy, soft-spoken little girl to come out of her shell – a task that fell to Ms Teo, who became Eileen’s source of support in the classroom.
“At that point, Eileen didn’t understand English. So, when the teacher gave instructions, I would explain these to her in simple Mandarin so she could keep up with the activity,” she says.
As a Classroom Co-Facilitator, Ms Teo provides direct guidance to children in the classroom. While the teacher goes through the lesson, Ms Teo sits beside weaker students, guiding them one-on-one and simplifying the concepts to aid their understanding.
This Classroom Support Programme is covered by the Bright Horizons Fund, with the aim of getting weaker, lower-income children up to speed with their peers.
Within a few months, Ms Teo learnt to read Eileen’s emotions and identify areas where she needed to improve.
“In nursery, she could follow only simple, one-step instructions. Her social skills were also lacking as she didn’t really make friends and couldn’t express herself. At times, she would just burst into tears for no apparent reason.”
Aware that her young charge was a “sensitive child”, Ms Teo knew that patience was key: “With Eileen, you cannot be too forceful because she won’t respond well to it.”
Ms Teo works with some 30 children like Eileen at the centre and tailors her teaching methods to suit their individual learning abilities.
For example, when Eileen was unable to recognise numbers when she first joined the school, Ms Teo used number tiles and colourful pictorials to make the learning process more engaging and aid her ability to recall the lessons.
And as Eileen’s language skills were limited by her inability to recognise and pronounce letters, Ms Teo would work with her personally, using alphabet cards to coach her in tracing letters and pronouncing them.
“In class, I’m always beside her and constantly assessing how much of the lesson she understands. If she’s struggling, I will try to simplify the task assigned by the teacher. And if that doesn’t work either, I will take her aside and coach her one-on-one.
“My job is to find the baseline of what the child can understand, and slowly increase her understanding to the level it should be.”
After a few months of working together, Eileen began to show tremendous improvement. Beyond recognising numbers and letters, she could also identify basic shapes, and grew more comfortable speaking in English.
Apart from helping children like Eileen get the best possible start to their education, Ms Teo was also drawn to the job for another reason: “As a Classroom Co-Facilitator, I get to help the children who come from lower-income backgrounds, which I find very meaningful.”
These situations can be complex, with very profound implications on the child’s learning and well-being.
Once, a casual conversation she initiated with one child uncovered disturbing details about his domestic life. He confided in her that his mother had left home recently, leaving him and two other siblings, who were also studying at the centre, unsupervised at home.
Visibly affected by the memory, Ms Teo says: “Can you imagine how dangerous it is to have three young children alone at home, without anyone to take care of them?”
She promptly informed the centre’s Principal, who alerted the authorities. The children were then taken to a welfare home before they were eventually placed in the care of foster parents.
The incident was an important reminder to the compassionate educator not to fixate only on the children’s learning.
“The bond I build with the children helps them to open up to me and helps me to help them. I cannot ever think that I’m just here to make sure they know their ABCs. Other than making sure they are on a par with their peers, I also need to know what’s going on in their lives.
“I’m always happy to see that they are safe with their family, they have a home to return to, and their parents are taking care of them. When they come to school, they are happier and more positive, which helps with their learning. Seeing that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Today, little Eileen has blossomed. Her teachers report that the five-year-old expresses herself better, and understands things more quickly in class. She is no longer shy and introverted, and has become more sociable and communicative.
The change has been remarkable to her father, Mr Liu.
He says proudly: “She often speaks to me in English now, and uses big words that surprise me. She says she learnt them from her teachers.”
By keeping in touch with the centre’s Principal, Mr Liu is able to get regular updates on his daughter’s progress. At home, he has also witnessed how far she has come in just two years.
“In the past, we had to supervise her very closely, but now she even offers to help us keep an eye on her younger sister. She’s become a more sensible child, more confident and independent.
“I’m glad that she’s able to take it one step at a time, and enjoy the process of discovering her potential and what she likes.”
About the Bright Horizons Fund
The Bright Horizons Fund is an IPC charity fund, established by NTUC First Campus in 2008, that helps children from low-income households to receive quality pre-school education and gives them access to positive classroom experiences.
The Fund provides financial assistance, as well as learning and well-being programmes for the children and their families. Each year, more than $1 million is disbursed to support some 2,000 children from low-income families.
Keen to help more children like Eileen have a good start to their education? Support this cause here.