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What educational therapy is, and is not

Updated: Jan 26

When I was nineteen, fresh out of junior college and waiting to enter university, I took up a part-time job. That turned out to be the scariest of times, and also the best of times.

I stood in as the form teacher of a primary four class at a neighbourhood school near home for half a year (their teacher was on maternity leave). For the next six months every weekday, I was to take care of the lives of 40 ten-year-olds. What did I sign myself up for?

I was definitely ill-equipped for the job. I still recalled my heavy footsteps every morning as I approached the school gate, wondering what would be in store for me that day. Whose turn would it be to scream his lungs off today? Would I be so lucky to have the principal walking by my classroom that very moment? 

Well,that high-strung period possibly laid the ground for my eventual life-long work. In my class was a spritely, bespectacled J who though was a bright boy, could hardly keep up with what I taught in class. He was always the last to finish copying what was on the board. And he always had this dreamy look on his face which I couldn't quite comprehend. I got to know why not too long after. 

J has ‘dyslexia’ -- which I had never heard of till then -- and I was introduced to this term when his mother came down to school to speak with me. J’s never-tiring mother made it a point to be his advocate each time a new teacher was in town so as to communicate his learning needs. During my conversation with her, she broke down a few times too as she shared her struggles helping him to keep up with the school work. I remembered how much of a loss I was at trying to comfort and give hope. 

I did survive those six months eventually. Till today, I still kept the bottle of folded stars and the jar filled with colourful mini origami artwork the children gifted me before I left the school. 

Gifts bestowed upon a 19-year-old me

After I graduated from university, I turned to journalism for that was after all my first love. I relished the various highs journalism afforded me -- when I successfully pitched a feature story to my editor, vicariously living different lives through meeting different people, getting that quotable quote from interviewers, that rush of adrenalin when I crafted in my mind what I felt was the perfect first paragraph, and of course, when seeing my byline. 

Life though has a way of working its magic. While I had allocated a space in my cupboard for the stars and origami artwork from my class, J and his mom had, without me knowing, etched out a place in my mind and in my heart. 

I left journalism after some time and joined the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) as an educational therapist. It was where I felt I could marry my love for words and my belief in helping a child reach his potential in life. I never looked back. 

The world of educational therapy is a fascinating one. But we first need to understand what exactly it is, and is not. 

For one, educational therapy is not the same as tuition. 

While both interventions aim to improve a learner’s academic performance, they are fundamentally very different. 

Tutoring focuses primarily on specific subject matter and delves into clarifying curriculum topics that learners are unsure of. It may involve reinforcing or re-teaching skills that have been taught in class. As such, it benefits neurotypical learners who do not experience learning differences. 

Educational therapy, on the other hand, is a specialised and holistic form of intervention that benefits neurodivergent learners with learning differences who are struggling to learn independently in a mainstream school environment. It involves exploring and understanding the underlying causes of a learner’s difficulties and hence has a broader focus -- going beyond what is taught in class and deep-diving to work on foundational skills. 

It focuses on “how” the student learns and often involves teaching using a multi-sensory approach, tapping on the various learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile) to promote learning. Very often, this involves building on the learner’s strengths while addressing his weaknesses.

Specifically, educational therapy in the area of literacy targets  a learner’s reading, spelling and writing skills. It focuses on improving one’s decoding (knowing how each letter in the alphabet makes a sound and combining these sounds together to form words), comprehension (understanding what is read), encoding (transferring the sounds one hears into corresponding letters or what we know commonly as spelling) and one’s ability to string words into sentences (writing). 

Additionally, educational therapy can also involve identifying behaviour issues that may be caused by learning and thinking differences, and then providing a learner with the strategies to help him manage these differences.

Educational therapy also involves providing a safe environment for the child to talk about school and learn about his learning difficulties in a child-friendly way, both of which go a long way towards improving the learner’s motivation and self-esteem. 

Most of all, educational therapy involves collaborating with stakeholders such as parents, school teachers and other allied health professionals such as occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and behaviour therapists. Together, we seek to unravel the elusive jigsaw puzzle in order to achieve clarity regarding what makes a learner tick.

As such, it is not surprising then that educational therapy also covers other non-academic but equally important skills that support a learner’s growth. These include equipping them with organizational skills, time-management, problem solving skills, social skills, exam and study skills and most of all, the skill of advocating for themselves. 

The folded stars and mini origami artworks now take pride of place at the entrance of my literacy studio, welcoming each and every of my learner and parent with whom I get to cross paths. On some days, my mind drifts back to J and his mom. I didn’t think I did a good job with J back then, nor did I succeed much in providing comfort to his mother. Wherever he is now, I hope he has learnt to compensate for his learning difficulties and lives the life he is capable of. 

Because dyslexia does not define him. 

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