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Her sons had trouble talking, so this Singaporean mum started a special needs centre to help them

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Many parents might not fancy “what the heck” as their child’s favourite catchphrase, but it’s sheer relief for Mina Sunico-Chin, the co-founder of AltSchool International, that her elder son Mason is saying anything at all these days. The five-year-old, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was two, once displayed great reluctance to speak.

But within six weeks of attending AltSchool International, which Sunico-Chin co-founded with her husband Vincent in January, the boy showed more progress than he had in the previous six months, said the 45-year-old mother.

The centre in River Valley accepts children from ages three to eight who display signs of developmental delays and learning differences – including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, selective mutism and social anxiety.

It also marries early intervention with special education under one roof. For instance, a child with speech delays could attend speech therapy and learn numeracy skills, all without leaving AltSchool, as the centre believes in employing therapists and teachers to work together on the child’s development.

After starting at the centre in January this year, Mason could sit and pay attention in class, and he was saying new things every day. He was “thriving”.

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Mackenzie, the Chins' younger son, playing at AltSchool. (Photo: Mina Sunico-Chin)

The difference in her younger son, Mackenzie, was even “more dramatic” once he joined AltSchool in March. The three-year-old, who had been diagnosed with social anxiety and selective mutism, and suspected to also have autism spectrum disorder, hadn’t spoken a word nor made a sound at his previous preschool.

“Within the first week he was here – with the change of environment, a lot less kids, a lot less intimidating – immediately he started speaking that week in class and communicating with his teachers,” recalled Sunico-Chin.

“Now, the problem is that the teachers can’t get him to shut up. On the daily, I hear ‘Mackenzie!’,” she chuckled. “When his ex-teachers (from his previous preschool) came to visit, they were amazed to see Mackenzie talking non-stop.”

“TINY” WINS

Her sons aren’t the only ones who have come out of their shell. The centre hasn’t taken in a lot of children yet, but “for the kids we do have, we’ve seen how it changes them and how happy they are once they settle into the programme”, Sunico-Chin said.

“(We have some kids who) don’t pay attention in class; they can’t sit still for long. We have one kid who just started (at AltSchool). Every 10 seconds, she wants to move. But this week, we saw her sitting for a minute. That’s a win – and then that just gets better over time.”

The wins, however, are not always major in the conventional sense.

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Mason, the Chins' older son, engaging in an activity at AltSchool. (Photo: Mina Sunico-Chin)

One non-verbal child, while still non-verbal, has embraced using visual cards. When she recently felt hungry in class, she rushed to get her “snack visual”, said Sunico-Chin.

“You have this kid who’s kind of trapped in their own world before. When she first came, she just lay on the floor, not doing anything. And now, she’s telling me that she’s hungry and she wants to eat – that’s a huge milestone, even though to another person, it might seem tiny.”

For the husband-and-wife team, these “tiny” behavioural changes are extra gratifying. After all, they had co-founded AltSchool to help parents like themselves.

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UNABLE TO FIND SOLUTIONS, SHE CREATED ONE

When Mason showed initial signs of speech delay as an 18-month-old, the Chins were pointed to various early intervention programmes around the island. Early intervention – which imparts skills for independence to children aged under seven with developmental needs – typically includes speech, physical and occupational therapy.

But there were other hurdles. For one, a long waiting list via the public service route meant they started Mason on Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy with a private practitioner first. This form of therapy is usually recommended to children diagnosed with a spectrum disorder, such as autism, and is designed to help them develop social and emotional skills.

While Mason’s rapport with the therapist eventually got him speaking, Sunico-Chin still felt her son’s progress was “really slow” as he was only doing the sessions about twice a week.

She also worried that he wouldn’t know how to remember and apply what he’d learnt once he entered a mainstream preschool.

Additionally, she and her husband had to shuttle between Mason’s preschool and separate therapy classes, from speech therapy to occupational therapy.
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Mina and her husband, Vincent, with their sons at AltSchool, which they set up to help similar children and their parents. (Photo: Mina Sunico-Chin)

Plus, the more therapists Sunico-Chin spoke to, the more she desired a single space near home that would consolidate all their early intervention services and cover academic skills for neurodivergent children too. She also found that most parents desired either an academic-focused or a play-based curriculum, but she wanted “a bit of both”.

Then she realised she could take her children’s education into her own hands. Running a business was her “comfort zone” after all – she’d co-founded digital marketing agency Hashtag Interactive in 2013, also with her husband.

But a preschool, not least one with early intervention services alongside special education, was a different ballgame.

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Mina with her sons, Mason and Mackenzie, in a classroom at AltSchool. (Photo: Mina Sunico-Chin)

CONCERNS AND CONSIDERATIONS

Without relevant training or expertise in special education or early childhood intervention, Sunico-Chin knew her options were limited. While she could open a franchise of, say, a sensory gym from the United States, she felt “these kinds of niche things” didn’t quite hit the spot.

Having visited other early intervention centres in Singapore, she’d also noticed the occupational therapy equipment tended to be “very brightly coloured”. If sessions were run like a typical preschool, there’d also be “lots of things on the walls”. Such an environment wouldn’t work for “kids who are typically very sensory sensitive”, like Mason.

"Even as a parent, I feel it’s so messy," she said.

So can you imagine what it’s like for an autistic kid? Everything’s magnified, everything’s louder, everything’s brighter.

So when they started the design for AltSchool, they "thought it would be great if we could design it like Montessori, but make it early intervention", she added.

Montessori classrooms are designed with a simple and uncluttered aesthetic, using natural light and warm materials. The education method, which is approved by the Ministry of Education, is one that places an emphasis on child-led inquiries, hands-on learning and real-world skills.

On top of early intervention therapies, Sunico-Chin also wanted a structured learning programme “as close as possible to school” to prepare these special needs students for future, possibly mainstream, education.

She then turned to the International Early Years Curriculum (IEYC). The “very child-led” and “inquiry-based” curriculum is used by other mainstream preschools too.

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Mina wanted to adopt a simple and uncluttered aesthetic for AltSchool. (Photo: CNA/Dillon Tan)

At the same time, the former magazine journalist put her own love for learning to good use.

She embarked on her own educational journey, picking up an Advanced Certificate in Inclusive and Special Education from the College of Allied Educators in April. And come August, she will start studying for a Graduate Certificate in Business Psychology to work towards a masters in the same field under the Newcastle Australia Institute of Higher Education in Singapore.

Beyond her own entrepreneurial drive, she had to employ “people who do know what they’re doing”, from educators to therapists. All of AltSchool’s teachers have early education experience or qualifications, even though hiring in the early intervention space proved challenging due to demand exceeding supply, she noted.

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Vincent Chin, Mina's husband, with their older son, Mason, at the AltSchool campus. (Photo: Mina Sunico-Chin)

SMALL CLASSES, IMMERSIVE LESSONS

When she imagined how a class might be run, Sunico-Chin remembered how mainstream preschool teachers might struggle to take on special needs children because “they just have too much on their plate”, although it’s “not their fault”.

So she was determined to keep the intimate class size – specifically one teacher for every two to four children

However, maintaining such stringent standards also means being upfront about the costs involved, she acknowledged. According to indicative pricing listed on their website, half-day programmes start from S$2,450 per month, while full-day programmes start from S$4,155.

When the centre was being set up, it was also “tricky” to nail down what therapies they would have, how often they would be offered and how academic skills would be woven into the daily lessons. They eventually landed on their current curriculum format, where students attend speech and language therapy twice a week, and occupational therapy once a week.

But teachers integrate therapy strategies throughout the daily curriculum and meet the therapists regularly to discuss the children’s progress, allowing them to react quickly to a notable behavioural change, such as if a child displays a sudden aversion to toilet-training.

Having therapy and education co-exist in the same space “makes a difference”, Sunico-Chin realised. “You’re hoping a kid will generalise when they go back home and some kids can, but my kids can’t. It really needs them to be super immersive.”

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Mina noted that her older son, Mason, showed quick improvement once he started at AltSchool. (Photo: Mina Sunico-Chin)

The centre practises “thematic learning”. Both lessons and therapy sessions immerse students in a particular theme for the month – for instance, astronomy or a certain nursery rhyme.

Students also go on trips beyond the classroom, from a simple nature walk to a grocery store excursion and even visit art galleries. This isn’t common practice among children with developmental differences, she added.

“When you have kids who are unpredictable in the way they react to new stimulus, the tendency is to keep them at home, to keep (them in) a more controlled environment, to stick to routines, so that you are also not surprised.”

INDIVIDUALISED PLANS

A small class size also means parents will receive “quality feedback” daily and directly from teachers, which met Sunico-Chin’s personal wishes as a mum.

“Don’t give me abuden (obvious) feedback or updates. If I see a picture of (my kid) playing with blocks, don’t tell me he’s playing with blocks. Tell me what was the point (of the activity), what we are working towards,” she said.

“I’d want to know what (my kid) does every day because they won’t come home like a neurotypical kid and tell me what happened. I’d rely on the teachers to be honest with me. Even if my kid had a bad day, I want to know what’s going on… how a specific behaviour is going to be trouble for (the kid) later on and figure out how to troubleshoot it now.”

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Mason and Mackenzie are also students at AltSchool. (Photo: Mina Sunico-Chin)

To that end, each child receives an Individualised Education Plan, highlighting their strengths, interests, and goals. For example, children who are “more sensory sensitive” could get more “movement breaks” than their peers, where they play at the gym before returning to their desk to write again once they’re ready.

There are also personalised strategies to address a child’s challenges. With “sensory seeking” Mason, Sunico-Chin’s older son, he was given a sensory block to place under his feet and to sit on, so he could be more comfortable sitting for longer periods.

A child’s plan is devised after a month-long observational period by the school’s centre manager, along with teachers who are trained in early intervention, using the AEPS-3 (Assessment, Evaluation, and Programming System) evaluation system. This tool assesses a child’s core developmental skills, such as fine and gross motor skills, by getting them to attempt specific activities, like whether they can walk in a straight line or button their shirt. Their score then is measured against children in that age range.

The AEPS-3 is not a diagnostic tool, however, Sunico-Chin clarified.

“I can’t see whether your kids are autistic, but functionally, I know what areas we have to attack. That’s why it doesn’t matter to us whether the kid has an (official) diagnosis. We just focus on what help they need. We play to their strengths, and we help them work towards (a goal).”

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Mina Sunico-Chin with her boys, Mason (left) and Mackenzie, at AltSchool's campus along River Valley Road. (Photo: CNA/Dillon Tan)

“A LONG-TERM GAME”

The strategy seems to have paid off so far – at least judging by the children’s growth. Many who first arrived at AltSchool “without having any rapport” now hug their teachers before they leave and look forward to coming back the next day.

“We get such a kick out of the growth that we see in the kids and how every day there’s some little thing (that’s different). Therapy is a long-term game; you’re not going to see (changes) overnight,” said Sunico-Chin.

“It’s just little things, and then one day, you realise Mason is saying so much more than he used to. I wondered where he’s picking that up, and I figured it’s here.”

Ultimately, the entrepreneur wanted her children to feel the same way she and her husband did when they started their marketing agency, which they still run: “To come to work every day liking what we do and who we work with.”

She hopes AltSchool would be the place for their sons “to be happy where they are and get the best of what we think is great for them”. And, she quipped, “hopefully other parents think it’s good for their kids too”.

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While the hope is that these children retain their skills once they leave AltSchool, perhaps the best reward now has been seeing them accomplish tasks most people might have assumed they couldn’t.

Sunico-Chin recalled a lesson on bravery in May, when the teachers took the children on a bus ride – the first time and “a big deal” for many of them. On this excursion, the children were even instructed to try buying their own food while they were out.

“Everyone had thought we were going to have meltdowns. We were actually really nervous about this; there were so many of us holding on to the kids. But it turned out great,” she smiled.

“It’s like once you assume competence, you assume these kids can do it, they will surprise you in many ways.”

CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.

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