As a child, Sharon Solomon never quite fit in. “I was always curious and wanted to know the ‘why’. But it was difficult for me because a lot of the classes were text based and focused on rote learning and I found it difficult to be taught in that way,” recalls Solomon. “To me, it was not learning as I could not dissect what I had learnt or question anything, I just had to take it all in.”
Never quite shaking off the feeling of being an outlier, Solomon instead focused her energy on changing things in her own way. She went on to become an educator before launching The Winstedt School in 2008, to engage and educate neurodiverse children who may not benefit from mainstream schools.
The independent, international school, which is owned by her family — “We are third generation Singaporeans and this is the legacy we want to leave behind” — advocates a system that works for the child and not vice-versa. “The curriculum is mainstream, the delivery is not. I do not believe any neurodiverse child should have to agonise over systems that do not cater to their abilities only to end up settling for a mediocre existence,” says Solomon, who is also the founder and director of Quayside Isle Preparatory School on Sentosa.
For example, children with APD (auditory processing disorder) are provided with visual aids to help them learn better while those with dyslexia could be given homework printed in larger font sizes or a different background colour to make it easier for them to understand their assignments.
Located on Upper Boon Keng Road, The Winstedt School, which has a typical enrollment of about 220, has under 15 students in each class. It is licensed under EduTrust Singapore and also holds accreditation by The Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACS WASC).
The 700 sq ft classrooms incorporate different layouts to offer children the space to learn and include safe corners where they can relax or read on their own. Those who are diagnosed with ADHD (attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder) can use standing desks and are given the option to move around while the teacher is teaching instead of being made to sit at a desk.
In addition there are two teachers per class to allow the flexibility for teachers to work separately with individuals. On top of this, the school has a support team including an occupational therapist, speech and language therapist, school counsellor and psychologist.
“This is not seen as a ‘negative’ but actually gives the student the tools and skills to carry through life. These therapists are qualified to help a child overcome their challenges so that they can move forward independently,” explains Solomon.
She notes that many of the skills the therapists work on are in fact executive functional skills such as time management and organisational skills such as sequencing and prioritising different tasks. She points out, “People like you and me and those in the corporate world today pay top dollar to learn these skills. You may think you only need these skills in adult life but actually you needed them from the start. So we use the expertise of these practitioners and integrate it into the curriculum.”
An ever protective mother hen, Solomon says she does chafe at the term “special needs” which is sometimes used to describe the students, who include high IQ students and “twice exceptional” individuals who are gifted in one aspect but may be lacking in another.
“The term has a negative connotation and it does irk me,” she says. “We are ‘special education’ and that includes anybody who does not fall under the criteria of the average child. We recognise that some children’s educational needs are different.”
The results of the school’s approach to education speak for themselves through its graduates. She speaks proudly of a former “problem” student who discovered an affinity for art under the guidance of his teachers and has since been accepted into top art schools around the world. Then there is a student who lost her hearing due to a disease but has since gone on to pursue a degree in early childhood education because the school took the time to plan her curriculum to ensure she could keep up.
Says Solomon, “Whatever we do, it is not just getting through the academic system but also setting them up for independence.”