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Struggles of children from low income families - a behind the scenes look

Hwee Ching is currently Director of Business Development at a national drug discovery centre. She was formerly a staff at Learning Vessels and continues to be involved in our charity-based programmes. This is her account of her experience testing 3 children for our Early Learning Programme, which provides intervention-based reading and math classes for children from low-income families, in July 2020.


When I arrived, the friendly children rushed up to the open gate and were excited to talk to me. There was no stranger anxiety. The little boy, upon seeing the test papers, shouted, “I got do before!” and couldn’t wait to start. Their child-sized mother looked young and fragile next to the swirl of active children around us. This being only my second time testing children at home, and still adjusting out of my corporate mindset on a Saturday morning, I was lost for a second and unsure what to do. Then I put on my friendliest voice and gestures, and crinkled my eyes to make up for my hidden smile behind the mask.

With the TV running in the background in the small living room space, I was concerned how I could manage testing three children. Was there another room? I spotted a dark cluttered room with a stack of ‘stuff’ in the corner next to the door. This didn’t seem like a possibility. And the small kitchen with what looked like a portable stove wouldn’t be an option either.

Once I had identified which three of the young humans (children and child-sized mother) in the small space were my test subjects, I looked around and tried to sense how to conduct the test in the living room. There was no table nor chairs, so I simply sat on the white-tiled floor and confirmed with the children that they usually sat on the floor to write. The space available for us to sit and write was slightly larger than 1.5m by 1.5m; it was clean, and the room was cool with a small standing fan blowing from the corner. It was not too bad. I thought I could orient them away from the TV and then it should be possible to start the test without further ado. Their mother turned down the volume.

The oldest, a P2 girl, came with her pencil case. Initially I thought I would test the three children (P2, P1, K2) one by one, since I had time anyway. But when I got the P2 girl started on our grammar test, it became apparent that she would take a while. I explained the instructions to her and tried to tell her what “plural form” meant, without giving away the answers. She was shown “one cat, two __” and eventually she copied the singular form of the word, to fill the blank where she was meant to write the plural form. She was clearly behind her peers in school.

As her younger brother and sister were curious and starting to get a little disruptive, I decided to start the P1 boy on his test. It seemed he might have some learning issues - perhaps he was more easily distracted? What disturbed me most was he couldn’t write his name properly and he didn’t know the letters of the alphabet. There was little point in testing him on the sight words. I kept my fingers crossed as I checked on a few words including “Yes” and “No”, and was disappointed by the outcome.

He called the square “box” and couldn’t identify a rectangle as such; he couldn’t count properly to 20, and worse, couldn’t write many numbers. Later in the test, his mother and I tried to encourage him, and then I tried to bribe him with stickers, to add 2+3 with his fingers. But he couldn’t. Was it because he had given up by then? Or was it really hard for him? As he couldn’t write his letters nor numbers, I worried it was more the latter. Perhaps he had learning difficulties. How was he coping in school and could he really keep up with learning in these Covid-19 times?

In the end, I only gave him one sticker and told him it was because he was mostly playful and distracted, and wasn’t trying hard enough even when we tried to help him. His mom who was concerned about him and had hovered around during part of his test emphasized the same. I told his mother that to be fair, boys were usually more playful and easily distracted. But part of me felt that we had skipped over some sections, taken a break in between while his older sister did her reading test, and given him a toilet break; he had adequate breaks. Based on his responses, perhaps there were some learning issues to follow up on.

The thought about possible learning challenges came up again as I tested the third child at K2 level. I observed similarities in how the P1 brother and K2 sister struggled with the alphabet and numbers: They both didn’t seem to know the alphabet song (?!)

At some point, while I was engrossed in administering the test, their mother had turned off the TV and were herding the other children into the tiny bedroom. I was wondering how she coped day to day? I could barely cope with my 6-year-old, and she had 4 children? Or 5? I wasn’t sure as there seemed to be a dizzying number of children in this small flat.

Before I left, I suggested to their mother that she could sing the alphabet song from time to time, but her response seemed somewhat helpless: the children had gone to childcare and she wasn’t sure why they didn’t know. By then, I had already learnt that she had seven children. She had hovered around from time to time; she was concerned and probably curious about the test. But in the end, she didn’t ask me how they did. Maybe she was too shy to ask. Or she already knew her children needed help. Regardless, I sensed that with seven children, it was challenging for her to do much and her eldest daughter, the P2 girl, was already having to be a little caregiver to her brothers and sisters.

Many thoughts came to mind as I left. I felt exceptionally emotional. Was it because I hadn’t expected the disparity? It was definitely a jarring experience, even if I had read and heard before about such families and conditions. Was it because I felt despair and concern because online learning would be challenging for them? Should I come back with toys or books? They had so few toys and seemingly no books at all for seven children. But clearly they had no space either. The most prominent and space consuming item in the living room was a cot filled with diapers. Perhaps this was emptied every night so that some children could sleep inside.

The apartment was as clean as I could imagine a young mother of seven could manage. Perhaps she had made a special effort yesterday. I couldn’t help wondering why the walls were red, but felt the color did add some life and colour. As I reflected on my experience, I am grateful that I’ve had the chance to open my eyes and mind to another world in Singapore. I was reminded that this should not be a “do-good, feel-good” experience because “I worked hard and therefore I deserved to be in this better place where I am today”. Rather, we are all part of one. Let’s befriend and support one another; nobody needs to be left behind.


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