SINGAPORE: For Yasmin Nisha, it was tough enough being her family’s sole breadwinner, struggling to care for two young daughters and an ailing 65-year-old grandmother all on her own.
But when the 28-year-old single mum tried to put her older daughter in childcare, she faced a challenge on a whole other level.
The first time Siti, then aged two, was left at the centre without her mother, she cried non-stop until she was picked up in the evening.
“She couldn’t cope. She isolated herself to one side. She didn’t want to talk to her friends. She didn’t want to join the class,” said Yasmin. “She didn’t want to do anything.”
In the weeks that followed, Siti refused to eat or even drink water at the centre.
“Some days, when she didn’t want to eat and was continuously crying, her temperature went up, and the teacher would call me. I’d have to stop work.”
Everything in the pre-school environment was new to the scared toddler – and Yasmin, too, found herself in a new situation, unable to manage Siti’s fears.
SHE ‘COULDN’T FIND A WAY’
That period in 2015 was “the most difficult part” of motherhood for Yasmin. “I asked my friends (and) relatives, do you have a child who’s like that?” she recounted. “They said no.”
Instead, the student care teacher found herself being questioned: Why was it that she could deal with children in her job, but not her own daughter? But the young mother was anxious about unnerving her already skittish girl, and didn’t know quite how to get through to her.
Yasmin’s mind was also on other things. “My priority was to earn money because I had three of them at home and I needed to buy things; I needed to feed them.”
She was earning S$900 to S$1,000 a month depending on the hours she clocked. And, after her younger daughter Benazir was born that year, she started to be late for work as she had to attend first to the infant’s needs and other chores.
“The majority of the time, I didn’t prepare lunch for my grandma… And when I finished work, I had to rush home (to) get something for them to eat,” she said.
Out of convenience, the family often ate processed food such as instant noodles — Siti’s favourite, which was why she later had difficulty adjusting to the food at the childcare centre.
While Yasmin had thought that putting the girl in childcare would ease her workload, it interfered with her job even more. “I couldn’t concentrate on my work,” she said. “It was also very distracting for my colleagues.”
Her expenses also went up — exceeding her income — because of the transport costs to and from the pre-school, as well as visits to the doctor when Siti fell sick.
“Also, I had to buy her food when she was hungry because normally she didn’t eat in the centre,” she added.
Feeling helpless, Yasmin pulled Siti out of pre-school after two months.
HELP FROM KIDSTART AND ELSEWHERE
Things did not improve shortly after this, however.
Her grandmother’s condition worsened, so the caregiving and frequent hospital appointments took up more of Yasmin’s time. She went from working full-time to part-time. But it got to a point where she saw no other option but to quit her job.
After that, she relied on assistance from the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s Social Service Office, receiving S$750 a month.
Then in 2016, when her younger daughter Benazir was old enough to start pre-school, she decided to try again with Siti. The girl was a year older and might be better able to handle pre-school, Yasmin thought.
So she asked her social worker at the Family Service Centre for help in looking for vacancies.
In December, both girls enrolled at My First Skool @Henderson. This time, help was there in the form of KidSTART: A pilot programme by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), it supports children from low-income families in their crucial early developmental years.
That support was to prove invaluable. Centre principal Helen Goh remembers the sisters’ first day clearly: While Benazir was able to play with her peers and teachers, Siti was “clinging on to her mother’s clothes very tightly, and she refused to even move a step”.
At home, Yasmin tried to encourage Siti, but met with the same response each time: “What if they don’t like me, or maybe what if they’re going to laugh at me?”
WATCH: Helping Siti come out of her shell (6:11)
And because Siti cried and couldn’t settle down, “her friends didn’t dare to be near her and to play with her”, said NTUC First Campus’ child enabling executive Jeremy Tay.
As part of KidSTART – which is for households with a gross income of up to S$1,900 monthly or S$650 per capita – support is given by child enabling executives like him. Attached to selected anchor operator pre-schools, they work closely with teachers, parents and community partners to form a network of support for the child, including securing resources such as food vouchers, books and money for uniforms for them.
Tay looked out for Siti whenever he was at her pre-school. He had to take an “indirect” approach, starting out by playing with her classmates and inviting her to join them – albeit unsuccessfully, “for quite some time”.
His role is also to encourage parents to send their children to pre-school regularly, and this was “one of the greatest challenges” in Yasmin’s case given her grandmother’s health, for example.
He checked in with Yasmin via phone calls and text messages, and in one instance – when he noticed they didn’t have a bookcase at home – helped her apply to Sinda to get one as well as books for the girls.
“Being a single parent, she has multiple needs and so much going on in her life. That’s why we have to empathise and empower her to come up with a plan of action,” said the 29-year-old.
THE CHANGE IN SITI
Mother and daughter also attended KidSTART Groups, a weekly playgroup programme held on Saturdays in her neighbourhood.
In these sessions supported by ECDA facilitators, the children and parents are encouraged to engage in structured, purposeful activities, from making puppets to playing with dough.
Facilitator Rainbow Ng noted that while there are developmental programmes targeted at children, KidSTART is different because it focuses on empowering the parents.
We believe the parents are the best teachers. I don’t know their child as well as they do.
"So, we tap into that – the expertise of the parent, how much they know about their kid – and then we affirm them,” she said.
For six weeks, Siti and her mum attended the sessions – and it proved the turning point in the young girl’s life.
Most Saturdays, she’d watch from her mother’s side as the other children interacted with the facilitators, slowly building her inner confidence.
And then, at the last session where there was a closing party with presents for the children, Siti got excited and spoke to her facilitator – a big milestone for the timid girl.
Months after being back in preschool, four-year-old Siti was finally learning to open up and adapt.
With help from all around her, and more one-to-one attention from her teachers and a learning support educator, who assists those with added learning needs, she has since blossomed into a bubbly girl who loves playing with her classmates.
Her progress over the past two years has been in “leaps and bounds”, notes Tay, who believes that “the effort put in by the centre made a lot of difference”.
Indeed, the two sisters’ attendance record has improved dramatically, from less than 50 per cent in 2017 to 98 per cent – in part because of an improvement to their less-than-healthy diet at home.
The girls used to often fall sick. Then the centre’s teachers gradually coaxed fussy Siti into eating the centre’s more balanced meals, praising her for each spoonful she took, and “little by little” adding on the portions, said principal Goh.
A MOTHER’S MOTIVATION
KidSTART— which began in 2016 and is expected to benefit about 1,000 children in the pilot phase — has not only made an impact on Siti, but has also helped Yasmin build her parenting skills and confidence.
She picked up parenting tips during the KidSTART Group sessions and at parenting workshops that were sponsored for her.
But the key thing she got out of the programme was learning how to bond with her girls better: That it’s not about just spending time with them, but to “spend it in a proper way”, she said, citing how her conversations with them used to consist of “You want to eat? You want to go out?” instead of “getting to know them much better”.
A moment of affirmation came for Yasmin when she was invited to read stories to Siti’s class and help the teachers with the follow-up activity.
“I was very nervous because I hadn’t taught for a long time,” she admitted. “But everything went smoothly. Siti took part, and she was happy.”
Not only was her daughter settled in, her grandmother’s medical appointments were also becoming less frequent. And so, with newfound motivation, Yasmin started a job in March as a student care teacher again.
The next milestone will be Siti’s transition to primary school next year – which KidSTART will help to ease by sharing information with the prospective school, and by “keeping a lookout” for her and her family said Tay.
“The family has built up resilience, and I’m sure that they’ll be prepared for any challenges,” he added.
While Siti is feeling anxious about primary school, her mother is more optimistic. “If she’s willing to adapt to changes quickly and to open up, she can do it. I tell (my girls), ‘I’ll always be there to help you.’”
This story by CNA Insider was done in partnership with Gov.sg.