SCHOOL days for special education teacher Mrs Punitha Charles rarely go according to plan. More often than not, hopes for a quiet day are quickly dashed when a student starts to act up, sparking off a domino effect throughout the class. But the seasoned and caring teacher takes everything in her stride.

Mrs Charles works in Saint Clare School, an international school for students with special needs. She has six students under her charge. They are aged from six to nine years and have developmental delay conditions ranging from autism, global delay, attention deficit disorder (ADD) to ADD with hyperactivity.

The 40-year-old mother of two says: "Having one student is like having 20. Teaching special needs children is a physically and mentally challenging job. I have to be alert all the time as I never know what they are up to."

Among her students are an American sister-and-brother pair, two locals with Down's Syndrome and two others with autism spectrum disorder.

As these students need individualised attention, the class size is kept small. But it can still be difficult, even for Mrs Charles, who has almost 20 years of experience in the special education field.

She recalls the time when she asked one of her students to put away his music on his first day of school. He literally turned the class upside down, throwing tantrums and chairs. "It took him one to two months to accept me. Now he leaves me notes saying: 'I love you, Ms Punitha.' "

All in a day's work

Typically, lessons start at 9am with what is called "circle time". Mrs Charles, her teaching assistant and the students greet one another and talk about a general topic. After this, she teaches academic subjects, including math, writing, reading, science and social studies.

They watch over the kids vigilantly even during snack and lunchtime.

"We hardly have time to eat as we have to manage the students. They can snatch your food, pour water on the table or run away," she says, adding that she and her teaching assistant take turns to keep an eye on the kids.

Sometimes, she takes them to a nearby playground where the kids learn to socialise, as well as sharpen their fine motor skills, enhancing their dexterity.

Behavioural issues

Mrs Charles also works closely with the parents, fellow teachers and other professionals, including occupational therapists and speech therapists. They discuss the student's progress using the Individualised Education Programme.

She says: "In special education, dealing with behavioural issues is the major challenge. I have to observe the kids and come up with a behaviour intervention plan. This is where talking to other teachers and tapping their experiences come in. We're constantly cracking our heads to come up with new and innovative strategies."
When a child displays destructive behaviour, Mrs Charles tries different ways to overcome the issue, such as implementing a reward system. For example, students who show good behaviour get to pick something out of "Ms Punitha's treasure box", which contains stickers, cards and erasers.

She also gets the parents to follow up on the behaviour intervention plans at home and update her on their progress.

Ups and downs

Sometimes, she feels like giving up, especially when she cannot get through to the kids or manage their behaviour. But she adds that the students' endearing quirks and foibles make up for it.

Asked what she likes about her job, she says: "The students, of course. Each one of them is special and sincere.

"There can be a big drama about their behaviour, where we have to hold them down or reprimand them. But five minutes later, it is all forgotten and forgiven. They will give me a hug or shout from a corner: 'Ms Punitha, I love you!' They have so much innocence and love to give and I've learnt that from them.

"When I see my former students working, I feel that this job is worth every effort put in. I believe all special needs teachers wish to see their students lead a life as independent as possible."