Preschool is a critical time in a child’s life, where he or she experiences their first interactions with the world and grows in self-awareness and understanding. This is when the foundation is laid for healthy social, academic and life skills, and when a child’s self-esteem and identity are developed, setting the tone for their lifelong learning journey. Quality early childhood education can work wonders for a child’s cognitive, motor, social and emotional skills, while poor early education can easily achieve the exact opposite.

In light of the furious controversy surrounding Kinderland preschools, we gathered a few concerned mums to share their thoughts about the matter, as well as their personal experiences with childcare centres in Singapore, how they choose a preschool for their children, and what they believe can be done to prevent abuse from taking place.

Quality matters just as much as convenience

More than ever, mums are getting more discerning about the preschool or childcare centre they choose to entrust their little ones with. While distance from home and convenience are primary factors, mums prioritise the curriculum and experience as well.

For Kirsten Koh, a 35-year-old homemaker who’s a mother of a 4-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl, it’s a combination of all those factors. “For us, it was the distance from our place, the school’s facilities, the standard of care given by the teachers, as well as the school’s ideology. We have strong beliefs about how our children should be raised and wanted to find a school with corresponding beliefs.”

For us, it was the distance from our place, the school’s facilities, the standard of care given by the teachers, as well as the school’s ideology.

Kirsten Koh, 35, homemaker and mum of two

K.W., 36, also a homemaker and mother of two young children, echoed this belief. “My first and top consideration is the childcare centre’s curriculum — what most of the kids’ time is spent on daily versus weekly,” she says. “Some centres focus more on sensory outdoor experiences or academic development with worksheets. I personally prefer a preschool with a more holistic approach, such as one with a big field for outdoor playtime in the sun, where the kids can participate in activities which spark their curiosity and develop soft skills.”

To gauge a childcare centre, parents usually look at first impressions when meeting the principal and teachers during on-site school tours, how classes are conducted, as well as the amenities available. “My decision would be influenced by how the teachers carry themselves, how passionate they sound, etc. Impressions are important, so being able to witness firsthand how a normal class is conducted and seeing the looks on the children’s faces are all deciding factors when I choose a childcare centre. Thirdly, the facilities of the centre and its amenities — it should not be too run-down and must be kept to a high standard of cleanliness,” shares K.W.

Acknowledging the system-wide challenges of enrolment

Despite the government’s move to boost the number of preschool places, there are system-wide challenges that parents in Singapore face: the lack of vacancies and the availability of good-quality childcare centres. “We really struggled to find a childcare centre located near my home with a good curriculum, caring teachers and appealing amenities,” says K.W. “As a result, my husband and I take turns to drop off and pick up our daughter because her school is about 15 minutes away by car.”

“The waiting time has been a problem for us as some of the good centres are very oversubscribed,” shares Min Ling, 36, a mum of two boys aged 2 and 4. “Also, it doesn’t help that we don’t know if a childcare centre is the right fit until our child is already in it. This makes the whole process of finding a good school and successfully enrolling in it quite problematic.”

The long waiting list and dearth of vacancies means that for some parents, all they can do is pick the best available one and hope that things work out. 

It’s even tougher when you’re re-entering the local scene after having been away for a while. For SavvyMama founder Angeline Lim, 35, who recently returned to Singapore with her family after a brief relocation overseas, getting her daughter placed with the right developmental age group posed a challenge.

Angeline with her husband and two kids. Photo: Angeline Lim

“My daughter, born in January, had advanced speech skills from her previous school experience with peers in the same month or slightly older. However, the new centre wanted to place her with December-born children that year based solely on enrolment dates, leading to noticeable differences in readiness for most activities.”

“I firmly requested for her to be placed with the older toddlers, and after some deliberation, they agreed,” she said.

Then comes the adjustment period

After successfully enrolling your child in a preschool, there is a teething period when they learn to adapt to their new environment while their new teachers also learn how to personalise care for their specific needs. Mums testify that patience and communication with the teachers are very important during this time to troubleshoot any early issues and ensure a smooth transition.

Credit: 123rf

“Initially, my daughter had trouble adapting to her preschool’s meal times when transiting from infant care to playgroup,” says Jia Yan, a 31-year-old engineer and mother of a 2-year-old girl. “My daughter often came home crying because she was very hungry due to the switch to fixed mealtimes during playgroup, as opposed to on-demand feeding during infant care. We raised our concerns with the centre as my daughter is on the petite side and I really do not want her to go hungry for long periods of time.” Eventually, Jia Yan worked things out by packing an extra packet of milk for her daughter and getting the teacher to pay more attention to her hunger cues.

Talking to the teacher helps in some cases. “I noticed my toddler regressing in some areas, particularly with mealtime and sleep routines. She also had a tough time adjusting, dreading the word “school” and crying at drop-off every day. When asked, she would tell us that she was not happy in school,” shares Angeline. “Uncertain whether this was a typical adjustment phase or a more significant issue, I shared my concerns with the teacher. Since then, I’ve observed some improvements and am hopeful for her continued progress.”

Other niggling issues are more quickly fixed, such as mozzie bites. Vermillion Goh, who works in human resources and is a mum of four, recalls: “There were a lot of mosquitoes at a previous childcare we sent our kids to, and they kept getting bitten. We gave feedback to the administrative staff, and they became more diligent in applying repellent and putting patches on the kids.”

Vermillion, with her family of five. Photo: Vermillion Goh

Shared outrage in response to the Kinderland incident

As the Kinderland saga unfolded, parents were equal parts appalled, concerned and outraged at the centre’s attempts to cover up the incidents of abuse.

“The teacher culture and management within Kinderland is highly questionable,“ K.W. said. “How is it that these acts required such strong negative public attention before the school issued public statements, which appeared to skirt the root of the problem? Instead of addressing the real issues and seeking to ensure the well-being of children in their centres, the management was more concerned with stemming the usage of phones to prevent more whistleblowing!”  

Kirsten agrees. “I’m very thankful for the whistleblower, that she had the courage and good conscience to uncover such an awful case like this. Kinderland has been handling this extremely poorly in my opinion. It is especially unnerving how they decided to respond — by barring the use of personal devices when it was such a device which helped to uncover the case. The school’s obvious and almost shameless lack of transparency is scary. I personally cannot understand why any parent would continue sending their child there.”

The consensus is that Kinderland’s response and handling of the incident left much to be desired. “The way they managed the whole thing was very poor,” Jia Yan adds. “They did not give the kids’ parents or the public any reasonable explanation or offer proper accountability for the actions of their staff, and instead tried to protect the abusive teacher by covering up the matter.”

It starts from the top

While some mums could empathise with the errant childcare staff’s loss of patience, most agree that the onus lies with the management to prevent such incidents.

Vermillion suggests that a more humanitarian approach should be adopted on the ground. “I can understand that childcare work is difficult and stressful, and that the staff may have lost their patience or sanity in the course of the daily grind, which led to such abusive behaviour,” she says. “The school’s principal or senior staff should be more vigilant to detect such issues by watching out for the mental wellbeing and attitudes of their staff. Counselling should definitely be provided when necessary to avoid such behaviour from the teachers.”

The school’s principal or senior staff should be more vigilant to detect such issues by watching out for the mental wellbeing and attitudes of their staff.

Vermillion Goh, mum of four

Ultimately, change has to begin at a legislative and regulatory level. 

“Better surveillance measures must be put in place to deter such mistreatment, and parents should be given easier access to such surveillance footage so that the centre has limited power in keeping such matters under wraps,” says Min Ling. “The teacher-to-student ratio should also be improved. More teachers would mean greater accountability and care, less frustration, and hopefully less cause and opportunity for such mistreatment to occur.”

Angeline shares a similar sentiment. “The number one priority of enhancing our children’s safety in childcare centres must begin by securing government support to re-evaluate and improve the teacher-child ratio. As teachers are often overworked, better ratios would foster increased patience and attention.”

She says: “On top of this, it is essential to establish a more structured and independent system for regular audits and inspections of all preschools, ensuring strict adherence to safety and education standards.”

Clear communication channels between parents and teachers, a whistleblowing process, ongoing teacher training, and parent education on the red flags and signs of mistreatment are all essential components.

Angeline Lim, 35, founder of SavvyMama and mum of two

“Implementing safe anonymous reporting mechanisms, severe legal repercussions for mistreatment, and public awareness campaigns can collectively create a safer environment for children, and uphold accountability within childcare centres,” Angeline adds.

As mothers of young and vulnerable children who require childcare centres to provide a reliable and trustworthy service, our collective hope is that legislation and regulation will be stepped up to minimise horrifying events such as the ones exposed at the two Kinderland preschools.