Deanne Chong-Duffield looks like the woman every girl wants to be when she grows up. The Founder-CEO of GUG (Growing Up Gifted), one of Singapore’s premier preschools, glows. It’s hard to believe that this poised and eloquent woman once battled an autoimmune disorder. Even more impressive is the fact that she worked all the way through her three-year illness, writing 40 phonics storybooks and an entire literacy curriculum — while bedridden. The 50-something mother of one shares her inspiring story, for the first time, here.
“My dad used to tell me, when I was 9 or 10 years old, that I would be the lawyer in the family. I could speak quite well, and he felt that I had the spunk of an advocate. He bought me my first law textbook when I was 12, and he would introduce me to everyone as “my lawyer to be.” I grew up thinking that being anything else would disappoint my father.
Eventually I went to the UK to study Law. It felt like a cross I had to bear, rather than something I was inspired to do. Back in Singapore, not surprisingly, I left legal practice after a few months. I joined the world of corporate banking instead, and persevered for a couple of years, but in truth I felt like a fish out of water.
Finding Her Calling for GUG
Then one day, I came across a huge write-up in the newspaper on brain development, and on what makes some children grow up to be geniuses.
Maybe it’s one of those things in life where it’s your calling — I became both fascinated and obsessed with the subject, so much so that I decided to go to the U.S. to pursue my Masters. I chose to do a double major in Early Childhood Education and Gifted Education – a rather unique combination.
I remember telling my parents how, for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed studying and learning. To my astonishment, my dad wrote back, “I think you have finally found your niche.”
When I came back to Singapore, I planned to start my own preschool, to marry gifted education and early childhood education, and to raise the standard of local preschools.
However I wasn’t trained in business, and I had very little courage to start out on my own. So even though I had big plans, I shelved them because I was afraid I was going to fail.
At 35, I got married and my son came along. Then when he was four years old, I became a single mother. I felt I had to work even harder now in order to raise my child singlehandedly.
Learning From The Womb
When I was pregnant with Ethan (now 18, and enlisting into National Service soon), I was brimming with excitement. He was like a little project where I could download my pent-up passion and skills. To help boost his brain development, I forced myself to eat sardines and salmon every day. I purchased things that were not available in Singapore, like this instrument which was strapped onto the tummy to expose the foetus to rhythmic sound patterns.
At 12 months old, Ethan was a precocious child. I brought him around to some preschools and realised that even the so-called ‘best’ ones did not provide enough to stimulate him. There was no stretching of the boundaries. It was all normal early childhood education activities where they teach according to the child’s age.
Gifted education takes a different approach. No matter what your age is, it will challenge you and stretch your mental development, but in a way that is appropriate for your emotional development. So in the case of preschoolers, it would have to be challenging but fun, playful and interesting for the child. The goal is to encourage more complex thought processing.
Making the GUG Decision
When I talked about early childhood education to the other mummies in Ethan’s playgroup, I would be really passionate and excited about it. They asked, “Why don’t you start your own preschool? We would enroll our kids if you did.”
I looked at my son and thought, he’s going to grow up really quickly. I knew very well that 90% of brain development takes place from birth to 5 years, and how important it is to provide adequate stimulation to take advantage of that growth spurt period. With that consideration, I decided to start GUG.
I faced strong objections from naysayers telling me I was going to fail. That I had no prior experience running a business, that I was starting out as an entrepreneur too late (at age 36), that I had chosen a “bad luck” location, and so on.
I had many fears, and almost gave up at some points. But I had just completed a personal development leadership course then, and one thing it taught me was that Fear and Courage go hand-in-hand together. To pursue my dreams, I must not be afraid to feel afraid!
Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you,” said one-armed surfer Bethany Hamilton. My challenges became my drivers and motivated me to push harder towards my goal.
Developing the GUG Phonics Method
I did exhaustive research, exploring the best phonics programmes out there. In the end I zoomed in on Zoophonics. I liked that it involved hand signals and actions. The science behind it made sense. Whenever you move, what you are learning gets locked into your long-term memory more quickly and efficiently.
However, it was designed for older children from the age of 4 to 5 years and up. And so I modified it to suit the youngest students in GUG, who would be 10 months old and up.
I tested it out on Ethan when he was 14 months old. Within three months he knew all the phonetic sounds, and at 18 months, he amazed us all by speaking in perfect sentences. Then at 20 months, he started stringing the letter sounds together to read words.
GUG as Pioneers in Preschool Education
Ethan attended K1 in another school as I was still preparing the kindergarten curriculum for GUG then. As soon as our K1 curriculum was done, I pulled him out of K2 in the other school. I felt that GUG’s K1 was more than enough to prepare him for primary school as it was pegged at a higher level than other schools’ K2 standards.
In Singapore, children are expected to have already acquired certain academic skillsets and content knowledge by the time they enter primary school. That is why I don’t believe it is enough to have just a play-based, inquiry-based curriculum without also placing an equal and well-structured emphasis on the academic subjects. When taught well and seamlessly from PG to K2 levels, children grow to enjoy learning, and results will be consistently positive. This eliminates the “culture shock” and stress from being ill-prepared for our primary school syllabuses later on.
It is not just about what is taught, but HOW it is taught that matters. Reading, writing, math, science, history… young children and even babies can learn all these through fun, playful, creative methods. GUG has been doing it this way. We ensure that our kids not only have a great time learning, but are also very well prepared for primary school — academically, socially, emotionally, holistically.
Besides being pioneers in teaching phonics to babies and toddlers, we were also the first preschool in Singapore to have Science as a core subject, as well as weekly Social Studies and Current Affairs sessions.
With Social Studies, there is great emphasis on courage. The children would learn about political leaders, athletes, and those who had made it despite handicaps and obstacles. We also talked about ordinary kids who had done courageous things in their lives. I wanted children to feel that they could make a huge difference, and not be limited by their age and their size.
(See also: Growing Up Gifted and Courageous!)
Juggling it all, things falling apart
I am very passionate about my work, but that also meant I would be so absorbed in the process that hours would fly by without my notice. For many years I worked around the clock, and skipped meals.
Then in 2015, everything started crumbling. I suddenly contracted Mycoplasma, which left me quite debilitated. This was followed by stomach ulcers, and because I would work at my standing desk for up to 14 hours, I developed plantar fasciitis and I couldn’t walk or stand. I also started having acute pains in my neck and tendonitis on both wrists due to extended hours of typing on the laptop. I was bedridden, with braces on my neck and both hands. Not a pretty sight.
Shortly after, I developed Meniere’s Disease, which brought on dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (hypersensitivity to sounds). I also noticed a mysterious and painful lump in my neck. And if all that wasn’t enough, I was given a diagnosis of thyroid autoimmune disorder. I was talking in whispers and could only utter a couple of sentences each time.
I didn’t know what was going on within me. I felt scared, alone and chronically weak as my weight plummeted from 50 to 36kg. The doctors were not positive; they said I was going to be permanently deaf, that I needed multiple surgeries and so forth. I was gripped with fear and felt despondent for a long time. But finally, I decided that since I had created this “mess”, I would clean it up. I would learn to heal myself naturally with changes in diet, lifestyle, herbs, meditation, and alternative treatments.
Getting Well Again
They always say it’s only with hardship or with challenges that you grow to become a stronger and better person. It wasn’t easy trying to be my own cheerleader, but through the process, I became more spiritual.
I finished writing 40 phonics readers while bedridden. Even at my lowest point, inspiration came quickly.
My mother would say, “Look, you should just concentrate on recovery. The teachers have been carrying out the lessons for a few years already. Just let them continue.” But I couldn’t. I insisted on working from the bed. I didn’t want to let the kids and my teachers down. And so I pushed on. Apart from my immediate family, I told no one about my condition.
That’s why I feel hurt sometimes when people say I do this just for the business. If I was, GUG would have mushroomed everywhere and not just remained as one centre for so long.
Mothering Through Illness
Ethan was busy doing his IB during the three years I was ill. He made cards and wrote me numerous messages, expressing love, appreciation and encouragement through his writings. He even compiled my favourite songs or meaningful songs in CDs and thumb drives.
There is a simple black-line drawing of us together which means so much to me because he drew us looking so happy together. That was the time when my health was at its worst and I could barely get up to hug him.
Like Mother, Like Son?
Ethan is similar to me in his creativity, his analytical skills, his love for writing and his musical intelligence. However he is also different from me in many ways. He is more an observer, and careful, instead of jumping into something.
Ethan was in the GEP (Gifted Education Programme) in ACS and he enjoyed it even though there was a lot of pressure. He said that the best part was having freedom and creativity in project work.
He wrote short stories, poems, created a photo journal, and a graphic book about the momentous separation of Singapore from Malaysia. For him, the worst part was the stress of balancing long term projects with regular homework.
But I think the GEP is great. It teaches you to be independent, to do your own research and give persuasive presentations. It allows you the freedom to find what you are passionate about, and to do more of that.
(See also: Is your Child a Bright Spark?)
Moving On, The Future of GUG
In January 2018, I finally recovered and felt more like a normal person. Shortly after, we had to move out of United Square after 16 years there. I decided it was time to start GUG Preschools at Thomson and Tampines.
For the first time recently, Ethan attended one of my talks at an open house for the Tampines branch. I talked about the GUG philosophy, instilling five kinds of Courage, as well as our three processes — exploration, experiential learning, and evaluation.
Ethan told me that this was exactly what GEP was all about. Maybe this is something you should bring up to parents, he said.
That hadn’t occurred to me before. I just did it all based on my own training. And I thought, maybe this is why so many parents have given credit to GUG for having prepared their kids for GEP!
Connecting the Dots
The other day, in the supermarket, I saw a girl of about four or five years playing with a latch on a shelf. She was asking her parents what it was for.
Her parents just said “don’t touch!” — what many parents do. They impose limits on their children, and on their children’s learning and miss the teachable moments.
Steve Jobs once said that “creativity is just connecting things.” What parents need to do is to empower their children with the knowledge and the tools to make these connections.
But I would say that, above all, developing a courageous mindset is the most precious thing we can do to help our children thrive in the 21st Century.
Let children feel worthy, give them the tools and confidence so they learn to value themselves. When they do, they feel that they are capable of achieving or being something greater and better, and they boldly seek it. This is what “growing up gifted” is about, and what we at GUG have been doing all this while.”
Want to find out more about GUG?
Come to the Open Houses, meet the Growing Up Gifted team, and find out why GUG could be the best fit for your bright spark. Register your centre visit here
GUG Preschool @ Tampines
Sat 22 June, 11am – 2pm
Venue: 300 Tampines Ave 5, #07-01/07
GUG Preschool @ Thomson
Sat 29 June, 1pm – 3pm
Venue: 2 Derbyshire Rd
Open House 17 – 29 June 2019
- Popcorn, carnival games and activities
- Talk by Founder-CEO Deanne Chong-Duffield
- Promotion: Save up to $2,000 when you enrol your child during Open House days.
All images: Deanne Chong-Duffield