By Andre Yeo
WHILE his classmates were interested in playing soccer, 9-year-old John was more keen on being a mother-figure to them.
Cases like his are rare among primary school kids.
But since last year, school counsellors have been taught to spot kids with gender identity problems early.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) has been conducting 'Managing gender identity issues' courses for full-time school counsellors (FTSCs) from primary school level onwards.
And last month, the MOE put out a tender on the government tender website, Gebiz, for the course's third run.
The course objectives include understanding gender identity disorder (GID), its causes, and how to deal with students with this condition.
Counsellors, up to tertiary level, would be taught the common misconceptions of GID, warning signs, what is transvestism and how to discuss the problem with parents and teachers.
John's case was seen by Dr Carol Balhetchet, director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society, several years ago.
The psychologist-counsellor with 18 years' experience said John was the youngest person she had seen with gender identity problems.
She said: 'He would say, 'I will let my male friends play, and I will clean up after them.'
'He was like a mother-figure to them and had very effeminate behaviour.'
She declined to reveal more on John's case and added there were not many children in primary school like him.
She said she was not aware MOE had been conducting this course and added that kids would start experimenting when they were in Primary 4 to 6.
Said Dr Balhetchet: 'That's when peer pressure becomes stronger than the family (influence). That's the time when counsellors in primary schools can help students before they become delinquents and start experimenting.'
Ms Sarah S, 26, a counsellor from NuLife Care and Counselling Services, said she had seen two primary school boys - one late last year, and one earlier this year - with gender identity issues.
She said both liked to dress up, look in the mirror, and stay out of the sun. One of them even carries an umbrella wherever he goes.
She said: 'They are both from single-parent families and their fathers are absent. They do not have a male figure at home to be involved in masculine activities with. I think that's the main reason why they behave this way.'
In an e-mail reply, a spokesman for MOE told The New Paper gender identity was among the range of challenging issues which may confront some students in their adolescent years.
The spokesman said gender identity referred to a person's own sense of identification as male or female beings.
She said: 'Those struggling with gender identity issues would feel that they are of one gender, but trapped in another gender's body.
'Learning how to manage students faced with gender identity issues is part of MOE's total training plan for school counsellors.'
She confirmed that the course was started last year, and was currently into its third run.
The MOE hopes that with this course, school counsellors would be better equipped to understand the emotional struggles students were going through when confronted with gender identity issues and identify the possible causes.
Counsellors will also learn how to apply the right strategies to help students struggling with such issues.
The two-day course, lasting 16 hours in total, is slated to begin from 30 Mar next year.
MOE, however, declined to reveal figures as to how many primary school children, if any, had approached counsellors for help concerning GID and if they were seeing a spike in these numbers. It also declined to elaborate on what some of the challenges students with GID faced in school.
A counsellor in a primary school, who declined to be named, said she was informed of the course at the beginning of the year and has signed up for it.
She said she has not come across any students with GID but felt having additional skills would help prepare her for such cases in future.
She said: 'All counsellors should know what's happening. We may be transferred to secondary schools in future.
'It's good to know the strategies, intervention skills and what causes certain children to have certain behaviours.'
The principal of First Toa Payoh Primary School, Ms Rosalind Chia, said such a course would benefit her FTSC.
She said: 'If she has knowledge of gender confusion, it would benefit her if such cases arise. We have not come across such cases, so far.'
Choices, the counselling division of the Church of Our Saviour, an Anglican church, helps people struggling with gender issues.
They told The New Paper they could not comment for this story as they may be responding to MOE's tender for the course.
An expert on GID, Dr Tsoi Wing Foo, 75, a psychiatrist in private practice, said he supported MOE's decision to have such a course as extra knowledge for counsellors was good.
Dr Tsoi, co-author of Cries From Within, a medical book on transsexuals, has been seeing patients with gender identity issues since 1971.
He was unaware MOE was conducting such a course.
Said Dr Tsoi: 'They probably want to stop this condition from developing among primary school kids. It's not surprising they are doing this because they may think they can prevent this condition by counselling when they are young.'
He added he has never seen a patient from primary school. The youngest was 17 years old.
Dr Tsoi added it was difficult to explain why people suffered from this condition.
He said: 'They just feel uncomfortable being who they are.'
He said those who wanted to go for sex change operations would be sent to him by their surgeons for an evaluation to see if they were ready for it.
But Dr Tsoi said he would often try to convince patients not to go for such operations.
He said: 'It's not a natural thing. They have to understand the implications. If they do it on impulse, some of them may regret it because they can't adjust to a new life.'
This article was first published in The New Paper on Sept 11, 2008.