Our Primary School Journey: More Praise, Less Criticism

Last week, Vera studied for her tingxie (Chinese spelling) by herself. I had clean forgotten about it until I passed by her desk and saw the list of words on her desk. Then she asked me to test her and I did.

Later that night, JJ asked her to read for him a story from the Berenstein Bears book. She obliged and read to him for awhile. It was near her bedtime and I had to cut it short so she could prepare for bed, but I gave them a couple more minutes in order for her to finish the last few pages.

While she was doing her night routine (brush teeth, pack bag, lay out uniform, etc) I wrote some goals on her closet door.

Goals for my child

By writing them down, I was trying to use them to affirm her deeds that day, while also setting a benchmark for her to continue working towards. I drew her some hearts and stars and acknowledged how she was kind to her brother by reading for him, and how she had planned ahead to prepare for her spelling on her own. (As the days go by, I hope to be able to give out more hearts and stars.)

She was really pleased to see what I wrote and to receive the affirmation. I was also glad that JJ was in the room to witness and hopefully remember what I said.

Note to self: I need to catch the kids doing good more often – it’s something that doesn’t come naturally and needs a lot of practice. But I believe it will encourage them to want to do better intrinsically. I hope that the scales will tip towards this more as opposed to its current state where I have to dish out quite a lot of verbal correction and warnings on a daily basis.

~~~~~

When we started off the year, I remember checking Vera’s school bag, her handbook (where she writes down her homework and important instructions), and asking her, “Have you done this, and that…?”

As the weeks went by, I had to gradually stop myself from issuing such reminders, hoping that she’d pick up more of the responsibility and more “automation.” (After all, I wasn’t the one who’s going to get into trouble when she forgets her homework right?)

2, 3 months passed. I realise I wasn’t looking into her handbook very much anymore. 4, 5 months, I stopped reminding her weekly to prepare for her spelling. I stopped asking her if there’s anything she needs my signature on. It’s been half a year and she seems to be able to take care of her study/homework responsibilities more.

I’m thankful.

But I also see that she has a long way to go to becoming the independent learner she can be.

She still struggles with certain aspects of organisation, like keeping things back to where they belong, and keeping her work desk tidy.

She started violin lessons earlier this year but has not developed the habit of practising every other day. So I’m in the midst of working out a practice schedule for her.

She still needs reminders to finish her meal (sometimes she gets distracted by whatever her brothers are doing or saying.)

She has not developed a strong chore ethic at home yet. Right now, she tidies up messes and cleans the table and folds her laundry on an irregular basis, maybe once or twice a week. There’s a lot of room for improvement so I plan to incorporate different chore items into her schedule.

On my part, I will try not to nag or scold as much. But will rely on a visual schedule and some timely reminders to help her along. I’ll also try to catch her doing good especially on her own initiative, and give her lots of affirmation and hugs in return. And maybe the occasional ice-cream treat.

We are all imperfect. We all have room to grow.

The word for me this season? Delight in my children. Affirm them.

They may frustrate me, but I want to remember to delight and rejoice over them. To remember they are God’s gifts to me.

Here are some affirming words I hope to use more often:

1) “You are such a blessing to me.”

2) “You are beautiful not just on the outside but also on the inside, because you are loving and kind to others.”

3) “I loved the way you played with your brother. Did you see how happy he was?”

4) When she comes home from school, replace “Any homework?” with “How was your day?”

5) End off any disciplinary measures with “I may be angry because I don’t like this behaviour…but I still love you.”

How do you like to affirm and encourage your child?

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PSLE changes from 2021 and what they mean for you

PSLE, from 2021, will never be the same again. Here are some of the key changes and implications of each.

stress from test scores

1. Byebye T-score, Hello Achievement Levels.

T-scores which benchmarks each student against the performance of their peers will make way for a broader 8-band system called Achievement Levels. The ALs uses students’ actual scores (not adjusted score based on bellcurve as in the case of T-scores). The new bands will look like this: AL1 (90-100), AL2 (85-89), AL3 (80-84), AL4 (75-79), AL5 (65-74), AL6 (45-64), AL7 (20-44), AL8 (less than 20).

The best PSLE score is 4, and the worst, 32. The current streaming system will remain intact and students scoring 20 points and below will qualify for the Express stream.

Pros:

– This move helps to reduce the fine differentiation of scores among students, and cut down unnecessary competition, giving kids more space to focus on their own mastery and understanding of subjects.

Cons:

– Instead of chasing the elusive mark for a grander T-score, students now need to make sure that they do well in every subject in order to avoid having the total score pulled down by one weak subject. This, to me, will breed fear among parents whose child may be weaker in one or two subjects.

2. Your Order of Choice Matters.

In the existing system, the T-score aggregate is the first deciding factor for posting. The order in which you list your preferred 6 choices of schools is not considered. So if there are 2 students with the same T-score vying for the same spot, it falls on tie-breakers like citizenship and computerised balloting to decide who gets into the school.

In the new system, your order of choice matters. While the AL score will remain the first criterion, the order in which you list the school will come into play. So someone else with the same PSLE score who placed the school higher on his list of choices will get his preferred choice. The next tie-breaking factor is computerised balloting, which is also in the existing system. You may find it reassuring to know it is anticipated that balloting will only affect a small percentage of students.

Pros:

– The new system forces us to weigh our choices carefully. To be honest, I was surprised to know that the present system doesn’t take choice order into consideration as I think back in the 90s, this wasn’t the case. Anyway from 2021, kids and parents will have to select their first choice carefully, based on the actual PSLE score attained, the secondary school’s cut-off points, and other factors such as whether the school’s interest areas matches those of your child’s.

In order to facilitate parents and students’ decision-making, MOE has said that it will provide indicative cut-off points and information on each school’s focus and niche programmes.

Cons:

– None that I can think of right now

But seriously, what are the implications of these changes?

1. Stressful days are here to stay.

I think the changes are in the right direction and were made with the intention of getting everyone to stop chasing the elusive mark, focus on actual learning and understanding, and finding the school that offers the right fit and programmes for our kids.

That said, I don’t think the stress is going to let up anytime soon as it’s still about aiming for the top band (or the best band according to your child’s ability), and fitting our kids into the best possible schools out there.

2. Focus on building weak subjects.

As I mentioned above, children will have to shift their focus from aiming for full marks on their best subjects to strengthening their weaker ones. For most kids these days, the weakest link could be Chinese. (I also have similar concerns for my kids, and our philosophy is to avoid tuition classes for as long as we can help it. For now, we’re pulling up our socks and trying to speak Mandarin more at home. But I can’t deny that the thought of having a Chinese-less grading system is a pretty tempting one.)

3. Looking beyond grades.

On the surface, it looks like nothing much has changed. Different point system, but still the same stress. But I think (hope?) that the Ministry is actually laying the groundwork for further changes. For one, getting parents to assess their child holistically and to consider their strengths and interests in different areas will help to broaden the current narrow thinking that only certain schools are “good” and worth pursuing. It also helps us to go beyond grades, to view our child as a unique individual with special talents, and focus on building them up as self-motivated and passionate lifelong learners.

But here’s the missing link…A growth mindset.

In order for real change to occur, parents, kids, and schools need to adopt a growth mindset. A growth mindset that says:

“I can get better at this if I keep trying.”

“I am not defined by my failures. They are stepping stones to success.”

“It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get into my first choice of school. There are still skills and interests I can develop here.”

Versus a fixed mindset that says “I am a total failure because I failed this paper.” Or “I’ll never be good at this.”

Mindsets do not change overnight. (I know because I’ve been working on my own for the past few years.) I think in the long run, less emphasis needs to be placed on the PSLE exam altogether, as it DOES NOT define or limit a 12 year old child). Not trying to make light of a major exam here, but really…it’s just one exam in a lifetime of many many more exams, tests and challenges.

Emphasising a growth mindset will enable parents and children to see that it is a  journey and it doesn’t matter so much where you begin, but where you end, and the process of learning and growth that you take to get there.

It will also help our kids develop resilience and grit. Isn’t that much more valuable than a single test score, especially in this information and tech era where mistakes/failure are prerequisites for innovation?

What we do and say as parents can empower a child to grow and thrive and develop a growth mindset.

– Do we allow them to make mistakes?

– Do we emphasise the lessons and experience that can be found in them?

– Do we help them view challenges with a positive spirit?

– Do we acknowledge their effort?

– Do we speak the language and understand the power of YET?

In the same vein, the Singapore school system isn’t perfect, but one that is still evolving and growing with the times. The choices that we make today will have an impact on future generations, so choose, applaud and criticise wisely.

These are just my initial thoughts about the new PSLE system. What are your thoughts/feelings about it?

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7 Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs: On Perspective Taking

I’ve been quiet on the blog as I went on a self-declared blog-liday. Well it was June and we’ve been busy with the kids, exploring places and having fun.

I also took some time to read a book called Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs by Ellen Galinsky. In this post, I’ll be focusing on skill no.2 — perspective taking.

Perspective taking is all about understanding that other people may think differently from us, and the ability to read accurately the intentions of others. It’s about empathy, but also about making sense of our own and others’ experiences. Being able to understand different perspectives helps us to adjust behaviour according to expectations (of teachers for example, or other peers). It also has a link to reducing aggressive behaviour, since “children who can understand others have less of a need to strike or hurt others.

Why is it so important?

It’s learning that helps children not only understand what goes on in other people’s thoughts and minds, but it also shapes their memories for events, [and] it helps them to predict what will happen in the future. – Ross Thompson

If we want to be successful and deal with other people, [we need] to understand the people around us — particularly what’s going on in their minds. – Alison Gopnik

Galinsky listed a few suggestions on how we can help our kids grow their sense of others’ feelings, and here are a few that particularly spoke to me.

1. Practice what we preach

We need to be able to understand other people’s point of view and feelings first. Then we would be in a better position to guide our kids.

2. Help children connect with others

In today’s academic arms race culture, we race from one tuition class to another, and often neglect being with people and social activities for our young. This book reminds us of the essential-ness of human connection, and how it benefits our sense of well-being. We all need to be inter-dependent and develop trusting relationships, not just independence.

3. Help our children feel known and understood

Listen to them, tune in to their feelings, get down to their level, ask them about what they feel about things (what did you enjoy/not enjoy about school today?)

It’s easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of daily life. I do too, and sometimes my son has to call me away “mummy, stop looking at your phone and look at me!”

It is important that we affirm them when they are asking for some attention and acknowledgement. It doesn’t mean dropping everything else straightaway. But it will make a difference if we intentionally tune in at different points of the day.

4. Talk about feelings

Very often we feel we can’t burden our kids with our feelings, and so we put them aside. But it’s okay to mention that you’ve had a hard day, and just need some time to yourself to recover. Galinsky also suggests reminding the kids it’s not their fault, as some children can be quick to assume it is.

5. Use other-oriented discipline

When we focus on disciplining the wrong-doer, and neglect asking the ‘victim’ how he/she feels, is she okay etc, the wrong-doer doesn’t learn about the consequences of his actions upon the victim. Point out the consequence, the feelings, the pain, and it’s likely that the child will get the message that his actions can hurt others, and that hurting others is undesirable.

But research also shows that when this discipline gets tampered with harsh disciplinary actions, the child is also less likely to learn to be more considerate of others. For some reason, harshness hinders their ability to learn from the incident.

What a reminder to us all to make use of everyday teaching moments to teach our children to see and respect the perspectives and feelings of others.

7 essential skills every child needs

**There are affiliate links in this post. It means that any purchases made by you would generate some income for this blog, but it’s at no extra cost to you! Thank you!

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Letter to my son: Dear JJ, you are five

Dear JJ,

You turned 5 with a pop and a bang last week.

We invited some of your friends over and you had a blast with them. Your daddy was the perfect game-master. We created a few games that went quite well with the theme – first the new “recruits” had to get through a “laser” obstacle course, made with raffia string, not real laser of course.

kids party game laser obstacle course

In the next challenge, they had to throw sand-bag “grenades” into the designated denotation area, cordoned by a hoola-hoop. Then they had to throw spider-darts onto a web-board (a nifty toy we got from IKEA recently). Finally, it was shooting time, and everyone had to shoot the target (designed by daddy) with a nerf gun.

simple DIY party games

The games were simple and doable for all the kids who were above toddler age, and we’re glad for two things. 1) That everyone had fun. And 2) That the games didn’t cost us very much at all as we just used whatever we found in our toy boxes and storeroom. All you need is some imagination and a very fun game-master to execute the plan. (Kudos to the daddy!)

We’re also thankful that you had grandma around to feed you your dinner (it’s terribly hard to get you to focus on eating with so many friends and toys around you!) and your favourite aunties around to play with you and help you with fixing your new Lego blocks. (Yes you couldn’t wait to fix/play with all your new toys.)

You are so loved, JJ. And though it may not seem like it in those moments when you’re upset with us or we’re upset with you, we would not trade you for anything else in the world.

Over the past year, I’ve seen you grow in confidence, in social skills, and in godly wisdom.

You’re becoming more expressive with words. Over the last year, you’ve sprouted so many funny but true things from your mouth. Like this one…

JJ: Mummy can you guess whose “sayang” I like most?
Me: Nai Nai (granny)? Ah gong (grandpa)?
JJ: No, no, no. Okay, you guess whether it is mummy or papa?
Me: Papa?
JJ: No!
Me: Oh! Me??
JJ: Yes, it’s mummy!
Me: (grinning ear to ear) But why do you like my sayang the most?
JJ: Because it’s very nice. It’s very…kind.
Me: (Laughing so hard I could cry) Ok, that’s good to know. I sayang you more ok?
JJ: (also grinning) Yes I would like that.

It strikes me that somewhere within you lies a sensitive and compassionate young man. So I take this conversation as a hint that I need to “sayang” (love) you more.

You’re growing in artistic expression.

You did this painting out of the blue one day and said, “This is Jesus on the cross (pointing to the cross in the middle.) He died for our sins because He loves us. When I asked you where is the ‘e’ in “Love” you explained that you ran out of space for it. (Haha!)

Watching you grow in faith and the expression of faith really makes me glad.

child's art about Jesus dying on the cross

We see your caring and sensitive side more often now. Occasionally I see you taking your brother’s hand and helping him with something, or lending him one of your toys. Granted, the rivalry runs high most days and you’re often squabbling with him over something or other. These, we accept, are things we will need to work on, perhaps for the rest of your growing up years…

brothers playing happily on a slide

Being highly sensitive also means that you have your fair share of bad days where you morph into the Incredible Hulk. When it happens, we have to stay by your side and work with you to return back to normal again.

wearing the incredible hulk mask

Do you know your Chinese name means “joy?” Some days, I think God has a sense of humour when he gave me that prompting to incorporate joy into your name. Don’t get me wrong, you do have your joyful days and moments, but…I still believe the best of it is still to come.

One important thing I’ve learnt from parenting you is to Keep It Simple Silly. (KISS for short)

That means to take the time to listen to you, play with you, explore places with you, and deal lots of hugs and kisses and prayers (not so much lectures and consequences, though we must of course have a few of those.)

JJ_boy blowing candle

You don’t need complex and over-planned schedules. You just need our pure and simple presence — our just being there.

We love you, our dearest JJ.

And I repeat, we will never ever trade you for anything else in the world. God has a beautiful and special plan for your life. I can’t wait to see it unfold, and I pray you will stick by Him, and let Him lead you each step of the way.

xoxo, mummy

JJ with his happy family

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