6 hacks for stress-free primary school days

6 Hacks for Stress-free School Days-2-2

Are you stressed out managing your kids’ school routines and homework?

The early morning starts and rushing errands/work while the kids are at school can take its toil on even the fittest among us.

I have two kids in primary school and Josh my youngest will join his brother next year. I also have an elderly godmother to care for at home. Some days can be overwhelming but I am learning that the difficult days will pass, and to relish the good and fruitful moments.

If you find yourself struggling to keep up with a hectic schedule, these tips/hacks may be useful for you.

1. Prep breakfast in advance

I’ve fed my children rolled oats for breakfast since they were little tots. When they were around 2-3 years old, we started them on baby oats, or oatmeal, that is easily softened by just milk or water. Top it up with their fav fruits like berries, raisins, or granola.

When they started primary school, they started on rolled oats, which has a chewier bite. I prepare their individual bowls at night, top them with fruits and leave it in the fridge. In the mornings, my kids will get their bowls and fill them with milk/water. They will have breakfast by themselves and clear their bowls after.

I’m blessed that they are independent in this small way, and thankful for the few minutes of extra sleep. It also helps that I don’t have to think about what to prepare for breakfast! (I know oats are not everyone’s thing, but I’m sharing this so you can think about what might work as a fuss-free breakfast for you.)

2. Talk to your child about school

With three kids at home, it can be hard just getting through the day, much less find time to connect with each child.

But I’ve come to realise how important this is, especially for my tween. She comes to me at night and just wants to grumble/chat/tell funny stories/hang out, and occasionally share about her struggles.

So whether it’s in the car, or snuggled up in bed at bedtime, strike up a conversation with your child. Find out how he spends his recess time, who he hangs out with, where his favourite places in school are, and the highlight (or lowlights) of his day. There may be priceless moments when he reveals something that is stressing him out, and when we can step in to trouble-shoot, reassure, and pray.

Time spent in less-structured activities (i.e., free play or child-directed play) leads to better self-directed executive functioning.

3. Minimise enrichment classes after school

I’ve observed that my kids need to wind down after school, whether it’s by reading a book or playing a board game. While this can be linked to each child’s personality, it is essential to provide some free time for your kids to relax and unwind after school.

Studies have shown that structured activity after structured activity is not the best way for children. This study shows that time spent in less-structured activities (i.e., free play or child-directed play) leads to better self-directed executive functioning. In layman terms, this means they are better at setting and meeting their own goals, which is the basis for independence, self-motivation and autonomy.

4. Create an inbox at home for school communication

You know how letters from school and little projects/excursion notifications tend to pile up. I try to input dates into my family calendar straightaway so I know when each child needs to be picked up early/late.

For letters with a “what to bring” segment for the child, I’ll put it on a notice board (just an empty wall space near my desk). So when the child hollers, I just ask them to refer to the “board”.

All other things like spelling and tingxie lists, or ongoing projects like a book list go into each child’s in-tray. This helps to minimise the risk of important things going missing.

5. Scenario plan for anxious children

I have an anxious child under my wing, and school can be a stressful affair for him. Things like being late or losing school worksheets are especially sticky.

To help him along, we have clear morning routines that we modify if he wakes up later than usual. For example, if it’s very late, he skips his regular breakfast and I pack a peanut butter sandwich for him to eat on the way.

If his pencil case is missing, we run through what to do the next day – things like looking around his row, and going to the lost and found corner at school. Instead of scolding (although yes sometimes I’d nag), we try to shift our focus to identifying the problem and solving it.

6. Break up revision for spelling/tingxie

I typically leave my kids to handle their own revision for spelling, as they are more confident with the language. But for Chinese tingxie, I break up the learning into two chunks. His spelling day is on Thursday, so he starts learning the first five words on Tuesday, and the remaining five on Wednesday.

This helps them memorise the words better and makes the learning more bearable too.

Which tip is most helpful for your situation?

5 easy strategies to help your child overcome weakness

I’ve been reading Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky and thinking about my kids’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s also mid-year exams period, so we’ve been working hard with Vera on her Chinese, which I guess along with 70-80% of Singaporean kids, is an area of weakness and struggle.

It’s easy for kids to get discouraged by a subject that seems more difficult than the rest, so I’ve been also trying to be careful with what I say. (It’s hard, sometimes the frustration sets in, and I can get a bit critical or even harsh.)

Here are 5 tips I drew from the book that will come in handy if you’re working with your child on their weak areas too.

Help your child overcome weaknesses with 5 easy tips

1) Dealing with weakness? Start from strengths

If we dwell on what the child can’t do – the child’s inadequacies – those inadequacies will likely proliferate. If we focus on what the child can do – the child’s strengths – these will likely be fortified.

As parents, we tend to focus on our flaws and feel like we’ll never be good enough. We also tend to zoom in on our kids’ flaws and weaknesses, forgetting and sometime downplaying their strengths.

But strengths provide a strong foundation from which we can leap forward, especially as we start to address their weaknesses.

Even in my therapy work with children with special needs, I’m acutely aware of their weaknesses, but I make sure to tap on their areas of strength to help them overcome.

There are actually some simple ways to “start from strengths.” For instance, your child is struggling in the area of Chinese, but is a real foodie. Use his interests to build on his foundation in Chinese. Run simple cooking classes in Chinese every week with easy kid-friendly recipes, or watch Youtube cooking videos in Chinese.

Or if your child finds math impossible, but loves drawing and art…Engage his love for doodling by asking him to draw out the math problem visually and in fun ways (not limited to using models.) Whatever helps him to engage his senses in the task, let him go about it and experiment and have fun. It could even change the way he feels about the subject.

More on using strengths to overcome weaknesses here.

2) Spell out expectations, use levels 1-4 to make them clear and gentle

In her book, Galinsky cites an example of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a non-profit organisation committed to ending generational poverty in Harlem.

The children are being taught how to apply writing techniques to their own essays, and they use a rating system ranked 1-4, where Level 1 simple means an “oops” area that needs more work, as opposed to a D or a fail grade.

Galinsky describes HCZ’s philosophy:

We give children the freedom to make mistakes. We teach our kids that failure is not a way of labeling who you are – it’s just a way of identifying what you don’t know and what you need to put effort into. When kids understand that, they’re not hesitant about trying something, because if they fail, it’s not a reflection on them. That just tells them: “This is an area we need to work on.”

In the same way, give your child more motivation to succeed by saying something like, “You may be at level 1 right now, but with specific help and practice on the difficult or tricky areas, you can progress to level 2 and 3 pretty soon. Let’s go through the test papers to identify the areas you need to focus on most.”

(Here is more information on learning scales.)

3) Emphasize personal best instead of comparing with others

We sometimes subconsciously compare our children to the best examples out there, but imagine what this does to their self-esteem when we actually overtly express it. How does it make them feel if we constantly compare them with an over-achieving cousin or sibling?

Galinsky writes:

Often motivation is defined as besting others rather than besting ourselves. If we’re driven by the desire to do our personal best, practice becomes part of that motivation.

By all means, challenge your child to do better than what he did yesterday. Just focus on him and his past achievements as a benchmark, not other people’s achievements.

 

4) Help children learn to plan and set goals

When children take responsibility for their own learning, ie., become more goal-directed, they automatically become the active engaged learners that nature created them to be.

Guide them in setting SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-based.

We can help children build on their emerging ability to plan to reach goals by articulating their goals when they’re small, such as saying, ‘You can trying so hard to stand up.’ When they’re preschool age and older, we can help them form and achieve goals by asking them to make plans, stick to them, and then evaluate how the plans have worked…

 

5) Get her to teach and explain to you concepts she’s learnt

Another useful tip from the book is to get your child to teach you something she’s learnt about the subject. When you teach something, it brings your understanding to a different level.

Galinsky quoted some theories about why this might be the case:

Explaining something helps make their implicit understanding more explicit; leads children to focus on the principles behind what they’re learning and not just the facts…and makes [them] feel more motivated and focused.

 

Overall, Mind in the Making has been a helpful read (although I must say I sometimes get lost within a chapter as there are so many anecdotes and stories in each one.) There are some important gems in there, and is an essential read if you want to find out more about these 7 essential skills for kids:

  • focus and self-control
  • perspective taking
  • communicating
  • making connections
  • critical thinking
  • taking on challenges
  • self-directed learning

To learn more about how you can support your child in his learning journey, read these other posts:

 

How to help your child thrive in a pressure cooker world

Gym, piano, soccer, swimming, art, violin, ballet classes…and not forgetting tuition for different subjects. Our kids live in a fast-paced world that bring along with it increasing levels of stress.

What causes overscheduling? Are we living vicariously through our kids? Giving them opportunities that we never had? Or is it a fear of them missing out?

Well there is the obvious need to simply keep up with schoolwork, with its ever-increasing difficulty levels in math, science and even the languages.

Then there’s DSA, which encourages us to identify our child’s talents and gifts at an early age, and nurture these talents. The heart of the programme is a good one, as it aims to recognize students with diverse talents and from diverse backgrounds, but inadvertently the ones with the most resources stand to benefit.

To be honest, I’m glad that we’ve shifted the focus away from pure academic achievement, but here is the irony. The move to a “more holistic” approach brings with it its own set of pressures on our young. Today, not only must they ace exams, they also need to excel in sports, music or the like.

Take the rushing around and packed schedules, coupled with daily pressures of school, homework and spelling lists, and you end up with children who are running faster than hamsters in a wheel.

They’re probably feeling the stress from having to excel in many different areas, but are unsure of where they are really going.

Are we wired to learn/live this way? I think the answer is “no.”

How to help your child thrive in a pressure cooker world

So how do we help them thrive in such a fast-paced world? Here are 6 simple ways.

1. Give them ample opportunities to reflect and consolidate their learning

When our kids are at school or at enrichment /tuition classes…It is through reflection that they are able to embed those new neural connections in their brains and memory.

As John Maxwell wrote, “Reflective thinking takes a good experience and turns it into a valuable experience.”

Don’t simply rush the kids from one activity to the next – encourage them to share with you what they’ve learnt for the day.

Pick enrichment classes that intentionally give students opportunities to discuss topics with peers or in a group. This is an important strategy in scaffolding, as written in Edutopia:

“All learners need time to process new ideas and information. They also need time to verbally make sense of and articulate their learning with the community of learners who are also engaged in the same experience and journey.”

 

2. Focus on one or two enrichment activities, at a time

The rationale is, rather than exposing them to all sorts of skills that they only manage to skim the surface off, focusing on one or two new things allow them the time to experiment, go deeper, and likely, go further too.

When our children are young, obviously we should first encourage them to enjoy the instrument/sport. If they have no interest in it, there’s no point forcing them to dive into it.

Most of us just want our kids to enjoy a sport or an interest, but if they cultivate a passion for the sport/music, and seem to want it for themselves, it might be worth taking it further.

In such a case, you may want to consider the “deliberate practice” that psychologist K. Anders Ericsson pinpoints as the strategy used by experts in becoming experts:

“Deliberate practice involves stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities. While repeating a skill you’ve already mastered might be satisfying, it’s not enough to help you get better. Moreover, simply wanting to improve isn’t enough — people also need well-defined goals and the help of a teacher who makes a plan for achieving them.”

 

3. Provide pockets of down-time, quiet time, and me-time

Our kids need me-time too. Outdoor play-time is great, but free play at home works too.

This Harvard Business Review article states that “generating good ideas and quality work products requires something all too rare in modern life: quiet.” This is true for adults, but it is equally true, or perhaps even more so, for a child.

According to the writers, silence helps restore the nervous system, sustains energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments we live in today.

“Silence is associated with the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the key brain region associated with learning and memory,” according to research by Duke Medical School.

One of the things I love about silence as a daily habit is that it helps me tune in to myself, and it also helps me tune in to what God is doing in my life.

Carve out moments of play/quiet into their daily routine. Write in down on the schedule. Start small and keep it truly free. Also make sure they get sufficient rest. If they’re constantly falling asleep at school, consider what needs to be changed.

 

4. Help them cultivate their own passions

If your kids want to use the internet to do research on their favourite animal or scientific experiment, support them in their latest interest. You’ll be surprised at how motivated they can be on their own.

When we are the ones who push our children to take on-board pursuits like DSA or play a musical instrument, the climb is always uphill, because it didn’t arise from them in the first place. But if they make the first move, they will always be driven – motivation works best when it comes from the inside.

This makes good practice for later in life too, when they will need to be able to find out what it is they truly want to do. No one else but them can provide the answer.

Speak life into their gifts

5. Keep the relationship first

My daughter has been struggling with her Chinese. We speak the language only occasionally at home, and so to be honest, we lower expectations for her in this subject, but we still expect her to put in her best effort.

To support her, we’ve been reading books together, practising writing and recognition of common words, and playing memory games.

But I realise what she needs most is this: encouragement. Given the rate of youth suicide is increasing all around the world, I think this is a lesson worth reinforcing at home: though we may struggle, we can press on together as a family; we’re never alone.

 

6. Set realistic goals and celebrate progress

Knowing that my girl is not going to score an A anytime soon in Chinese should provide a sensible guide for me as to what to expect. As much as we love to see straight-As, it’s important to know that not every child is an A student.

To me, it’s good enough that she is aware of her current weaknesses, and is taking steps to improve. She’s set a goal for herself to learn five new Chinese words a week. I see the amount of effort she puts into her spelling each week, and I already feel…well, thankful.

The positive attitude that our kids carry towards learning is far more important than the actual grade itself, right? As they say “attitude first, aptitude later.”

Giving our kids down-time, chances to reflect, support to attain their goals, are all ways to ensure they are happy and healthy, while also motivated in times of learning.

What other things can we do to help them thrive in this pressure-cooker world?

If you found this post helpful, do share it with your friends.

You may like these other posts on education:

Get Organised for Primary School – 3 Essential Skills Your Child Needs

It’s the end of the first year of primary school for Vera. We are thankful that she has done pretty well, and has been able to take responsibility for most of her school work and studies.

There are however still some gaps that I hope to work with her on during the holidays…here are the 3 essential study skills I wish I had taught her earlier.

1) Time management

Time management is a crucial study skill when it comes to exams (both preparation as well as actual taking of the papers) but it’s also important in day to day living.

Since school started, I’ve tried to wean her off my involvement as early as I could, since I felt she is capable enough to take care of her own daily schoolwork. For the most part, I think she’s learnt that homework is her responsibility, and if she doesn’t get it done, she has to live with the consequences.

But she has had days where she would have her lunch, dive into a book and then suddenly realize that she has homework to do in the evening…after dinner.

These little incidents (hopefully) serve to teach her to be more aware of the way she has chosen to use her time. I’ve also tried not to nag or scold her for it (it’s hard, I know. I literally have to bite my tongue to keep from saying “I told you so!)

Ideas on how to teach your child time management during the holidays:

  • Setting up a simple and visible routine and schedule would be helpful for kids starting on their primary school journey. It helped us to set her up in the morning and now I see we may need one for the afternoons too.
  • Use everyday lessons to think about time. Eg., if I choose to watch a DVD, I will not be able to finish my assignment – do I really have that luxury of choice or is it better to finish what I’m doing first?
  • Model time management – if your child sees you always in a rush for time or constantly late, what kind of lessons is she learning? It’s tough that our kids are looking and learning from our daily lives, but I think it also makes us try to do better each day.

2) Money concepts

Money is a great asset if only we learn how to manage it wisely. It’s a good idea for your child to learn how to handle money from kindergarten age. Start small – she wants to buy a bun from the bakery? Ask her how much it is, and give her the money to hand over to the cashier. Then check the change together. Kids are mostly excited to learn such skills and you don’t even need to encourage or cajole them to do it.

Before starting school, sit down and plan how much your child needs for recess. It’s a good time to check the meal prices at the school canteen during orientation. Usually a plate of veggie rice or noodles is about $1.50, but if she needs a drink or an extra snack, it may be safer to budget $2. I give Vera an allowance of about $10 a week. I chose to start off with a weekly allowance so she learns how to budget $1.50-$2 for each day, and not over-spend, but it really depends on you and your child how you wish to structure it.

At the end of the week, she always has some left over for her piggy bank. So it’s a good way to teach her frugality and the value of saving money for something worthy as well.

Tips on how to teach money concepts:

  • Give ample chances to order food at the food court/hawker centre. Check the change together.
  • Let your child accompany you to grocery-shopping and help him calculate the cost of your grocery list. (Start with a short list of 1-2 items)
  • If your child really wants to buy something for herself / a gift for someone, work with her to save money from her allowance. Or if she doesn’t yet have an allowance, you may choose to even give small rewards for household chores that she can do. I sometimes give 50 cents or a dollar when the kids make themselves useful, eg., packing the messy shoe rack, folding the laundry, or washing dishes, or vacuuming the floor.
  • Have 3 small piggy banks in the home – one for savings, one for spending, one for sharing (or giving to a cause). We teach the kids to dedicate roughly a-third of their “earnings” to each piggy bank. (But you and I both know it’s tempting to put most of it into the spending bank…so this is also work-in-progress.)

3) Planning and prioritizing

This is closely related to time management. How much time do you have in total for that English paper? How much time should you dedicate to the different sections to ensure you have sufficient time left for the final few questions? All this is related to being able to look ahead and plan accordingly.

This is also helpful for homework. If your child has 3 different kinds of homework due at different times, ask her, hmm which should you do first? When do you need to hand these up?

Sometimes your child will be able to tell you, “this is more urgent because…” Let them think and verbalize and come to this conclusion by themselves as much as you can.

If your child gets fixated over a particular piece of work, let her experience the natural consequence of that choice. Say she enjoys colouring and drawing, and so spent time on these unnecessary aspects while neglecting to answer the questions of the assignment, then she rushes through the last part and makes a couple of careless mistakes as a result. Use this as a teaching opportunity. Ask questions that will allow her to reflect on her choices: what do you think you can do differently next time?

Ideas on how to teach your child planning and prioritizing this holidays:

  • Work on recipe based cooking or baking during the holidays. Being able to ensure you have all that you need and when you need it is part of that same essential planning process.
  • If you’re going on a family vacation, encourage your kids to be a part of the planning and packing process. For instance, help him to think about what is necessary and what should go into the luggage first.

Vera and I will continue to work on her time management and prioritizing skills as we believe these are essential study and life skills that will serve her well for life.

With these tips in mind, I hope both you and your child will be better prepared for school next year! If you do feel that your child needs specific help to get organised and motivated to learn, you may also want to check out The Little Executive’s upcoming P1 prep camp in December. Happy holidays! 🙂

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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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