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:

9 Ways To Create A Happy Home

Recently I’ve found myself losing patience at the kids and feeling tired at having to break up fights almost daily.

I was feeling very down one day, and that was when I realised that I’ve been filled with negative thoughts and have also been reacting negatively towards the kids. It was like a spiral of negativity had been created within the home.

So I’ve been more intentional at creating positive moments and interactions. Even though we still experience stressful and angry moments, we also have sufficient positive interactions, to help create a loving and light-hearted atmosphere at home.

There might be a science to it too. Psychologist John Gottman has identified that in the context of marriage, the magic ratio is five positive interactions to every negative one, in determining which marriages are likely to stay longer and which would fall apart.

So…I’m aiming for three positive interactions for every negative one. I think it’s not about rigidly keeping count. Knowing that I have something to aim for helps me to remember to play, hug and tune in to my children more, even if we’ve had difficult moments before this.

Here are 9 ways to increase the number of positive interactions in your home.

9 Ways To Create A Happy Home

1. Get playful.

After staying home for more than two years, and taking on writing assignments from home, I’ve realised the need to set a stop to my work and take one or two play-breaks with my kids daily.

Sometimes it’s off to the playground, or a swim. On some days we stay at home and just bond over a few toys, board games, or pretend play. I try to let them take the lead, since play is one of the few domains that children can have full control over, but sometimes I would suggest a board game that we’ve neglected for a while.

Whatever it is, I try to set work aside and remind myself it’s “Us-time.” It meets my kids’ play needs, which in turn creates a better environment for me to focus on work later on.

2. Manage stress

Throughout the course of a normal day, there will be things that cause unhappiness and stress to your system. That’s life.

The thing is to let the negativity out, without venting on the kids, and not it fester and get out of hand.

It also helps to recognise that some stress and tension in life is actually necessary and good. It helps us to grow, think creatively, and problem-solve. So the key isn’t to avoid all kinds of stress, it’s accepting that it will occur from time to time, and the best strategy is to have a healthy mindset about it.

3. Develop your family values

“In this house, we speak kindly. We share in love. We practise patience. We are givers of joy.” Statements like these help to give children (and ourselves) a sense of identity and values, that come in to help kick us in the butt when we veer in the wrong direction.

Come up with your own set of values, and print them out, so that it is a visual reminder. Name them and speak them out when the kids get into conflict. And don’t be surprised when the kids start using them at you when you get into marital conflicts and disagreements too.

4. Use routines and schedules to help you through the day

This helps to reduce power struggles and give ample time to transit from one activity to another.

If your kids are old enough, enlist their help to set daily/weekly schedules. This helps them to feel in control of their day, and to know what’s coming up next. If changes are expected, like if granny isn’t able to babysit, let them know slightly beforehand too, so they are better prepared for it.

Get them to suggest alternative ideas too, if a block of time gets freed up during the day. This helps them to practise active problem-solving rather than be passive and expect others to entertain them.

5. Identify trigger areas

Perhaps it’s managing TV time. Perhaps it’s meal times. Kids do know how to press all our buttons sometimes.

For me, a hot button is TV time – when the kids try to stretch their allowed TV time, I get irritated to no end.

This is why we try to use agreed upon schedules such as a designated TV time at 4pm. So that it becomes less of a contention. Each time my kids ask, “Mum can I watch TV?” I reply, “What does your schedule say?”

6. Recognise early signs of negativity

Are you snapping at the slightest of things? Are you walking around with a scowl on your face? Are you responding with disdain or being a wet towel on everything your kids are doing?

Learn to identify these warning signs, let them ring a bell in your mind and remind you to work on reconnecting, and keeping a positive mindset.

In the same vein, look for signs of tiredness or anxiety in your child. It can often help to avoid major meltdowns if you can catch them early and take appropriate action to help them feel better.

7. Keep a sane schedule 

There’s only so much school, learning and enrichment a child can take. There’s also only so much running around an adult can do too. So recognize this, and establish healthy limits for your family.

Downtime is important for kids to consolidate and reflect on what they’ve learnt. It’s also important for their emotional stability and well being.

8. Do things you enjoy too

Every parent needs time-out once in a while. It’s up to you to decide how often you need it, what you want to do with it, and how to plan ahead so that it happens.

It could be a creative hobby, like watercolour painting or sewing. Whatever it is, recognize that you need to recharge and unwind. Develop a network of close friends who understand and listen without judging.

9. Empower your kids

Allow our kids to grow and rise up to new challenges. Don’t try to do everything for them or make things too easy, as this will do them more harm than good.

I have one child who is more sensitive and emotional that the others. For him, I know that he needs to feel confident about a new game or toy first, so I try to frame it such that he meets with some success or satisfaction at his first attempt. But as he grows more confident, I would remove the initial support, so that he learns to “level up” and deal with small difficulties and failures.

Every meltdown is a teaching moment, if we would just allow it to help us practise staying calm, reconnecting, and problem-solving.

At the end of the day, it’s about allowing our children to learn independence while they’re still in a safe place – our home. Think and plan ahead on the kind of decisions and control you can allow them to have; start small and work from there.

Empower them to make choices within safe boundaries, talk through and discuss options, and before long they would have honed these life-long skills: taking responsibility and decision-making.

What are your favourite ways of creating a calm and joy-filled home? Do share your tips in the comments!

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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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What is the Size of Your Problem? (Problem-solving for kids)

Middle brother got really upset and whiny yesterday when he was told to wait to go swimming. He took awhile to calm down. In the evening, I drew this on the doors of our wardrobe and did some problem-solving and brainstorming with them.

What is the size of your problem?

When I asked him to identify where on the scale to place the size of the problem, he could rightly identify it as a small problem. When I asked where was the size of his reaction (a bit of crying and whining), he identified it as level 6 on the scale.

Then I asked, “Is the size of your reaction proportionate to the size of your problem?” Where should your reaction ideally be? He thought a bit and said, “it should be lower – maybe 1 or 2.”

I said, “Yes! That’s great! You can see that the size of your reaction should be lower on the scale.”

This is the second time I’m going through this concept with the kids so he’s had some prior understanding of it. On the first occasion, I identified what a level 1 problem looks like, for instance losing a toy or dropping a spoon. While someone falling into the pool would qualify as a level 10 problem : where there is real and imminent danger. As for reaction, kicking, screaming or hitting would be level 9/10, while frowning or sulking would be level 1. In the middle could be whining or crying.

Then I moved on to get them to think of ways that we could battle with the emotions of feeling frustrated and impatient at having to wait. So the next time he would have some strategies or ideas.

The kids came up with:
1) not whine
2) think about something you can do now
3) look at the schedule for ideas on what to do
4) don’t get stuck
5) think of a game to play (I contributed this one)

Essentially, these strategies/ideas are meant to help distract the child from his frustrations of the moment. (Tip: While brainstorming, it’s helpful to list down every idea that the child contributes and not throw them out just yet.)

I picked up this concept from a recent Social Thinking conference I attended. I learnt a few useful things in relation to parenting and helping kids with social / learning difficulties. This was one social tool that I immediately related to and started to apply at home.

I think it’s extremely useful in helping kids think about their reactions. Here are some lessons you can point out to your child while applying this “size of your problem” tool.

  1. We always have a choice on how we act and behave – Our goal is to choose to behave in ways that are more acceptable and in line with the problem or situation.
  2. Our reactions should continue to move down the scale as we grow older and more mature, even though our problems may get larger and more challenging.
  3. Our reaction has an effect on others – When we react at level 9/10 on a daily basis, we regularly cause small problems to become BIG HUGE problems. Other people are affected by it and may start to have negative feelings about you. If they continue to react at such high levels when small problems occur, it also causes a lot of stress to their family and carers.

Now all this may take a while to sink in and translate into real self-regulation and social consideration for others, but it’s definitely a good and helpful framework to introduce such social concepts to them early.

Whenever we meet with certain issues, I would stop and ask out loud “hmm, what is the size of this problem?” This gives the kids a chance to think and self-monitor, and measure their reactions accordingly.

Note that it may not work if the kids are already emotionally strung or in the middle of a wild tantrum, but I’ve seen it work when they are just at the beginning stages of a negative emotion.

Even for myself, when I mess up and over react, it gives me a chance to laugh at myself, and point out how I over reacted to a small problem. It has helped me to breathe and calm down, and not have big reactions to little things like a kiddo dropping his plate of food on the floor.

This is something I’ll continue to work on with my kids. It’s not just teaching them self-awareness, it’s also imparting the skill of problem-solving. And when they have the right attitude towards solving the little problems that crop up in daily life, I believe they’ll also be better big problem-solvers in future, be it handling school-stress, relationships, or even work.

Do try this at home! And let me know how it works out for you too. 😉

Here’s a shot of the size of your problem poster available from Social Thinking’s Singapore website.

size-of-problem-poster2

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