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:

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.

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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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How to cope with primary school stress

Vera turned four this year, and already I’ve started to get questions about where we intend to enrol her for her primary education.

There’s only one word to describe how I feel whenever I get asked.

Stress…

There’s something so unknown and unfamiliar about primary school that makes me break in cold sweat. Plus all the stories I hear about daily homework and what-nots.

I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with Fiona Walker, Principal of Schools, Julia Gabriel Education. Naturally, I asked her the questions I had in my mind about primary school education and how to prepare my child for it.

Here’s what she shared with me…

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1. What do you identify as the key sources of pre-primary stress? How can parents prepare ourselves to deal with these?

I think that parents themselves are one of the sources of pre-primary stress. There is an element of group hysteria in the need to make sure children are prepared for primary school and the focus is on academic readiness. Because of this, there is a huge market in enrichment classes and tuition schools who feed on the concern by providing courses and classes, which “prepare” children for primary school.

Very often, once the child enters Primary One and is able to cope with the school work, the worry evaporates. For this reason, first time parents are usually much more concerned than parents who have had other children go into primary school.

To avoid being caught up in group pressure, make sure you find out what exactly are the requirements of primary school. Ensure your child meets those criteria but also keep your expectations realistic.

2. How can parents prepare their children to better cope with the transition?

The move to primary school is a big transition for any child. They will go from being the eldest in their preschool, which is usually in a small nurturing environment, to being the youngest in a large and initially confusing school.

Most children find the level of independence expected a bit daunting. I think that a visit to the new primary school is great. The more familiar they can be with the new environment or new routine, the better. Also prepare your child for buying food in the canteen, by giving them opportunity to ask for food in the food court and handle money when making a purchase.

There is a huge amount of emphasis placed on all the things they must do and remember and this can produce a bit of anxiety, so take the time to talk to your child about your happy memories from primary school. Talk about the friendships you made, the adventures you had and the experiences you remember.

Children going into primary school are six years old – still very young. They must not feel burdened by the worries you may have.

3. Which is more important? Academic preparedness or social-emotional preparedness, or both? Why?

In Singapore, both are important. Our school system requires children to have certain academic skills when they enter Primary One, so it is important they are able to manage the workload.

However a child who has confidence and resilience is more likely to enjoy the experience. Strong social skills and healthy self-esteem will mean they find it easier to make friends and ask questions when they are unsure.

If I had to just pick one though, I would choose social-emotional preparedness because it is generally easier for a child to pick up the academic skills if they didn’t have them than build low self confidence, especially if they have found the experience of a new school and social environment distressing.

4. If you could give parents in Singapore a word of advice, what would it be?

Here are two pieces of advice:

  • You know your child best so have realistic expectations. By all means, shoot for the stars but be fair. It is not fair to expect a child who has no Mandarin exposure outside of his hour-a-day, five-days-a-week in preschool to get 95 per cent all the way through primary school.
  • Remember childhood is short and there is no one out there who is going to protect your child’s childhood other than you. If you don’t carve out time for him to explore, play and dream, no one else will and your child will have been robbed of the most magical time of their lives. You can’t get it back!!

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I hope these insights are able to give us some new ideas in navigating this rather touchy topic.

I really value Fiona’s reminder that we as parents are also guardians of our children’s most precious time of their lives – their childhood…

What comes to your mind when you think about primary school education for your child? How would you like your child to experience primary school? 

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