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? 

Anger Management 102: Coping strategies and self-care

In my earlier post on anger management, I shared a bit about anger management and its effects on children. Today, I will be touching on the two main ingredients of anger: stress and trigger thoughts, and how to manage them. (Information courtesy of the NUH Women’s Emotional Health Service’s anger management workshop.)

stress

Stress predisposes us to anger. It sets the scene for anger. Ever wonder why sometimes you react differently towards the same behaviour in your child? Stress is the main reason. Your state of mind, or more specifically, how stressed you feel at the time is a key determining factor.

A trigger thought is the automatic thought that pops into your head, interpreting the situation. It happens in a split second, and often you don’t even know you’re thinking it until you sit down and reflect after the incident.

That thought (usually something about your child) sets off an angry response, converting that internal stress into something expressed externally: anger / frustration / crying / yelling / hitting.

If we want to better manage our emotions, we need to deal with both fronts.

Self-care for Stress

To help keep stress levels in check, take care of your needs. Self-care is important, especially as a modern, multi-tasker mum. Watch over your basic needs; have sufficient rest, exercise, maintain a healthy diet. Also, watch your emotional needs. Keep communication lines open with your spouse, schedule couple time, and even some me-time. Go ahead, you deserve it.

Basically, anything that can help you be in the best state of mind, is beneficial to your family too.

Talk back to trigger thoughts

In my earlier post, some of the readers already identified the thoughts that were in their minds at the point of an angry outburst. These could be: ‘You never listen’ or ‘You’re being difficult’, or ‘He’s driving me crazy!’

One way to combat these negative and often extreme thoughts is to talk back to them. Try these talk-back thoughts instead:

  • It’s just a stage. Kids have to go through these stages.
  • This is how he’s coping with his feelings and needs. It’s not about me.
  • I can cope with this. I don’t have to get angry.

These thoughts help to offer a more realistic view of the situation and your child, as opposed to than the emotional-charged trigger thoughts. The next time you find yourself in a tense situation, take a step back and see what is going through your head at the moment, and then try and see if you can come up with your own talk-back thought. I know it helps because I’ve tried it too, though it might take a while to get used to, and changes may not occur overnight.

Here are some other ideas that I took home from the workshop:

  • Understand your child’s developmental stage – certain traits can be expected at different developmental stages, and it’s helpful to understand what these are before concluding that the child is deliberately misbehaving. For example, around age 2-3 years old, a child tends to blur fantasy and reality, so when she says something that is untrue, it’s not that she’s trying to lie to you.
  • Anticipate your child’s needs – for instance, he may need food, water, rest, sleep, security, attention, etc, so if you can see it coming, then try to prepare what you can to avoid potential tantrums and crankiness.
  • Practise calming techniques – such as deep breathing, walking off your anger, and telling yourself “I can calm down”, etc
  • Communicate assertively – Use “I feel ____ when you _____”, e.g., “I feel frustrated when you don’t listen to me.” Then set clear boundaries for behaviour, such as “I want you to pick up your toys every evening before bedtime.”

I’ve found some of these coping strategies useful in helping me to stay calm in tense situations. And I certainly hope they work for you too.

What’s a common issue that you face with your child, at his/her current development stage? How do you manage your emotions when conflict arises? 

Education is not a race

The article titled ‘Sorry, your child is not bright enough’ published in Today has been creating waves lately, at least where my Facebook and Twitter are concerned.

I’ve heard from some parents sharing about how the tuition industry and its proponents have ‘mercenarised’ education, and about how wrong it is that some enrichment centres reject children from entering if they don’t pass an entrance test. And we are talking about children as young as six here.

The idea about enrichment centres ‘streaming’ and selecting ‘the cream of the crop’ is appalling. I think it’s also very revealing about the way Singapore does education.

But my main focus here is on parents — who feel that if they don’t enrol their children in these centres they will get left behind even before they set foot in primary one. I know we live in an extremely competitive and ‘kiasu’ environment, and as parents, we only want to provide the best environment for our children’s intellectual growth and well-being. But have we ever stopped to think that all this pushy parenting and undue stress can be counter-productive to the learning and development of our young ones?

If you were a 6-year-old, and you’ve just been told that you didn’t make it into a particular enrichment centre because you didn’t do well enough on a test, how would you feel? What would it do to your self-esteem?

At best, the child makes it through, does sufficiently well through primary school and secondary level education, and lands himself a spot at a local university (something he might have been able to do anyway without the help of an external education provider at a young age). But at worst?

Perhaps we need to rethink the equation that child + enrichment courses = good grades = highly intelligent and eventually successful individual. Perhaps we need to rethink the entire concept of intelligence itself.

I’ve been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules for Baby, and it’s been a refreshing read. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School — a provocative book that challenges the way our schools and work environments have traditionally been designed.

In Brain Rules for Baby, Medina talks about the danger of hyper-parenting, and lists the ways in which it can potentially hurt our children’s intellectual development:

  1. Extreme expectations stunt higher-level thinking — pushing your child to perform tasks his brain is not developmentally ready to do can lead to them resorting to lower-level thinking instead of higher-level thinking and processing skills.
  2. Pressure can extinguish curiosity — where children focus their energy on securing parents’ approval instead of exploring their worlds.
  3. Continual anger or disappointment becomes toxic stress — at the extreme, this can create a psychological state known as learned helplessness, which can physically damage a child’s brain, and is deemed a ‘gateway to depression’.

Really, good grades are not the be all and end all. Don’t stress our young. Let them enjoy their childhood. If you really want to invest in their education, try these instead.

Spend time with them.

Nurture their love for exploration and discovery.

Model timeless values such as kindness and generosity.

Instill gratitude.

Read great books together.

Hone their social skills.

Emphasize the value of effort and hard work.

And perhaps, just perhaps, these will benefit them in all areas of life, above and beyond the academic realm.

I leave you with this quote from the book:

“Write this across your heart before your child comes into the world: Parenting is not a race. Kids are not proxies for adult success. Competition can be inspiring, but brands of it can wire your child’s brain in a toxic way. Comparing your kids with your friends’ kids will not get them, or you, where you want to go.”

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