SINGAPORE: A new year of school begins next week. Parents may be rushing to finish up last minute errands like buying new uniforms, bags, water bottles and shoes.
They may have already scheduled a hair appointment to cut their child’s hair. They may also be busy wrapping and labelling new school books, and mentally planning the meals or snacks to fill their child’s lunch boxes with.
Some may be even more anxious than their children, particularly if they seem to be lagging in the areas of reading, writing or counting. Many would have gone ahead to plan their child’s tuition schedules for the coming year in a bid to beef up their perceived weaker areas.
But there are actually other skills that may be more crucial than those of literacy or numeracy. Academic skills may come in handy, but they tend to be over-emphasised to the detriment of other essential “softer” skills which can have more bearing on a child’s learning journey than most people realise.
David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, believes that for children to be successful in the first grade (the American equivalent of Primary One), they must be able to do three things: Be able to listen to an adult and follow instructions; be able to start a task and finish it independently; and be able to work cooperatively with other children, take turns, stand in line and share.
If I may add to this list of skills, I would include the ability to solve problems, the ability to make friends, and the ability to communicate with adults.
LEARN TO SOLVE THEIR OWN PROBLEMS
Problems are a natural occurrence in daily life. Next week, one child may likely forget to bring his homework, another to learn his list of words for a spelling test. But what can they do to solve their problems instead of shutting down due to anxiety, or hiding in the toilet when the English teacher comes around?
For many Primary One children, the first few weeks of school can be extremely stressful. As parents, we can help to mediate against stress by giving them ample chances to solve day-to-day problems on their own.
It may take some willpower to hold back and restrain yourself from helping, but remind yourself that swooping in too early robs your child of a valuable learning opportunity.
With daily practice at solving their own problems, such as learning to wipe up a spilled drink, or even erasing a word spelt wrongly, children grow in confidence, and begin to recognise their own ability to tackle new and difficult situations.
Another way to train children to solve problems is through scenario planning. Think of possible situations that may arise in school, such as those mentioned above, or other examples that you can use to weave a story. What happens if your child accidentally wets his pants, loses his water bottle, or leaves his shoes behind at a PE lesson?
Create a character for these stories so that it removes the spotlight from your child, and then brainstorm ideas on what to do together. Try to involve your child as much as possible, and do not throw out any ideas away during the brainstorming phase.
After you have a bunch of possible ideas to work with, discuss with your child. Ask questions such as, “Which do you think is best?” and “What do you think will happen if I choose plan B?”
Such a problem-solving approach was championed by psychologist Ross Greene, who coined the term “collaborative problem-solving.” Originally envisaged to help behaviourally challenging children and youths, it has since been expanded to apply to other learners.
ASKING AN ADULT FOR HELP
This point may seem obvious, but many children experience inhibition or shyness in approaching an adult, particularly if they are not yet familiar with the person.
Help your child see that teachers and other school staff members are there to provide care and assistance, not just formal academic instruction and discipline. Sometimes, a child may feel intimidated when the teacher is seen as fierce or loud, and this may hinder him or her from asking for help, even for simple matters like going to the toilet.
For such cases, it pays to prepare the child beforehand. Explain to him or her that a teacher may sometimes raise his voice to address the whole class, especially when the class gets rowdy. This does not mean that your child will get his ears chewed off if he asks the teacher for help.
Talk about appropriate ways of getting attention, such as raising a hand and then waiting to be called upon, or using polite words, such as beginning his request with “Teacher, may I …”
Where possible, perhaps during the school orientation, or when dropping your child off on the first day of school, point out important places such as the general office, so that your child knows where to go if he falls down and needs a plaster or bandage, or if he is feeling unwell.
FOSTERING A SENSE OF BELONGING
Why are friendships important at school? And why do we need to actively teach our kids how to make friends?
You might think that it comes naturally for most children, but the truth is, some prodding and specific instructions are required. It is the rare child who would confidently walk up to a peer, establish eye contact and say “Hi, my name is…”
I only need to look as far as my second child, who is entering Primary One in 2018, to know that most children struggle with feelings of shyness, unwillingness or just plain lack of experience.
I was speaking to a fellow mother about this, and she shared a good tip with me. She has been preparing her daughter for school by teaching her to say hello to the first person who sits next to her – likely at the assembly hall.
Another good way to establish a friendship is to ask for help. Some possible statements or requests that your child can use are: “Hi, sorry I can’t seem to find my pencil. Do you have an extra one?” or “Did you catch what the teacher said we were supposed to bring tomorrow?”
Having a friend can help foster a sense of belonging at school. Research has found that children with a strong sense of belonging are happier and exhibit fewer behavioural issues at school. They are also more motivated to learn and experience greater academic success.
It can also make the transition weeks at school a lot easier to bear when your child has a friend to talk to or sit with during recess.
Teachers can also play a big role in fostering belonging by ensuring their classroom is welcoming to every child, and by teaching and emphasising respectful relationships among students.
Knowing how to write, count, and copy words from a board are all great skills for a fresh primary schooler to have. But as we spend time building up our young ones in these areas, let’s not forget simple manners and social skills.
They may not be as easy and straightforward to teach as counting from one to 50, but these skills prime a young child for learning, and help them fit in and adapt to the school environment – which in turn sets them in good stead for the rest of their formative schooling years.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.