In the midst of this current COVID-19 crisis, there is so much uncertainty for parents and children, which translates to overwhelming stress about family members’ health and safety, as well as an upheaval of school and work routines.
With no external help from grandparents, or the essential childcare centres to mind the kids of dual- income parents, no part-time helper to clean the house, and with the panic that ensues with each announcement from the government about the tightening of circuit breaker measures, it can feel like the end of the world. Foreboding desire to tear your hair out and scream in exasperation. And to top it off, parents now find themselves playing the role of “teacher” in supporting and facilitating their child’s Home Based Learning endeavours.
Yes, I hear you.
Singapore has just heard from its Prime Minister, who has decreed that current circuit-breaker measures will extend beyond the initial 4th May deadline, which is now 1st June, which adds the novelty (if you are so inclined to be a paragon of good cheer) of an additional month of government sanctioned acronyms that must be helping ministers and bureaucrats find their feet too!
Families in Singapore and the rest of the world are experiencing increased stress and anxiety right now. So, amidst this chaos, here are some tips for you to help your child cope with HBL, which will hopefully help in restoring some order in this otherwise chaotic household atmosphere..
As we all practice social distancing, it also provides an opportunity to slow down and pause, and to find our own footing in learning new ways to live. Children continue to grow and develop as they encounter new life experiences, including coping with this inescapable global pandemic, so it is important to continue fostering positive relationships and strengthening emotional connections with our children.
Work out a daily routine with reward system
Research suggests that children benefit from schedules and engaging in productive activities, so plan activities that will create structure and fun memories. Set aside specific times for doing online lessons, doing homework, and reading or visiting virtual museums. To keep your child engaged and motivated, consider breaking up the day into smaller manageable blocks, taking care to cater to the short attention spans of your kids.
Visuals are especially great for reminding younger children what to do and how to do it, and these visuals can be simply hand-drawn and paired with keywords and then stuck on the wall. For some children who have completed their online lessons and are getting restless and fidgety, you may want to give them a to-do list of activities that they can complete independently, empowering them.
Guiding your child in setting goals and scheduling tasks are part of valuable life skills of time management and task organisation. Once their tasks are completed satisfactorily, they can be rewarded. Hence, if you would like your child to be more independent, polite, helpful, then rewarding them for their good behaviour in which these traits are displayed will be a good starting place for you.
For example, you can explore the effectiveness of “if/then” statements such as, “if you finish this piece of homework, then you can play 15 minutes of computer games with your brother”, or the use of a token system like “each time you can stay seated for 15 minutes, you get a token, and after you get 5 tokens, you can exchange them for something of your choice”. Tokens are reinforcers that the child earns which are exchanged for a larger reward based on their achievements. This system also helps in gaining instructional control, as well as acquiring self-monitoring skills and delayed gratification. Just as with any behavioural reinforcement strategies, the token system can be adjusted over time as your child’s skills develop and can be utilised less frequently. It is up to your parenting style and the temperament of your children to devise token systems that keep them engaged.
Recognise and praise efforts
Change is difficult for everyone, including for your child. If they are able to conduct themselves in an appreciable manner in certain scenarios in which they were previously unable to, this in itself is an accomplishment worth celebrating! Remember to give credit for their displays of maturity – praise them, show affection, or give a little treat. Children and adolescents learn very quickly by receiving direct feedback from adults. By reinforcing appropriate and desirable behaviour, the more likely your children will repeat this behaviour and overtime will coalesce into a good habit.
While it is part of being a parent to have to say “NO” to some of your children’s inappropriate requests or behaviours, it is important to ensure that you mindfully maintain a balance of more positive than negative interactions with your children. Try to focus as much as you can on the good things that your child is doing. After all, having more positives throughout the day helps in those moments when you have to say “NO”. Be deliberate and consistent in praising and rewarding them, and to follow through with providing the reward as soon as your child demonstrates the desired behaviour. In working out the goals with your child, it will be reasonable to start by picking 1 to 3 behaviours or skills to focus on for reward and praise throughout the day. Items used as rewards have to be of value to the child and should not be easily accessible unless earned – this would keep your child motivated in completing the tasks and meeting the goals.
Manage screen time
In this circuit breaker period, having extra screen time will not hurt, especially to reach out and to stay socially connected with friends. However, do set expectations with your child that the change in rules is a time-limited exception and regular limits will be put back in place when this circuit breaker is lifted.
While flexibility is important during this period, by no means should you allow unlimited screen time. Work out with your child on managing screen time. In the local mainstream schools, your child can be expected to be using technology to support HBL consisting of about 2-3 hours of online learning every day. With your child already spending time on online learning, work out with them on an agreement to take short breaks in between their online lessons and reduce their recreational screen time. This can be replaced by partaking in creative projects such as painting or baking, or using recycled materials to make toys or playing board games with the entire family. This also means that parents should also monitor their own digital device usage. Make use of this time to nurture new healthy habits for yourself and your children.
Now that the government mandated circuit breaker has been extended, you shouldn’t worry about having to keep the children entertained. Yes, it is inevitable that they will whine and complain about boredom, but remember that boredom can be harnessed. It is through boredom that allows them to create their own meaning and purpose, to be resourceful and to get to know themselves better. When young minds are free from distraction and constant torrents of information, they discover ways to create and find their own fun, or to further explore something that they are already interested in. This could be writing a book, staging a performance, drawing and painting, and the list goes on with endless possibilities!
Encourage emotional expression and validate your child’s feelings
Children need to be secure about accessing their emotions rather than fearing them. To do this, they need to cultivate essential skills of being aware of their emotions and dealing with their experiences and concerns in manageable doses.
Being able to express our emotions allows others to understand how we feel, helps us to manage our own stress, worries, disappointments and sadness, and prevents us from spiralling into negative and maladaptive ways of coping. Holding in or denying our emotions sometimes unconsciously results in angry outbursts or aggressive behaviour. One way to teach children about expressing and managing their emotions is by using books or through videos, and even modelling for them in the sense that adults are role models for their children, who ‘model’ the behaviour of their parents through observing and imitating.
For older children and adolescents, perhaps the most painful part of this COVID-19 crisis and HBL is the loss of important school experiences such as school or national competitions which they have trained very hard for, or performances which they have put in hours of rehearsals into, and the daily interactions with friends. Give them a safe space to share their feelings and listen without judgement and without giving advice or reassurance. Some will be worried about missing out on activities expected to help them with school admissions, and these feelings of worry and stress are indeed valid. So again, allow them to acknowledge and share their feelings, and then express confidence in their ability to rebound.
With all the changes happening around us, it is indeed a challenging time for yourself and for your children. Start by having empathy for yourself as you navigate through uncharted waters in this battle against COVID-19 and its impact on routines and lifestyles. Yes, it is messy and chaotic, and it is OK to be not OK with any of this.
Children learn by watching the behaviours and reactions of the adults around them, so use this as a critical opportunity to prepare them to deal with uncertainties in life. Other than using books or TV shows to help children learn about empathy, you could also talk about how doctors and nurses are working to care for others with COVID-19 and to elicit their thoughts and feelings as they imagine what the healthcare workers are experiencing. Another example would be imagining what their teachers are experiencing with WFH (working from home) and HBL. By teaching and practicing empathy, your children will grow up being more compassionate and altruistic with the genuine intention to help others without expecting anything in return.
For children with special needs, it is likely that they would have had access to regular therapy services or remediation support either provided by external agencies or are school-based. It would be beneficial to maintain collaboration with the therapists to see if there are workable options that can be carried out at home so that your child’s learning is not impeded. It’s indeed a challenging time for everyone, and more so for children with special needs and their parents/caregivers. With big changes happening, it can get really overwhelming especially for a child with special needs. Remember that these behaviours are not personal but are the manifestation of a skill deficit which occur to meet a need. Professionals can help to support you through this. Reach out to a professional here. You are not alone.
For children with anxiety or mood-related concerns, this circuit breaker period will likely exacerbate their mood swings, emotion dysregulation, and problems with attention and focus. This is the time to be even more patient and supportive of your child. For younger children, you may notice some behaviours or physical complaints, for example, having tummy aches, headaches or nausea, which are somatic manifestations of underlying anxiety or worry. If you or your child feels overwhelmed, do reach out to a professional here that is in tune with your needs.
If you’re a parent who believes in taking a proactive approach to your child’s education, then you’ve probably realised by now that comparing your young one to the school’s resident whiz kid(s) is ill-advised. There is truth then, in this kernel of wisdom: “Every child is a unique gift from God”.
Understanding how your child takes in information, assimilates it, learns, is perhaps the first step to making their education a better experience for them. When parents start getting a grasp of what their child’s preferred way of learning is, they can start taking steps to work with that style of learning, instead of foisting the next flavour of the month upon their child. Individual learning styles don’t necessarily dovetail with the school’s pedagogy – but that’s OK. This just means that you’re blessed with more opportunities to help your child grow up with the values and convictions you hold dear.
Conventional wisdom tells us that people generally fall into one of three categories – visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning. But before you pigeonhole your child into one of those convenient boxes, it is worth noting that while a child may have a dominant learning style, a combination of all the styles is required to learn about the wonderful, wider world that they’re growing up in. Once you have figured out their style, you can then begin to take steps to ensure that they have ample opportunities in the classroom and at home to take advantage of that particular style.
However, there are some children who constantly struggle when they are subject to the traditional classroom setting. Despite your efforts to supervise and coach them, they might continue to face persistent difficulties with reading and writing skills, as well as attention and behavioural regulation in terms of their academic performance.
A child with learning difficulties is affected in different ways, with the impact ranging from mild to moderate or even severe, with symptoms surfacing when the time comes for them to learn literacy and numeracy skills in the classroom. Children with learning difficulties are at risk of developing low self-esteem, which in particular is a consequence of the condition going undiagnosed and/or untreated. Imagine a dewy-eyed child who, with all the innocence of youth, proudly strives and strains to do well at school – yet never reaping a jot of acknowledgement. Imagine (or remember) what it feels like to have the purity of childlike endeavour constantly rebuffed by the shame of underperformance. To have effort always met with negativity is tough for even the most motivated child, which may lead to the development of a poor self-concept that ends up causing further social-emotional issues in future.
All children, learning difficulties or not, need love and support for them to cultivate a strong sense of self-worth, build confidence and develop resilience. In seeking ways to help your child who has a learning difficulty, bear in mind that your role as a parent is not to “cure” the difficulty, but to arm your child with the social and emotional tools they will need to work through challenges and develop strategies for compensating with their difficulties. In the long run, your child will emerge stronger and more resilient.
Even though everyone’s been a kid before, I know that the new and bewildering responsibilities of parenthood can sometimes make us forget what we, as children, wanted to have for ourselves. I’ve outlined some tips which can be invaluable to our efforts to support a child with a learning difficulty.
Knowledge is power – learn everything you possibly can about your child’s learning difficulties and needs.
Doing your own research and keeping abreast of the new developments in evidence-based learning and behavioural interventions not only helps your child, it helps to foster a sense of solidarity with your child. The more you know about your child’s needs, the better you are equipped to help your child. Start with your child’s teachers and consult with professionals (e.g. educational psychologists, school psychologists, or child clinical psychologists) who are best positioned to work together with you and your child in this journey. Collaborating with your child’s school teachers and fostering a good relationship with them helps in the overall understanding of your child’s needs – this facilitates consistency between home and school, which is particularly essential for children with challenging behaviour.
Be an advocate for your child by raising awareness.
While society has made great strides towards the goal of inclusivity, awareness of special education needs and learning disabilities is still limited (but growing). Embrace your role as a proactive parent, taking responsibility not only for your child’s welfare but also contributing to the child who does not have a dedicated guardian in their life. Yes, your journey will be fraught with challenges and frustrations, but always remember to remain calm and to persevere. We often don’t realise just how much children internalise behaviour and views that they perceive in their parents. As a parent, you are entrusted with the very delicate task of moulding a young mind. Your healthy optimism, perseverance, and sense of humour doesn’t just benefit you – it positively influences your child to be a self-advocate, which is a very important goal for a parent in these circumstances.
Some parents choose to hide their children’s learning difficulties in secrecy, for fear of stigma or unjust treatment by others. They might honestly feel that they’re serving the best interests of their child. On the contrary – it is this very lack of understanding and awareness from family and friends that causes the misattribution of a child’s developmental needs to ‘laziness’ or ‘poor parenting’ or ‘mischief’. By shining a light on the condition, you help others develop empathy and come to be more supportive of your child. Within the family, siblings might feel that there is more attention and preferential treatment towards the brother/sister with learning difficulties, despite being aware of their condition. Hence, it is also important for parents to reassure all their children equally that they are loved, to provide support to their work, and to include them all in routines for the child with learning difficulties.
Focus on your child’s strengths, not just weaknesses.
No one is defined by disability or need. And no one is perfect either. As you embrace your child’s flaws, celebrate their strengths in the same breath. As with all other human beings, a child with learning difficulties too will come into their own personality, interests, strengths and weaknesses. Focus on the gifts and talents which your child is blessed with, and help them to nurture their areas of strengths such as in activities they excel in.
Praise effort rather than outcome.
Children with learning difficulties may not always excel academically, and if they do, they likely have put in a lot more effort than their peers to have achieved a similar good grade. Acknowledge the effort made, which deserves recognition – no matter if the child has gotten the answer right or wrong. Your child is demonstrating courage when they try out new approaches to assignments and study strategies, and if you want them to learn from mistakes and be receptive to feedback, credit and praise must be given where due. It will take time for new practices and interventions to work and for new skills to be acquired, so bear in mind to focus on the long term goals, and to break larger tasks down into smaller, more manageable milestones which can be spaced out over time.
Everyone’s definition of success is different, but the aspirations you have for your child probably extend well beyond the fulfilment of good grades. Working with parents, it has been my experience that most, if not all, express the desire for their child to lead an independent life, in which they are capable of providing for themselves, and above all else, to be happy. This being the case, then success in life definitely isn’t based on just academic success, but rather on things like having a sense of self-worth, the willingness to ask for and accept help, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity and the emotional depth to form healthy relationships – values and qualities that are not quantifiable like the metric of exam grades.
Keep your child motivated.
As school is most likely a source of frustration for your child who puts in much more effort than in proportion to the reward of good performance, it is important to find something in school that brings your child enjoyment, that they are motivated to pursue without much prompting. Sometimes, to taste the fruit of serendipity, one must eschew his comfort zone. This may involve having your child participate in a CCA of their choice, attend camps or other school-related activities, and encouraging your child to have good relationships with peers and teachers. It can be difficult to motivate your child to learn, and to invest time in subjects which already make them feel inferior and bad at. You will probably meet less resistance if you start from your child’s level of ability, carefully choosing lesson topics that already are of interest to them. Give them some measure of autonomy to choose how they study or complete homework – building in breaks and breaking down challenging tasks into smaller chunks gives them ownership in the crafting of their own timetable, helping to keep them motivated to follow through with their plan.
Finding a role model who has flourished in spite of their learning difficulties can show your child that success is attainable, and that it is their own choice not to allow their current difficulties to define them. Celebrity, athlete, friend, neighbour or pastor, the only requirement to those role model shoes is that your child feels comfortable talking to them.
Encourage healthy lifestyle habits.
Stress may manifest differently in children than in adults. While some signs may be more overt, such as trouble sleeping, agitation, acting out, or meltdowns, others may retreat inwards – shutting down, spacing out, withdrawing and isolating. Even as adults ourselves, we may lack the prescience to recognise that our internal systems are under stress, let alone children who have not yet matured into such skills. Hence, it is your responsibility to be vigilant of signs of stress in your precious one.
Your child’s eating, sleeping and exercise habits are also vital to their overall learning ability. With a healthy routine which incorporates a balanced diet, quality sleep and sufficient physical activity, children will be better able to focus and concentrate.
Other than the physical, paying attention to your child’s emotional needs is also important. When they are faced with the frustrating challenges presented by their learning difficulties, allow them to express their feelings in a safe space. Validate them by acknowledging that the cause of their gripe is an issue, but be careful not to coddle them into poor self-restraint. Be ready to listen when they are ready to talk, and be a grounding, reassuring presence which helps their mind integrate with their body, and re-orient into a sense of calm.
Above all, remember to take care of yourself! The uniquely sacrificial dint of parenthood sometimes diverts needed attention from our own needs. If you are to project an empathetic sense of warmth, you will first need to cultivate self-compassion, and allow yourself the space to tend to your own needs. The quality of support you are able to provide to your child is dramatically affected by your own levels of stress and exhaustion. Parenting is a full time job, but don’t let yourself burn out emotionally.
In order to do this, you need to be mindful of your own limitations. You are the best gauge of when to rouse the oarsmen to right your ship. If you have a supportive spouse, or friend, or family member, take heart. Lastly, there is great benefit in the solidarity of support groups, which serve as useful support and also reminders that you are not alone in your unfolding journey!
Two days ago, I read an article about mental health in schools, and how the school system was falling short of providing mental health support to students. The article began with an anecdote which illustrated how even teachers, who are charged with spreading good values sometimes behave in ways which hinders progressive movements like the destigmatisation of mental health issues in society. Not only did this teacher discount the legitimate need for psychiatric medication that some people have, he also made off-colour remarks about suicide. Given the increased scrutiny the Singaporean education system has come under, and the fact that it has been an exacerbating factor in the suicides of some children and adolescents, his remarks were remarkably insensitive at best.
Mental health should never be trivialised, and is most definitely not something that is to be joked about. Behaving like that teacher flies in the face of efforts to bring to light the importance of mental health to the functioning of a healthy society, not to mention the lives of people who do have mental health issues. Last year, nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong addressed Parliament¹, musing about how Government had called for greater efforts to combat diabetes, when in fact more people were afflicted with a mental disorder than diabetes. The costs that mental health issues impose on our healthcare system is no laughing matter, and the attitude held by that teacher was indeed regrettable.
Talking about mental health in such flippant and cavalier ways detracts from the ability to talk openly about it. There’s no denying that there is still a stigma around mental health. We, as a society, can help to overcome these barriers by speaking out about the importance of mental health, and by leading by example – we should all strive to speak in an open-minded and accepting fashion about it. It is this very stigma that often prevents people from seeking treatment, or worse yet, even recognising that they are suffering from a mental health condition. We don’t see it happening, because we are often unable to live the lives of others, but the stigma often drives people further into isolation, which has harmful effects on their condition.
In the first place, people who struggle with mental health problems often find it hard to open up about their conditions, or talk about it in ways that other people can understand. It’s with great difficulty that they finally get around to reaching out and asking for help, and unfortunately, even these efforts can be rebuffed if people don’t know how to respond. While it’s true that the onus is on people who have mental health conditions to reach out for help, their personal responsibility should be matched by the wider, shared responsibility we have to each other – to look out for one another, and to pay attention to the signs that someone we know may be suffering from a condition. We need to nurture safe spaces, where the topic of mental health is neither trivialised nor discounted. These safe spaces are essential for sharing, listening, and often are indispensable places for people to offer care in a supportive environment.
Apart from families being the ‘caring nucleus’ of a child’s life, the school environment is an invaluable place from which children derive a solid sense of security that produces strong values. The close ties that children forge with their school teachers and peers help to serve as preventive measures against the seeking out of destructive or maladaptive alternatives. Children are made to feel safe, when they can develop the anchors of strong, meaningful connections to groups as they explore and discover the wider world. It’s in these supportive environments that children learn how to trust others, and learn that seeking help from others isn’t a risky proposition. This is exactly why we need to educate people about the dangers of trivialising mental health, which is especially corrosive when school teachers perpetrate such backward attitudes.
Yet other barriers exist. Sometimes, even if the peers of school children with mental health issues are fully supportive, there simply isn’t enough information on how to get their friend the help that they need. This information vacuum detracts from well-meaning efforts, breeding fear and uncertainty about how to offer support.
It’s my belief that the move by the inclusion of mental health to the refreshed Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum is a highly commendable one. Teaching about empathy and helping skills is a grassroots move that promises to have far-reaching effects in building a resilient and caring society. Inculcating these positive values in impressionable young minds is definitely a step in the right direction, especially when these soft skills form the bedrock of a more inclusive society in which mental health is less stigmatising. On top of these efforts, in 2022 the Ministry of Education wants to bake this movement of inclusivity into the curriculum – creating a structured “peer support” environment where elected student leaders promote mental well-being is a great platform from which we can springboard discussion about thornier mental health issues.
Parents have also pointed out that that access to the internet does raise legitimate concerns about having children ‘misdiagnosing’ or ‘labelling’ themselves inaccurately – the torrent of information that the internet opens children up to also unfortunately raises the potential of false or misleading information. With this in mind, it becomes imperative for the Singapore education system to create structured guidance for students to learn how to identify and recognise the needs of themselves and others.
Even as a parent yourself, the complexity and range of severity of social-emotional/behavioural needs can be bewildering at times. It’s always okay to reach out for comfort and advice if you feel overwhelmed!