Study smart, not harder

Studying for the exams

It’ll be the June holidays soon and our children will be busy catching up with their exam revision and enrichment classes. They’ll be busy building up their portfolios of good-to-have creative skills and CV-building CCAs.

But studying hard isn’t the same as studying smart. Research has much to say about how we can study smart. It’s not necessarily the things that you’ve tried before. Here’s what the experts say:

1. Test yourself (again and again)

Recent research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest revealed that highlighting key concepts in a textbook is not an effective way to learn. Instead, testing oneself is. Repeating a quiz after a month or more also facilitates learning.

2. Understand the information

Cognitive research has long established that our ability to remember things like facts are much more easily recalled if we understand the concept behind the facts. This notion of “deep processing” means that verbatim learning is not as effective as being able to rephrase the material in your own words.

3. Try learning outside the classroom 

A 2013 study found a positive association between newspaper reading and better grades among undergrad students. But the new buzzword is seamless learning. This is the idea behind the use of iPads in local primary schools to facilitate formal and informal learning, which was reported in a 2012 issue of Learning, Media, and Technology.

But there’s no need to sit around and wait for your children’s teachers to employ these techniques in their school classrooms. Parents can use Twitter, WordPress and RSS feeds to encourage their children’s learning. In addition to learning the technology (good for keeping dementia at bay) and helping their children summarize what they have learnt in their own words (see Tip #1 above), writing a blog can be a useful way to develop children’s writing skills.

Helping children find their own information and resources to support their blog not only trains children with initiative, resourcefulness, and independence (skills which will come in useful at the tertiary level), the process allows them to creatively explore an area of their own interest. The process further trains up their reading skills. We may take these abilities for granted, but everyone has room to improve at this, from secondary school all the way to university. School-age children need to read for their General Paper; university students need to read primary source materials for presentations and written assignments. Graduate students need to read journal articles. Adults who stay mentally challenged will be in a better state to overcome cognitive impairments in the ageing process.

The good news. Not only is the internet these days overflowing with useful apps for learning, we can even get all that information delivered to us through RSS feeds (visit and by subscribing to news alerts.

Happy Earth Day!

It’s World Earth Day today!

Happy World Earth Day!

This time last year we were decreasing our light pollution at Earth Hour and dressing down at the office to stay cool with less air-conditioning. With all the lights switched off on the little red dot, it’s a good time to spend time with family and friends in ways that we used to know:

1. It’s a good night for star gazing!

  • Take out your camera and leave your shutter on bulb setting. You could try light painting with the fast moving traffic and floating kites from Marina Barrage. Or you could take some night shots of the city skyline and Marina Bay Sands. Bring along some oven-roasted curry puffs and samosas, dim sum, and a flask of tea to keep you going through the evening.
  • Picnic under the stars on Fort Canning. You don’t have to do this only once a year for Shakespeare in the Park. Cart your baguette, Edam, cabernet sauvignon, smoked salmon canapes, bruschetta, and grapes to the green to gaze at the stars. Don’t forget your mat, repellent, and fan!
  • Organize a small soiree at the Symphony Lake in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Pack your own home-baked date-and-figgy pudding, a flask of homemade hot chocolate, a handful of hazelnuts and almonds, for an evening with the croaking frogs, chirping nightjars, and hooting owls.

2. Spend time with people you care about

  • Switch off your apps and chill out.
  • Spend time catching up with friends.
  • Play jenga, taboo, settlers, or monopoly (the card game version) to keep the energetic amused, with some konnyaku jelly on standby to keep your energy up!

3. Be a tourist in your own country

  • Explore Little India. Buy your brinjal (aubergine, eggplant) at the night market on the streets of Dunlop, Dickson, and Campbell Lane. Enjoy the peranakan-themed tiles on the houses on Petain Road.
  • Wander around Haji Lane and Arab Street like a tourist. The mini antique toy musuem on Arab Street will make you all nostalgic and gooey, while having to explain the toys to your little ones at the Mint – Musuem of Toys at Seah Street not far away will make you feel knowledgeable and wise (yes, and old).
  • Appreciate the juxtaposition of Sri Mariammam Temple, Jamae (Chulia) Mosque, on Pagoda Street and Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown.
  • Join the Night Safari at the Zoo (again)! It’s a good night as any to see the leopard, tigers, fishing cat, tapir, and Sambar deer.

Along with stress management strategies, exercise, even if it’s only walking around the neighbourhood or exploring a toy musuem, is a helpful way to manage your stress. Make time to reconnect with your friends, family, your environment and yourself. It’s good for your mental wellbeing!

Getting the most out of those infant years

Don't forget to play!

Much focus has been given in the media to the new and wonderous abilities that have been discovered in young infants. A news feature by the Guardian not so long ago, “Newborn babies may be more developed than we think” (8 December 2013), describes a few surprising things which infants have been found capable of, while others explain how infants develop (e.g., “Infant memory works from very early“, Psyblog). Other newsworthy recent research puts the spotlight on the origins of obesity: “New research: Infant nutrition and obesity”, UCL; “A brain reward gene rewards food choices”, McGill University).

But as 2014 heralds a whole new year of opportunities to learn more (and study more) for the little ones here in Singapore, it may be useful to look backwards to find some treasures in the literature about child development. Here’s 3 ways to help your child learn:

1. Talk to your child often

Toddlers with larger vocabularies tend to have higher verbal and nonverbal cognitive abilities and better school grades, and more advanced preschool literacy skills. Given that early vocabulary plays an important role in young children’s problem solving and language abilities, parents can play an active role in encouraging their baby in his or her journey of word learning.

2. Follow your child’s focus of attention

Studies show that toddlers tend to have larger vocabularies if their parents talk to them more. That’s common sense, you say. But it’s also been shown that toddlers learn new words more easily if their parents follow their toddler’s attention and talk about the object that their toddler is looking at or is interested in. So it’s not just talking more, but talking at the right time and about the right thing that counts.

3. Understand your infants’ signals

A 1997 study by Baumwell, Tamis-Lemonda, and Bornstein showed that infants whose mothers were better at reading and attending to their baby’s signs of distress, understood relatively more words. In fact, being insensitive not only induces stress among young infants, but is associated with toddlers being less securely attached to their main caregiver (e.g., mum). So it’s important to be sensitive about your child’s emotions.

Signs of cognitive decline that we should worry about

Aging successfully

It was recently reported that tip-of-the-tongue phenomena isn’t something that we need to worry excessively about.

It appears that older people have the experience of not being able to identify someone famous or find the name of something more frequently than younger people (“Tip-of-the-Tongue Moments May be Benign“, American Psychological Science, 16 Oct 2013). But it has been found to be unrelated to cognitive changes associated with onset of dementia, suggesting that we shouldn’t be too concerned when we can’t name an actor in the midst of our frenetic discussion of the current k-drama series during family reunion dinners.

In contrast, there are other signs which we should be paying attention to. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US) for example lists a number of symptoms which might indicate dementia, which include experiencing increased difficulty remembering recent conversations and appointments, performing complex tasks which involve a number of steps, orienting and finding one’s way to familiar places. The Alzheimer’s Association (US) lists 10 symptoms which distinguishes the signs that someone may have Alzheimer’s from that of typical age-related cognitive changes. Given that dementia is a progressive condition, where there is “deterioration in memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities” (WHO), these early stage signs serve as a useful guide. The tendency to confuse time and place, resulting in one going to an appointment at the wrong time or at the wrong place, is another such sign – mentioned here by the Health Promotion Board.

There is also much talk about a scan which may determine if one’s cognitive difficulties are caused by Alzheimer’s disease (“Alzheimer’s Anxiety“, NY Times, 16 Nov 2013). But perhaps more pressing for most of us is the issue of whether we’re experiencing cognitive difficulties which warrant a closer look. And the answer to that might just be in a 12-question pen-and-paper questionnaire (known as the SAGE) which has been found useful for discerning cognitive decline, and for which validity research findings were recently published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences and reported in this article in Forbes (14 Jan 2014).

Recipe for stress management

Mental wellbeing at the workplace

Corporate programmes which promote workplace wellbeing typically muscle in on environmental and systemic changes. These include providing healthier food options in the staff canteen and at catered office and business events, as well as populating open-plan offices with gifts of apples (and promises about keeping doctors away, all the while keeping an eye on pressing insurance premiums, staff medical bills and days of absenteeism down and propping immune systems and worker productivity up).

Such advocates also typically make persuasive arguments about the health benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and foods which lower low density cholesterol (LDL) levels (read: foods cooked in low levels of polyunsaturated fat, but let’s not get into that fatty debacle). And promotion of incorporating moderate to vigorous exercise into one’s weekly routine completes the equation in the corporate framework.

But nagging people into a healthy lifestyle clearly has its limits. Diabetes has a one in ten prevalence rate (MOH), while almost one in eleven has a BMI higher than 23 (MOH; see also HPB). That hasn’t changed in recent years: one in ten could be classified as clinically obese in 2011, according to this news report.

We can provide people with lots of information. The right kind of information. The internet and media together with workplace health programmes are saturated with information about how fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and chasing a ball round the field (substitute: swimming pool, garden, park, court, gym class) with other sweaty individuals, are effective ways to lower blood pressure and LDL levels and for normalizing blood glucose levels, thereby squashing the risks of a heart attack, stroke, dementia, and specific cancers. Robust effects exist for both eating and exercise.

We can provide convincing reasons for making a shift to a healthier lifestyle. Rather than just knowing that fruits and veggies are good for you, it could be better to know that increasing one’s intake of peppers, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, brinjal, broccoli, kai lan, tau geh, watercress, spinach, bayam, bitter gourd, apples, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, mango, chiku, and bananas cultivate good gut bacteria, the kind that’s associated with healthy metabolism and discourage bad gut bacteria, the kind associated with obesity (and science types interested in the fatty debacle can read this journal article). While live culture yoghurt has probiotics, eating fruits and veggies can put you at least a few steps ahead of the game. There’s also talk of a poo pill (“‘Poo pill’ the new way to better health?“, Today, 8 Jan 2014: A Daily Telegraph article).

But that’s not the one that really speaks to us. It’s the elephant in the room. Our stress levels. We tackle the hotpot of our workplace stress with longer work hours. We add flavour and seasoning to the pressure cooker by saying yes to more jobs, more meetings, more responsibilities. And then we let things simmer. Not surprising that we end up with tenderized employees who holiday with their blackberry (“S’pore travellers can’t do without Internet”, Straits Times, 8 Jan 2014).

Here’s our recipe for keeping stress on the backburner:

– a tbsp active coping behaviours
– a tbsp of assertive communication style
– 150g fruits
– 450g vegetables
– a really small pinch of low-nutrient high-calorie comfort foods
– a liberal seasoning of in-the-office exercises
– a tbsp zest for life (exercise helps; better if you find something you like doing!)
– a string of time out moments to reflect on how stress is affecting you (tips here)
– 3 cups of regular walks and bike rides along park connectors (or any of these)
– 3 cups of rubber band stretching exercises (or get a bike like this)
– (optional: seek professional help when things start to boil over)

How well do you know your baby?

Looking after baby

Hey Baby is the warm and fuzzy national campaign which has been chugging steadily along primetime TV programming on terrestial channels while Maybe Baby? is a one-stop online portal for local parents and all things about babies.

But new parents often have other kinds of questions about their developing child. They ask things like, is it healthy for my child to watch TV? Should I let my child play with the iPad? What kind of toys are good for my child? Should I start collecting pictures books for my newborn? How can I boost his or her ability to learn? Other parents have more basic questions such as are my child’s behaviours part of normal (or typical) development?

These are questions that parents often have quite different views about. There’s no exact right amount of time of TV viewing. But there are a few places to start from, if you’re a parent in want of good information:

1. Is my baby developing normally?
The KKH Women’s and Children’s Hospital lists behaviours appropriate and expected of different ages from as young as newborns to 6-year-old preschoolers.

2. Ages and Stages
These chronological developmental milestones listed from birth to young adulthood include featured articles about the best position for babies to sleep in, how to potty-train, and strategies for healthy eating.

3. Developmental Milestones
The typical stages of development for infants to preschoolers are also described by the CDC (US).

4. Social and emotional development
PBS (US) offers facts about the social developmental milestones expected of children aged 0 months to 5 years, as well as useful tips and parenting advice.

5. Healthy TV Watching
The consensus is that very young children should be given relatively few opportunities to watch television as their opportunities for learning are best available from interactions with their caregivers. This PDF from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has further information about the effects of watching television programmes with aggressive behaviours. Mayo Clinic offers other helpful tips for healthy TV habits.

6. iPads for Babies
With smart phones in every other household, the iPad is just another toy. It’s not what it can do, but what you and your very young child can do with it. Psychology Today explains why.

7. How Reading With Your Child Helps
The US National Center for Learning Disabilities has tips about choosing the right books, while the US campaign “Reading is fundamental” offers tips on reading aloud. The Hanen Centre provides firsthand advice about the benefits of reading, while local libraries like Queenstown Library have expansive collections suitable for children of any age.

8. What Toys Are Best
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to read the label and age-appropriate information about the toy (, the National Association for the Education of Young Children provides a useful guide on the types of toys suitable for different ages (but read also this article about the important role of parents).

9. How much gaming? 
Recent research findings from a 2014 study of 3,034 Singaporean children published in the JAMA Pediatrics showed that playing games with violent themes made children more likely to say they would respond with aggression, with this effect being greater among younger (primary school) than older (secondary school) children.

Children who said they would respond with aggression were more likely to think that aggressive behaviours were acceptable responses to conflict situations and to think about responding to a hypothetical situation with aggression. The negative impact of violent gaming was found to be independent of gender, gaming hours, and an earlier history of aggression (conduct problems). All these point to the need to limit the number of hours young children play games which have violent themes.

Autism: Facts and Tips

autism updates

Autism is a developmental disorder which leads to difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, with social interactions, and with understanding and predicting other people’s intentions and behaviours. On this Autism Awareness Day, it’s important that we know the facts:

1. The cause for autism is as yet unknown.

2. Not everyone who has autism has a special talent like that of Raymond in Rain Man (1988).

3. Autism can be diagnosed in early childhood. 

4. More boys than girls are diagnosed with autism.

5. There are support groups for families of individuals with autism.

6. It’s important for parents to receive emotional support as well.