Things to do in the June holidays

We’re a tuition nation. It’s no secret. We know the truth — in order to succeed in life, we need tuition. We’re not Finland after all.

Boy Photographing Man

It can’t be, of course, that life lessons need to be learnt through failure (don’t believe what you read in this article or this Harvard Business Review blog entry). That our ability to stand knocks and all the falling down we’re going to do later in life, is partly determined by our exposure to failure earlier in life. That resilience comes from experiencing difficulties. That the road to resilience is paved with stones and potholes left there to trip us up (and hopefully help us get up again).

Certainly not. Which is why this school holiday, it’s important for our children to get their pocket money worth of tuition and enrichment classes. And definitely not spend their holiday time going to any of the following places. Although there’s no doubt that there’s no good learning to be had here (never mind what you’re told at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, 30 May to 4 June 2014):

1. Social emotional learning lessons can be sourced pretty much (surprisingly) everywhere, from the dinner table to the shopping mall. Interactions with family members should provide invaluable lessons on social skills and interpersonal interactions. But ambitious parents may want to aim higher by taking their brood to the cinema for the likes of Rio 2, MuppetsMost Wanted and Frozen. Domesticated types can stay home with the DVD version of Croods, Shrek 3, Toy Story 3, and Despicable Me 2 (for a lesson plan, look here).

2. Lessons on business management come at a fairly reasonable fee. Young (social or otherwise) entrepreneurs can aim to clear up their wardrobe clutter in favour of accumulating wealth at local flea markets such as For Flea Sake and Zouk Flea & Easy. Creative sorts can hawk their wares at more creative arenas like Maad and Public Garden (see also Handmade Movement SG).

3. A holistic approach to language enrichment through interactive games, plays, movie screenings for children and their families can be found at Children’s Season (2014) organised by the Museum Roundtable (including the Old Ford Factory, Reflections at Bukit Chandu, and Singapore Philatelic Museum).

4. Creative brains will delight at the Ace! Festival and SAM, through art at Sungei Buloh, and classical concerts at the Symphony Lake, Singapore Botanic Gardens.

5. The Night and River Safari at the Singapore Zoo, the Jurong Bird Park, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Gardens by the Bay, Hort Park, the butterfly park at Alexandra Hospital, and the butterfly and cactus garden at Changi Airport all offer enrichment programmes for a solid introduction to biology.

6. The Kranji Countryside Association (including Bollywood Veggies) offers geography enrichment classes, providing children with the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge and insight into the eco-tourism industry.

7. The Singapore Science Centre offers further biology enrichment classes on Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) an explorer who conducted field expeditions in the Malay Archipelago. And no lesson will be complete without the uphill task of following the Wallace trail at Dairy Farm, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

8. The Singapore Science Centre also promises chemistry and physics lessons for young minds. But free cooking demonstrations at Tangs can double as basic chemistry classes.

9. Asian and local history enrichment lessons come at affordable prices at the National Museum, Asian Civilisation Museum, the Museum of Toys.

10. Useful information for children’s new hobbies (up to the ages of 85 years and older) can be found at the Library. The self-help approach to language enrichment can be attained here and here.

 

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Advertisements

Executive coaching is not for life

We know a coach as someone who demands drills on the field and laps in the pool or that comfortable but speedy curtain-clad air-conditioned double-decker which delivers customers at the doorstep of the newest mall across the causeway. It’s also that classic Vespa light blue leather must-have, complete with requisite tassels, zips, and shoulder strap.

Executive Coaching

But there’s another kind of coaching that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Life coaches aim to help people reach their goals, as this article indicates. Life coaches may however not have the training, skills, or empathetic aptitude they should be equipped with, as the author of this article discovers. In fact, data from this study suggest that a substantial proportion of those who seek help from a life coach show signs of depression. As such, it seems important for life coaches to have received adequate and appropriate training. As this CBS Moneywatch article suggests, the importance of being coached by a professional life coach cannot be overemphasized. Even so, there are benefits to life coaching: Specifically, evidence-based life coaching has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006) and help clients achieve and strive for their goals (Spence & Grant, 2005).

There is another sort of coaching known as business coaching. This is where business owners receive advice about growing their business. The kind where social enterprises receive guidance from peers in the same industry under a scheme hosted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. And in the same vein as Social Inc., the Channel News Asia programme, in which new social enterprise start-ups receive mentorship from established business owners in the same industry. The benefits are not only qualitative (read this blog), but quantitative (read this article).

And then there’s executive coaching, which based on a definition by Kilburg (1996), involves using cognitive and behavioural techniques to help a manager/supervisor improve his/her performance, wellbeing, and effectiveness of his/her organization. To be distinguished from mentorship, which facilitates an employee’s professional and career development (here’s a fact sheet), executive coaching provides a structured environment in which managers or supervisors work with the coach to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues.

Evidence from research including random controlled studies, indicates that the cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach brings about goal attainment, increased mental resilience, improved psychological wellbeing, and reduced stress levels. Other studies report benefits which extend beyond a six-fold return-on-investment to include improvements in teamwork, relationships, job satisfaction and performance.

But as this Harvard Business Review notes, the results can also be a bit of a mixed bag. Much depends on the coaches hired. There is certainly value in hiring someone with senior corporate management experience (“Coaching the Next Generation“, Straits Times, 2004), particularly since executive coaches need to have insight into “the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive” (APA, 2002). At the same time, there is also value in hiring someone trained to handle underlying interpersonal relationship issues (“Coaching the coaches“, Psychology Today, 2009).

Moreover, there is funding available to support executive coaching initiatives. Training staff through executive coaching (using local funding such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Capability Development Grant from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council’s Way to Go! campaign) meets the target of enhancing productivity by helping managers and supervisors optimize employee engagement. It’s not for life but it will give you a head start in the corporate world.

Why we eat what we eat

Recent reports about the increasing number of people with diabetes mellitus in Singapore and who need kidney dialysis (and here’s the science behind it) are a timely reminder about the evils of simple carbohydrates. Like white bread and white rice.

Saturated fat used to be the bad guy. Now we point fingers at sugar. But refined sugar (white or brown, does it matter? it’s still sugar) is not entirely to blame. Rather, simple carbohydrates are the reason why obesity is on the rise. They’re the real villains for specific individuals, such as people who have diabetes (here’s why).

Simple carbs are the bad guy?

But knowing that fries, chips, crisps, cinnamon raisin buns swirled with icing, cupcakes, and chocolate croissants are not what you should eat regularly is one thing. Actually not eating them is quite another.

One would think that if people told you that you were large (for want of a better label: see this article for ideas), you would stop eating things responsible for your size. But in fact, it does the opposite (this Dr Oz episode is a good illustration). It has unintended consequences: We’re motivated to eat more of those sorts of things people keep telling us not to eat (presumably for our own good).

Emotional eating is the tendency for us to overeat when we’re faced with negative emotions. It’s when we eat to make ourselves feel better. Research indicates that we are inclined to eat when we feel sad. But less so when we experience positive emotions such as when we’re being included as part of a social group. Eating is also often a strategy for dealing with stress.

It could be worse. We could have non-hostile acquaintances who sabotage our good intentions not to eat things we’re not allowed to have and who put us down for making an effort (read these articles on how to questionidentify, and fix toxic friendships). So apart from putting to good use your assertive communication skills (i.e., saying no), it can be useful to have these strategies in your pocket:

1. Keep a food diary
Tracking what you eat and how you felt when you ate it, can make you aware of whether you’re guilty of emotional eating. Instead of a pen-and-paper diary, take pictures of your meals and snacks for a blog or daily facebook post to save time and handbag (or trouser pocket) space.

2. Cook your own meals
Research indicates that doing our own cooking encourages healthy dietary habits. Make a batch on the weekend and bring a portion for lunch. Or bring the constituents of a sandwich, assemble it at the office, and stick it in the toaster for a few minutes.

3. Get your RDA of fruits and veggies
Stash crunchy fruits like jambu, guava, and apples on your desk. Snack on Japanese rice crackers instead of biscuits, and stock your desk with only a few at a time. Keep a facebook diary of healthy snacks and meals to inspire others around you.

4. Make instant oats in a cup
Irish and steel-cut oats retain the whole grain benefits of rolled oats but provide a time-saving convenient snack, as long as your office pantry has a microwave. Add honey, dried cranberries, flax seeds, almonds, and normal cornflakes for crunchy texture.

5. Drink water
Buy disposable tea filters from Daiso and make your own tea bags from loose tea. Keep a stack nearby at work so you can add a tea bag to hot water, if you don’t like drinking plain water. It’s a quick fix for the “itchy mouth” syndrome. Get into the habit of saying “o sosong” or homemade barley at the coffee shop. Soon, you can order unsugared hot drinks on autopilot.

6. Sharing is caring
Share your dessert and cake with others, instead of having the whole thing to yourself. Or bring your tupperware so you can keep half of it for another day. Birthday at the office and leftover cake is calling out your name? Box it up and offer it to a colleague with many little ones to feed at home or offer it to another department!

Don’t just stand there gawking at the cake (and eat it). Do something about it!

Dealing with the terrible twos

Parenting

There isn’t unfortunately a module in university or textbook in school to teach parents good parenting skills. Parenting skills are also not directly taught to teachers, although such skills are to be valued in the classroom.

Research on child development is consistent in advocating positive and consistent parenting, together with warmth, as must-haves. They’re useful for dealing with toddler tantrums. They’re applicable for handling teenagers and the pre-teens. They’re relevant even with undergrads.

We are quick to provide tuition and enrichment classes to encourage cognitive learning. But children’s social and emotional development is just as important.

Here’s a look at what the literature actually says:

1. Praise behaviours
Children who receive positive reinforcement for their effort (and not their intelligence) were more willing to try a more challenging task than their peers who were praised for being clever. This seminal 1998 finding shows that it’s crucial to reward children for their good behaviours.

2. Be consistent
Recent reports argue that the naughty step may be inappropriate for very young children (because it assumes very young children can calm themselves down and gives them a moment to reflect on their actions when they may well not be cognitively able to yet: read this article for why). Instead, experts recommend positive parenting (see #1 above). Moreover, being consistent is paramount: here’s a useful guide.

3. Nuture emotional intelligence
Social emotional intelligence is the new black in school these days. But children don’t acquire emotional intelligence by themselves. Guiding children to articulate and gain awareness of their emotions, anger, and frustrations can however be an important first step towards handling difficult behaviours at home and in school.

4. Encourage collaboration
Soft skills are the thing at the workplace. But it’s easier said than done. The local schooling system encourages competition rather than collaboration (a lesson from learning the Finnish way). It’s also hard to let children learn things the hard way (there are advocates for this approach: “go ahead, let your children fail“), but it is an important lesson. And better learnt earlier, rather than later.

5. Sleep is key
We don’t get enough sleep. So it’s normal for our children not to either. But sleep is crucial to learning and remembering thingsStudies show that mobile phones and games prevent children from getting quality rest, which is essential for cognitive learning and academic performance. Cranky children also make for anger tantrums and uncooperative learners. It’s never too late to encourage good bedtime habits!

6. Breakfast is essential
Adults need breakfast to stay congenial as employees and to be engaged at work. More so for children: Their brains need constant fuel (here’s why)! Mum was right: breakfast is the most important meal of the day (especially if it’s oats and fruits)!

Stressed about eating?

Stressed about eating

It’s well-established that eating saturated fat raises our risk of coronary heart disease. The American Heart Association advises us to eat more lean meat and poultry and less saturated and trans fat. Our Health Promotion Board identifies polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats as the good guys, and saturated and trans fats as the bad guys (there are no ugly guys but one could consider sugar a strong contender).

But recent research findings suggest otherwise. The study in the spotlight, which was a meta-analysis of data from 72 studies, found that unsaturated fat consumption was not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. This appears to suggest that we can start working on that saturated fat deficit, by stuffing our faces with beef rendang, massaman curry, laksa, chendol, goreng pisang, and bubur cha cha. But actually, no. Not quite.

The results in fact indicate that the type of fat consumed is likely not as important as previously thought (read this article for details). Apart from one bad guy. Trans fats remain guilty for their contribution to heart disease (here’s a fact sheet about trans fats). Which means that we still need to look out for biscuits and crisps which are made with partially hydrogenated oils, and not going all out on doughnuts or coffee creamer.

That said, the real issue is about what drives us to eat.

One reason is of course stress. When we experience a stressful event and negative emotions, we might get a doughnut (or two, especially if it’s a Krispy Kreme) and we feel much better afterwards. We know this as emotional eating. There is actually a physiological basis to our behaviours.

As explained in this Harvard Mental Health Letter, a situation which we perceive as alarming causes us to produce a fight or flight response, resulting in the release of epinephrine (adrenalin) or norepinephrine (noradrenalin). These hormones allow us to flee the scene or defend ourselves. In response to the same situation, our brain introduces another hormone, cortisol, to the blood stream, particularly if the stressful situation persists.

As explained here by these academic authors, exposure to chronic stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which is in turn associated with increased appetite. One study in particular has shown that women who respond to a stressful situation with more cortisol tend to be individuals who say they engage in emotional eating; they also tend to have relatively more abdominal fat (the link between cortisol and abdominal fat is explained here).

This simply means that when we perceive a situation as stressful, we’re more inclined to want foods which provide us with energy quickly — sugary foods. Otherwise known as simple carbohydrates. Doughnuts are a perfect example. Which means that, to combat stress, we can learn to perceive stressful situations as being less threatening than they initially appear to be (except in the face of real danger like a fire or a grizzly bear). Or we can reduce our exposure to stressful situations (like saying no).

But conditioning ourselves not to eat in response to negative emotions and providing ourselves with non-fried complex carbohydrate options at our desks will likely make that journey easier (and less costly to both our physical and mental health).

Eating to feel better

Research findings are clear: We feel better not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally, when we exercise (read these articles from the American Psychological Association and Harvard Medical School to understand the science behind the claim).

But what we eat may also play a role. Specifically, certain foods can be helpful for enhancing our mood (here’s the rough guide). Here’s what the research says:

oats

1. Chocolate
It’s official. Dark chocolate is good for you. This is not just because it’s been reported widely in the media (e.g., CNN, Science Illustrated, Psypost). But it’s because a 2013 random controlled double-blind study showed that healthy adults given a daily high dose of cocoa polyphenols reported better mood at the end of the month than their peers who were given a placebo.

2. Oats and barley
Apart from the wholegrain benefits of eating complex carbohydrates, oats and barley are also good sources of folate, which is important for producing neurotransmitters which in turn control mood.

3. Lentils and beans
Lentils and beans provide not only dietary fibre and a low-GI (glycaemic index) complex carbohydrate meal option, they are also good sources of folate. This means pinto, borlotti, cannellini, and black beans, as well as chickpeas. Even mung beans are rich in folate (good ol’ tau suan).

4. Leafy greens and avocado
Folate, B6, and B12, are important for the production of neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin) involved in mood regulation. Mangoes, avocado, and asparagus are also good sources of folate. B6 is naturally found in dark leafy greens, papaya, and orange, while eggs, cheese, and fish are good sources of B12. So Popeye was right after all: Spinach is good for you.

5. Tofu, flax seeds, and walnuts
Omega-3 fatty acids are reported to directly affect serotonin regulation (here’s the scientific explanation) and are found to affect mood. Other studies indicate incorporating omega-3 rich foods into one’s diet (typically oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines) has a positive effect on mental wellbeing. Flax seeds, walnuts, tofu, and scallops are excellent sources of this highly sought after fatty acid.

Happy Labour Day!

Take your vacation time!

You’re planning to spend your May Day holiday at home on the sofa with the TV. And you just got up a few minutes ago to meet your friends and family for a lazy brunch and are now admiring the herons and boats that don’t belong to you at Keppel Marina.

You’re automatically checking work email for updates while at brunch (your fingers move faster than your brain can say “stop doing that”). And starting to feel cranky (when are my eggs benedict arriving?) and are already looking forward to returning to the sofa to do nothing all afternoon.

If you’re doing all that, instead of posting selfies at some exotic location and creating social envy mayhem on facebook, it probably means that you didn’t quite make it to planning a trip away for this long weekend break.

But it’s not too late. There are still approximately six months left in the year for you to make time for some rest and relaxation. Here are some ideas:

1. May
Blue tiger butterflies congregate in the valley at Datun Mountain in the Yang Ming Shan National Park, Taiwan from April to May. It’s an easy 40 min bus ride from Taipei Main Station (rapid transit) to the park.

2. June
One of the world’s best dive site, Sipadan which is off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia, is best visited in the dry season – between April and Nov/Dec. Turtles, fishes, coral, rays and sharks are the reason to go diving there. Visitors can stay at Semporna on the coast. Visitors need to take a 2.5 hour flight from KL to Tawau, and then catch a ride from Tawau to the village. A hundred and twenty divers are allowed each day (no limit on non-diving visitors) at Sipadan which is 40 mins by speed boat.

3. July
Tapirs, among other wildlife including trogons and broadbills, are most easily spotted at mineral licks in the Taman Negara National Park, Pahang, Malaysia during July, the peak of the dry season which lasts from March to October. Travel involves a 2 hour coach ride from the Pekeliling Bus Station in KL to Jerantut, and another 1 to 1.5 hour bus ride to Kuala Tahan, the local village nearest to the park.

4. August
Day lilies bloom and cover the Sixty Stone Mountain in Hualien county, Taiwan from August to September. Express trains take 2 hours to get from Taipei Railway Main Station to Hualien.

5. September
Peak egg laying season is July to October for Green and Hawksbill turtles at Turtle Islands, off the coast of Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. It’s a few hours to fly from the capital KL to Sandakan via Kota Kinabalu in Sarawak.

6. October
It’s not the school holidays so October is a good time for a trip to Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, Malaysia. It is also migratory bird season and Fraser’s Hill has much to offer, from local trogons and broadbills to siamang and gibbons. Visitors can follow a tour or hire a car to get to the bungalows on the hill.

7. November
Migratory season for shore birds fleeing from the harsh winters to the Mai Po Wetlands in Hong Kong starts late October. The journey to the wetlands involves a 1.5 hour MTR ride to Sheung Shui station from Central, a 50 min bus ride to the nearest bus stop, and 20 min walk to the nature reserve.

8. December
The cool and dry season for Hanoi, Vietnam lasts from November to April, making December a relatively cool month to visit Halong Bay. Attractions include pristine beaches and boat tours of picturesque limestone towers which dot the bay.

9. January
It’s getting colder in the northern hemisphere. And the beginning of new year resolutions to exercise and smell the roses more. It’s a splendid time to visit these Unesco sites. The royal palace, Pha Bang, and the 16th century wat in Luang Prabang, Laos is one for the culture vultures. Scholars of Southeast Asian civilisation will want to visit the 8-9 AD temples at Borobodur, Java, Indonesia, as well as the palace in Java’s cultural capital, Yogyakarta.

10. February 
February is the dry season in Khao Yai, the big mountain, in Thailand and a good time to go hiking for gibbons, elephants, and hornbills. It’s 2.5 hours by bus from Mo Chit, the northern bus terminal in Bangkok to Pak Chong, the nearest town to Khao Yai. Gaurs are said to be more easily spotted though in the dry hot season in March to April.

11. March
If you’re waiting till March, you can visit NATAS!

Not to belabour the point, but it’s important to say no to work (APA has some pointers). Everyone needs a holiday to recharge and reap the benefits of exercise and fixing their sleep deficit. And if you haven’t got enough leave, take a short break instead (why? read this article).

So no time like the present. What are you waiting for? Get planning!