Secrets to success at school

What do you think helps your children do well at school? If you had to guess, you might say sleep, exercise, breakfast, and language. And you’d be right.

Sleep
It’s no secret that sleep is the crucial in order for our brains to function. It is essential for cognitive tasks like storing and recalling newly learnt information, as well as problem solving. Naps have been shown to be improve the ability to learn in babies, not just adults, older children, and teenagers.

But studies also demonstrate a direct relationship between getting good sleep and children’s school grades. A 2014 study on Swedish teenagers found that teens who had poor sleep performed more poorly in their academic studies, while a 2015 study on Canadian children aged 7 to 11 years showed that those who were efficient at getting to sleep had better grades in Maths and their language subjects.

The problem however is getting that good quality sleep. Which is where good sleep habits come in. In fact, studies show that not drinking coffee or hot chocolate near bedtime, having a regular bedtime, and not having access to a smart device during the night, are important factors for helping kids get good quality sleep.

Exercise
If we spent less time on co-curricular sports activities, we’d have more time for learning. True. We’d also have better reading and maths scores if we read more books and did more maths exercises. Also true.

But studies also show that exercise improves academic and school performance. A 2014 study found that primary school children’s ability to pay attention and avoid distractions improved after participating in a 9-month intervention involving moderate-to-vigourous physical activity for at least an hour each day after school. In another study, boys in the first three years of schooling had better reading skills and arithmetic scores if they were more physically active from sports during recess or after school.

So it pays to be active. Literally.

Breakfast
It’s old news that breakfast is good for learning. Previous studies have shown that a low GI breakfast like oats and fruits or scrambled eggs on multigrain bread can help children maintain their attention on cognitive tasks through the morning.

But what’s new is that the benefits of breakfast can be measured in school grades. A 2015 study showed that children from low-income homes who received free school breakfasts performed better at maths, science, and reading than their peers whose schools did not participate in the school breakfast programme.

But it’s not just breakfast that’s key. A 2014 study showed fast food consumption to be linked to poor school grades, among 11-year-olds.

So, happy meals are out, and breakfast is in.

Language
The number of words babies learn in their first years of life is predictive of their later cognitive skills and verbal IQ levels, as well as school achievements. But it’s not just their vocabulary size during infancy that’s important.

There are also benefits to providing very young children with exposure to two or more languages. Recent research not only finds that bilingual infants have better executive control (read this review), but that they are also better at understanding other people’s perspectives and can use these social skills to solve problems. So, rather than erroneously assume that getting young children to learn two languages is deleterious to their language learning, there’s actually much evidence to suggest that it’s an advantage.

So there you have it. The four important things for school success are sleep, being physically active, having breakfast regularly, and language skills in the early years.

Well, okay. There are a few more things.

Music
Learning a musical instrument doesn’t just help children gain musical ability. A 2014 study found that teaching low-income 9- and 10-year-olds a musical instrument prevented their reading abilities from declining, compared to a control group of peers. Another 2014 study found that learning a musical instrument improved children’s ability to pay attention and regulate their emotions. In addition, it reduced their anxiety levels. Even musical training as brief as half an hour could result in greater blood flow to brain areas responsible for learning language and processing music. So, get your children to learn a musical instrument, even if they don’t pursue it for long.

Green spaces
Having access to green spaces appears to have a beneficial effect on children’s learning. Although it’s not clear exactly what’s so special about looking at green stuff, research suggests that green spaces are associated with better grades in school, according to a 2014 study. And a 2015 study has found that just one year of exposure to green spaces produces better working memory among primary school children.

The good thing is that you’re never far from a green space here in sunny Singapore. Unless you spend all your family and leisure time in a shopping centre…

Family dinners
Apart from providing children with the opportunity to develop social and emotional skills with the guidance of their parents and siblings, family dinners are also useful in buffering the effects of cyberbullying. A 2014 study found that teenagers whose families regularly had dinner together were less likely to experience cyberbullying.

Warmth and boundaries
Research shows that children are academically more successful with parents who are responsive to their children’s emotional needs and who are consistent in setting limits and boundaries for them. Don’t underestimate the power of believing in your child’s abilities and potential, because great expectations promote great achievements (Time, 2013).

So there are really no secrets to how to help your children be their best at school. But it helps if children have the parental support and the social emotional skills they need to navigate not only school work, but also life’s ups and downs.

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3 simple ways to keep mentally fit

Sleep is essential in order for our brains to function well as we age. A 2014 study found that those with poor sleep tend to have more memory and problem solving concerns. A local study also found that the less we sleep the faster our brains age.

Exercise is another key ingredient for healthy aging. The authors of a 2014 study report that those who didn’t exercise regularly were more likely to have problems with their memory. Moreover, older adults with have better lung and heart health, which is enhanced through regular physical activity, also tend to have better memory and problem solving abilities, according to another 2014 study.

Being socially active is another cornerstone for optimal aging. And these days social connections includes those through social media: According to a 2014 study, training older adults to use social media helped to improve their mental well-being. It’s clearly never too late to learn!

Our outlook on life can also contribute to our ability to age well. A 2014 study finds that those who are cynical — that is, those who tend to believe that others are “mainly motivated by selfish concerns” — are more likely to have dementia. Researchers observed that depression rates were lower among older adults who used the internet, according to a 2014 study.

It’s of course also important to eat right. A 2014 study finds that one gramme (1g) of tumeric a day improves the memory of those in the early stages of diabetes (and who therefore have a higher risk of dementia). Other research shows that eating baked or broiled fish once a week is associated with better brain functioning among older adults. According to this 2014 study, it doesn’t matter whether the fish that you’re eating has a lot of omega-3 fatty acids or not. That means that including ikan kurau could be just as beneficial for your brain health as salmon is. Fish curry, anyone?

Pursuing mentally challenging activities also plays an important role in determining how we age. A 2014 study shows that having a mentally challenging job is associated with better cognitive functioning later in life, while another 2014 study finds that those who engage in intellectual activities are less likely to experience cognitive decline later in life.

But it’s not actually about playing more majong or playing video games. Rather, it’s important for us to learn new skills. As they say, either you use it or you lose it. And recent research does show that learning a demanding skill pays dividends.

So here are 3 simple ways to challenge yourself.

1. Shop at a different supermarket
Instead of going to your usual supermarket, challenge your brain by going to a supermarket that’s not familiar to you. By going to the a different NTUC, Giant, or Sheng Siong, you’ll be able to find the brands you want, but your brain will have to work harder to locate them. Plus it could save you time, especially if you did your grocery shopping together with your other errands at the same location.

2. Explore a new route
Instead of doing your errands by the usual route that you know, try a different route. It could be using a different MRT line or bus route. It could be finding a different way to walk from the bus stop or MRT station to your office or home. Challenge your brain to add more information to the mental map that you already have for that neighbourhood or area.

3. Learn a new routine
You may already have a hobby that involves learning a pattern or routine. If you already read music, learning to play a genre that’s new to you (e.g., jazz) or learning a new instrument (e.g., the ukelele) will definitely help you make new neural connections.

If your hobby involves movement, try learning a new form. For dancers, this could mean trying something new like ballet for adults, tango, or tap. For those who practise tai chi, it could mean learning another style or form. Instead of cycling, learn to roller-blade or ice-skate. Or try a cycling trail in a nature reserve instead of using the park connectors.

If you like learning languages, it may be time to switch to a new language. If you play chess, challenge yourself with a new strategy game like weiqi (圍棋) or bridge.

If you’re already very practised at solving sudoku and optimizing your Freecell score, you may be surprised to find out that doing more of the same (even if you’re attempting the really difficult stuff) isn’t likely to be helping you delay dementia.

Because if you’re not outside your comfort zone, your brain’s probably not busy making new neural connections and you’re not building up your cognitive reserve.

5 Places to Visit When You’re Feeling Stressed

5 Places to De-stress in Singapore

It’s finally the holidays! Hooray!

You’ve finally managed to get 5 minutes to yourself. To arrange to catch up with some friends. To space out over lunch with your colleagues. To sleep in on the weekend. To enjoy the commute now that the roads are pleasantly clear, even during peak hours.

Right about now, you might be thinking about how you can to reset your balancing act of juggling work and life. And re-charge yourself.

There’s plenty of research about what helps us adapt well in the face of life’s challenges. What helps us bounce back when we experience set-backs, things that cause emotional upheavals, even the minor intrusions onto our otherwise happy demeanor. Factors which help include being able to make realistic plans and carry them out, knowing what your strengths and abilities are, being aware and able to manage your emotions, and having problem solving skills (from The Road to Resilience: APA).

But It also helps if you also make the effort on a regular basis to manage your stress levels. That means spending time in green spaces, getting regular exercise and building physical activity in our routine, spending quality time on strengthening social connections with our families and friends, creating time for relaxation routines (yes, even walking around the neighbourhood counts), and investing in creative pastimes, even if it’s a passive appreciation of culture and natural history.

Here are some ideas to kick start your journey! Not only can you do all of the above if you go with your family and friends, but you’ll be glad you went because these gems won’t be here at for very long:

1. Biddadari
This 93ha leafy ex-cemetery, which currently is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna including butterflies, birds, squirrels, and tembusu trees, will become a housing estate with the the first underground air-conditioned bus interchange on the island in a few years. Visit this forgotten woodland to see rarely sighted birds like the Oriental scops owl, Blue-winged pitta, and Indian cuckoo, as well as regular residents like the Lineated Barbet and the Finlayson or variable squirrel, which can only be found in the area.

Getting there: The forest is next to Mount Vernon. Exit at Woodleigh MRT or take bus number 100, 135, or 155 and stop on Upper Aljunied Road.

2. Bukit Brown
An eclectic and fascinating collection of Chinese graves which include those of well-known figures from the early immigrant local Chinese community is just one feature of this 233ha sprawling cemetery. Take a tour through history at this heritage site (maps available at bukitbrown.org), or enjoy the melodious song of the Straw-headed bulbul and White-rumped sharma and agile antics of the Common tailorbird and White-breasted Kingfisher at this urban oasis (find out more the birds at Bukit Brown here).

Getting there: Bus services 52, 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, and 855 will get you to Adam Road. Head for Sime Road and the main entrance is after Lor Halwa. If you’re driving there, Lor Halwa can also be accessed through University Road (off Dunearn Road), which continues as Kheam Hock Road.

3. Pulau Ubin
Current plans to protect the diverse wildlife and eroding shoreline mean that this island should stay a haven for flora and fauna for a while. But the ever-changing landscape in Singapore (including her smaller islands) also serves as a reminder that it’s good to enjoy the kampung feeling at this small island while it’s here.

Seagrasses, coral, and the Horseshoe crab and Fiddler crab are among the natives to be found among the mangrove trees during low tide at Chek Jawa. Visit House No. 1 just inside the entrance to Chek Jawa for a good view of the only remaining fireplace in Singapore. And you might just find a toothless wild boar trying to make friends with your food near Chek Jawa.

Getting there: Take a bum boat from Changi Jetty for $2.50 (each way) and hire a bicycle when you get to the island.

4. Kampung Lor Buangkok
Current renovations are under way for some of the houses at the last kampung on the island. Visit this 1.22ha village to relive a forgotten era with their free-range chickens (although you can also spend all day peering at the freely roaming and magnificent jungle fowl at Pasir Ris Park if you’re than keen on chickens) and idle your afternoon away on a tree swing.

Getting there: The kampung is at 7 Lor Buangkok. Bus services 70, 103, and 854 take you to Yio Chu Kang Road. Stop at the bus stop near Church of St Vincent de Paul and cross the overhead bridge to the kampung.

5. Lim Chu Kang and Kranji farms
The lease for farming land in Lim Chu Kang will expire in a few years’ time. So that means, that the Lim Chu Kang farms may not be there for very long. But you can visit existing ones that have invested in sustainable farming along the Kranji Countryside. Their regular farmer’s market offers an enticing smorgasbord of locally made jams, chutneys, nut butters, sambals, and herb plants and seeds. The trees in the area are also home to industrious yellow-headed Baya weavers during the nesting season, while the otters and kingfishers at Sungei Buloh are only a stone’s throw away in the same neighbourhood.

Getting there: Bus service 975 will leave you at Lim Chu Kang Road. The farms at Neo Tiew Crescent are a bright and sunny 30min walk away. The nature reserve is best accessed on bus service 925 which stops on Neo Tiew Crescent, soon after the bridge on Kranji Way.

So, get out and enjoy the fresh air!

Coping with Kinabalu

Mental resilience for children

One might describe the experiences that the children and teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School had at Kota Kinabalu during the recent earthquake as harrowing. Their experiences would certainly qualify as traumatic.

Not just because there was a threat to their lives and safety. But because the event was unexpected; because they weren’t prepared for it; and because they were helpless to prevent it. And because these things can happen anywhere, it’s possible to experience a traumatic eventeven without a natural disaster.

We can also be affected by the natural disaster. We also have emotional responses to the event, though our responses may differ from one another. Common responses include being more irritable or moody than usual, feeling anxious or overwhelmed, numbness, sadness, having recurring memories about the event, difficulties concentrating, social withdrawal and changes in your eating/sleeping patterns. Read more about these emotional responses here and here.

So what can you do? Plenty. Here are some ways you can help:

1. As parents
Parents can support their children by letting them know that they can ask questions and express their emotions. The ADAA (US) also advises adults to limit excessive watching and replays of the natural disaster with younger children, and to be available to older children and teenagers who do want to watch or read the news and discuss the event.

2. As teachers
Teachers can play an important role in supporting both the children who have experienced the natural disaster and others who haven’t experienced the earthquake but who are affected by the event. In addition to providing a safe environment for children to share their thoughts and emotions, teachers are well-placed to keep a watch for signs and symptoms of distress among children affected by the event.

3. As grandparents
Apart from explaining the event and answering children’s questions in a language that children understand, grandparents can also help children, younger children in particular, find the right words to express their emotions. More tips for adults can be found here.

4. As family members 
In addition to being available to listen, other adults can provide support by helping families return to familiar routines, including regular meal times and sleep schedulesexercise and spending time with loved ones.

5. As a helping professional
Among the various things which APA advocates mental health professionals do to support those affected by a traumatic event, it’s worth reminding ourselves about two things in particular. First, not everyone who is affected by a natural disaster will necessarily experience a traumatic event. Second, not everyone who needs support is ready to receive help. And one more thing. we can be helpful if we’re also taking care of ourselves. Read more about the importance of self-care and various strategies for self-care here.

6. As a medical professional
Social work and medical professionals can help by being available to listen to their clients and patients when they feel ready to talk. The US CDC has a tip sheet for helping individuals cope with a traumatic event.

7. Everybody
And not everyone who has been affected by a traumatic event wants to talk about it, their thoughts, and their emotions. We can be helpful in just being there, and by providing help in more practical ways. Providing chicken stew for dinner, helping to mind the kids for an afternoon, and helping someone run an errand are all ways we can help. The RCP (US) has other useful resources on coping after a traumatic event.

All work and no play makes June very dull

Don't distress. De-stress!

Long-term exposure to work-related stress impacts our mental health. According to a recent report, more young professionals are experiencing burnout (Straits Times, 14 April 2015), while a recent local study reports that as many as 1 in 13 or 14 have depression, if they’re professionals or senior managers, or if they’re from the sales and service industry.

Not exactly a pretty picture. For most of us, it’s a blurry line between work and personal life. But before we roll down the slippery slope of workaholism, there’s a few things we can do to help ourselves. We don’t need to take huge leaps. But we can start instead with small steps:

1. Get inspired to exercise
Exercise is an effective strategy for managing stress. Even a 10-min walk can do wonders for your mood and mental well-being.

  • With the SEA games starting today, it’s a great time to get inspired. Watch the swimming and cycling to get into the mood for a dip in the pool and ride around the park connectors.
  • Get a free workout with HPB’s physical activity programme Sunrise in the City at different locations across the island. Gym classes available include yoga, kickboxing, Zumba, functional and circuit training, and body combat.
  • Take a guided intertidal walk with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum to Pulau Hantu on 5 August 2015 (6.30am to noon).
  • Round up your colleagues for a friendly game of badminton at an Singapore Sports Council court ($3.50/hour on weekdays before 6pm).

2. Culture-up for SG50
Research suggests that creative pursuits are another way to beat stress, even if it only involves appreciating cultural activities as part of the audience. It’s a great excuse for some alone (or not-so-alone) time with your loved ones.

  • The Peranakan Musuem features an exhibition on the lives of 50 influential Babas and Nonyas until March 2016.
  • A huge collection of oil paintings telling the story of Singapore and her late leader Mr Lee Kuan Yew are on show at The Crescent (Level 2) at the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre until the end of June 2015.
  • Cultural and musical performances, along with kacang putih and ice ball stalls, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on the National Day weekend, 7-8 August 2015.
  • Visit the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at Kent Ridge which features Southeast Asian plants and animals. The Phylogenetic Garden is among the gardens surrounding the museum which is open to the public without an entry ticket to the museum which is open 10am to 7pm.

3. Socialising without food
Spending time with your friends and family without it involving food in Singapore is a tall order. But there are a few things which can bring you and your friends and/or family together:

  • Kranji Countryside Farmers Market just had its quarterly farm festival on 30 and 31 May 2015. But if you missed it, there’s the fortnightly farmer’s market at The Pantry at Loewen Gardens on the first and third Saturday of the month.
  • Original craft and designs are part of the showcase at the Maker Faire which is held in Tampines on the weekend of 11-12 July 2015.
  • Enjoy the music over a beer with friends and family at the Beer Festival from 25 to 28 June 2015.
  • Visit the four new arrivals from Australia at the Zoo and get a 50% discount on a River Safari ticket when you pay for your entry ticket to see the koalas at the Singapore Zoo.

Better ways to call it quits

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You likely know the reasons why you should quit smoking.

If you didn’t, here’s a fact sheet from the World Health Organization. You’re probably aware that stopping smoking reduces your risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease more commonly referred to as COPD (more facts here). A recent study has further shown that long-term smoking causes your brain’s cortex to thin. The good news is that stopping smoking will restore part of your cortex.

You probably also know that you can receive support from the Health Promotion Board on the Quit Smoking Helpline (1800 438 2000) and the I Quit mobile app. But you may not be aware that some ways to quit are better than others. Here’s what the experts say:

1. Cut back on nicotine slowly
A 2015 study shows that brain oxygen uptake and blood flow decreases up to 17% just 12 hours after people stop smoking. This nauseatingly unpleasant sensation is a likely obstacle for many aiming to stop smoking entirely. So actually, it seems that quitting gradually may be better in the long run than going cold turkey.

2. E-cigarettes are one way to quit smoking
recent study found that as many as a fifth of participants had quit smoking and were smoke-free 8 months after a 2-month study, during which they could use e-cigarettes. In another recent study involving randomized trials, more participants were smoke-free by the end of the year with e-cigarettes (9% quit smoking) than a placebo (4% quit smoking). It also turns out that the kind of e-cigarette you use and how often you use them may be more important than you thought. Recent reports suggest that e-cigarettes are effective if used regularly and if you use the refillable tank versions. The jury’s still out though, according to a 2015 meta-analysis of research: This analysis says that on the whole, e-cigarettes helped people stay smoke-free for a month but not 3 or 6 months after quitting.

3. Use concrete rewards
Give yourself an incentive to stop smoking. Don’t laugh. It works. Participants who earned a $20 gift card on their quit date and additional $5 each week for the following 12 weeks after the quit date, were much more likely to stay smoke-free than those who didn’t have a financial incentive to do so. In this 2014 study, about half were smoke-free a month after their quit date, and a third remained smoke-free 2 months after they stopped receiving any financial incentive.

A 2015 study found that adding a financial disincentive further improved quit rates. More people stayed smoke-free for 6 months if they received US$800 than if they had counselling or nicotine-replacement therapy (gum, medication, patches). But even more people stayed smoke-free if they not only received US$650 but also had to forfeit a US$150 deposit for not staying smoke-free 6 months after the quit date. So here’s a way for your supporters to do something concrete to up your chance of success. It’s better, of course, if your friends and family have deep pockets.

4. Consider coaching and counselling options
Getting help and support from an stop smoking specialist advisor has been shown to be one of the most effective strategies for helping smokers stay smoke-free. But not everyone wants or has time for one-to-one sessions. A 2014 study found that providing smokers with support through a virtual stop-smoking advisor via the interactive “StopAdvisor” website doubled quit rates among those from lower income groups. Unfortunately, that’s not an option here.

You can however receive support from smoking cessation programmes at the polyclinics — both the National Healthcare Group and SingHealth polyclinics offer them. Smoking cessation advisors can also help at the Department of Pharmacy at Changi General Hospital, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, and National University Hospital, as well as at Singapore General Hospital (Department of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine), Tan Tock Seng Hospital (Clinic 4A), and the National Skin Centre.

And everyone can get involved. Family and friends can getting involved too. Anyone can learn the basics of smoking cessation counselling — HPB provides Level 1 and Level 2 training, and continuing education Level 3 workshops.

There may also be a smoking cessation programme at your workplace: Check with your HR to find out more. And if there isn’t, consider seeking support from a professional counsellor — the Employee Assistance Programme or EAP at your workplace may be a good place to start.

5. Watch out for your cravings
A 2015 study found that brain areas associated with smoking cravings were much less activated for women during the ovulation period than a later part of the menstrual cycle. Even if you’re not planning to time your exit from nicotine, you could be mentally more prepared to do battle with your cravings before you get to that time of the month.

You can have all resources about how to best quit, but it’s the emotional support that’s most crucial to staying smoke-free. Just remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to quitting. Have a happy smoke-free No Tobacco Day!