Bringing up baby

Undesirable behaviours sometimes exasperate the best of us. And we can respond with emotions rather than coolly and in the best interests of the child, which is why the experts advise us to “guide, not punish“, especially when it comes to dealing with young children.

We also live in a relatively more enlightened era…with much research to guide our thinking and behaviours. With that in mind, here are a few useful tips for parents:

1. Spare the rod, but don’t spoil the child
A recent study suggests that parents should discipline their children, but this does not necessarily entail spanking. Researchers in this study videotaped parents who spanked their children at home and found that parents were more often motivated by impulse or their emotions than using spanking as intentional discipline. In fact, most spanking incidents were in response to minor wrongs, and children typically misbehaved within 10 minutes of the spanking.

Moreover, a recently published meta-analysis of spanking studies reveals that the more children were spanked, the more likely they were to defy their parents. These children were also more likely to display anti-social behaviours, aggression, mental health problems, and cognitive difficulties. So, it could be better to focus on being consistent and on providing opportunities to reward good behaviours.

2. Positive endings good, sad endings bad
Every story usually has a lesson to learn. The moral of the story about The Hare and The Tortoise is that being persistent wins the race. Recent research has revealed that children learn best from stories which have a good ending. A recent study has found that children respond more positively to a moral story which promotes honesty than one which warns them about the consequences of dishonesty.

3. Avoid threats to help children tell the truth
A recent study in which children were told not to peek at a toy behind them but given the opportunity to peek (when the researcher went out of the room), finds that children are less likely to own up that they peeked if they were afraid of being punished. In contrast, children were more likely to tell the truth to please the adult (especially younger children) or to do the “right thing” (especially older children). So, it seems that threatening children with punishment is not the way to get them to come clean.

4. Use time-outs appropriately
2015 study reveals that if you want your toddler to stop doing something irritating immediately, the best action is to offer him or her a compromise. But this strategy, used often, will likely lead to more undesirable behaviours. Instead, the most effective way to deal with whining, negotiating and hitting involves reasoning with your toddler. Punishments like time-outs are only effective in curbing defiant toddlers, but they don’t work on every child. According to the researchers, this is because parents tend to use time-outs only after toddlers have misbehaved. In contrast, time-outs and other punishments are effective if parents tell their children ahead of time which behaviours result in a time-out or punishment, and apply them when the child misbehaves.

If only rearing children were as easy as knitting

 

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Optimizing your child’s potential — Tips from Research

Infant Playing --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

It’s hard these days to go to a restaurant to not find a toddler having his/her meal without a smart device in front of them. Even though there are parents who say they don’t allow their babies any television at all (yes, they exist!), the trend is in the other direction.

We’re not making it up. A US study reported at the 2015 Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting, which surveyed 370 parents of children aged 6 months to 4 years, reported that 1 in 3 had already used a smart device before their first birthday. By their first birthday, 1 in 7 infants in the study were using a smart device for at least an hour a day. Being left to play with smart devices on their own was an experience common to the majority (70%) of the children in the study. And the data from a larger poll by Common Sense Media with 1,463 parents doesn’t really tell a different story. Along the same trends are the findings by a Childwise survey comprising 2,000 children aged 5 to 16 years that children spend more time online (on average 3 hours) than watching traditional TV.

We’re still in the process of accumulating compelling data on the long-term effects of smart devices on young children. Research suggests that children who receive more screen-time are more likely to be at risk for attention problems. But it’s not difficult to understand why one might be concerned about the impact giving infants free rein to play with a smart device. Social interactions are seen as key for children’s development whether it’s about growing their vocabulary, fostering their social skills, developing their narrative abilities, helping to structure their memory of past events, or acquiring new concepts and knowledge. As the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” So more time spent on non-age-appropriate television programmes and games on a smart device means less time developing these core skills.

Which is why the expert recommendation is no screen-time at all for those who haven’t reached their 2nd birthday, and why other experts argue that children should watch videos only when they’re in their preschool years. And why Taiwan passed a law last year which curbs parent-enabled smart device usage by children under 2 years of age.

So if not mobile devices and screen-time, what then? Here are a few other ideas to help boost the development of your little one…

1. Traditional toys are better
Remember those toys? The wooden puzzle, the shape-sorter, and wood blocks with pictures. They might seem out-dated but they could be the key to boosting your baby’s cognitive development. A recent study documented how much words parents spoke when they and their 1-year-old played with electronic toys (e.g., talking phone, talking farm, baby laptop), with traditional toys, and with picture books. The researchers found that parents spoke the most with traditional toys, followed by picture books, and finally, least with the noisy toys. The reasons for this pattern aren’t clear but it might be because noisy toys which light up are exceptionally good at keeping babies occupied so in contrast, parents talk more to help keep their babies play with the quiet toys!

2. Speak more not less
Earlier studies have long established that school-readiness at the kindergarten-age predicts later school performance and academic achievements. But a new study also shows that 2-year-olds with better oral language are also more likely to learn better and have fewer behavioural problems while at kindergarten. So it pays to foster language development from a young age.

But parents often worry that introducing two languages to their child hinders their progress. The experts on bilingual research suggest that speaking in 2 languages doesn’t confuse babies nor is a one-parent-one-language policy necessary. Put simply, more speech by parents in both or either language is always a good thing.

3. Try interactive picture-book-reading
There’s plenty of research evidence to support the idea parents can boost their toddlers’ language development by reading books with them. What’s new however is the finding that it’s what parents say when they’re reading picture books that matters. Parents appear to provide more speech sounds which are helpful to their toddlers’ spoken language development during a book-reading activity than when playing with toys or puppets. So pay attention to the sounds that your baby says and respond to them!

4. Surprise your baby!
So it’s not a coincidence that babies really enjoy playing peek-a-boo with you. Previous research has already shown that babies not only pay more attention to something which surprises them than to something which is more predictable. But a recent study shows that babies pay attention to things which surprise them in order to try and “figure something out about their world“. So, showing your baby something unexpected is likely a good way to get and keep their attention!

5. Let your hair down and have fun
It turns out that babies under 2 years can judge whether we’re joking around or not. For a silly moment, we might wear a rubber chicken on our head as a joke. Or we could be pretending to wear the chicken as a hat. How babies tell which is which depends on what we say and whether there’s disbelief on our faces (which we show when we’re joking). It might seem silly, but previous studies have established a number of benefits from being funny with your kids. A 2015 study also demonstrates that 18-month-olds were more likely to remember new information from a funny situation compared to an unfunny one.

6. Avoid distracted caregiving
Responsive caregiving is another cornerstone for healthy development during infancy. This includes responding to your baby’s smiles, cooing and other vocalisations. Earlier studies have shown that not recognising signs of distress by babies and inconsistent responses by mothers towards their babies, negatively impacts their children’s later cognitive and social skills. But recent research also suggests that distracted caregiving arising from using mobile phones (e.g., whatsap) could also affect brain development in young infants.

Learning, it’s no child’s play

IMG_7201

Our children’s learning starts early. These days, preschoolers are not only learning the fundamentals of maths and science, they’re learning to code. Parents who advocate the role of play in children’s development are likely to find themselves a somewhat rare and endangered species. Even though there are numerous benefits to encouraging children to play. Social and communication skills are some good examples.

But let’s not get distracted. Parents want to their kids to do well in school. And we know the home environment does contribute to children’s academic achievements.

It’s also important for parents to have high expectations of their kids.

Only thing is that, well, that might not be entirely true. A study hot off the press finds that unrealistically ambitious aspirations of parents can adversely impact their children’s academic performance. The findings of this 2015 study of 12,000 US school-aged students mirror those from an earlier study conducted on 3,530 school-aged students in Germany. So apparently, unrealistically high aspiration may hinder academic performance“. And parental academic pressure appears to be leading to more and more children and teenagers experiencing chronic stressburnout, and depression.

So, what else are parents to do? Well, we can suggest a few relatively painless ways to boost your child’s performance:

1. Help them develop a homework habit 
A 2015 study finds that school-age students in Spain perform better on a standardized maths test when they complete their homework on their own and when their teachers set homework on a regular basis. In fact, these high achievers only spent 1 to 2 hours a day on their homework.

So, less is more (but only if homework is also a daily habit).

2. Encourage community and sports participation
It’s no surprise that exercise helps children learn better. Children concentrate better when they’re physically active, and their academic performance improves when they play sports. A more recent study finds that children who are lean and active perform better on cognitive tests.

But it may not just be about the physical health benefits of exercise. Even though exercise does help children sleep earlier and get better quality sleep (because tired children stay up late less, which according to a 2015 study, costs teenagers as many as 9.3 GCSE points per hour spent on youtube, TV, and computer games.

It could be that gaining better body awareness somehow helps our brains retain information better. In fact, a recent study finds that dancing not only alleviates depression, stress, fatigue, and headaches, but boosts self-esteem and self-confidence about solving everyday problems among young Swedish teenagers.

But there may be another reason why children involved in extracurricular activities in the community perform better in school. Experts argue that extracurricular opportunities work because they give children a chance to experience “a sense of accomplishing something“.

3. Eat breakfast with your kids
A 2015 study on 5,000 children 9- to 11-year-olds provides unequivocal evidence that healthy breakfasts make a difference to children’s academic performance. Having breakfast was found to be better than not having any. But having a breakfast of diary foods, cereal, fruit, and bread produced better students than a breakfast of empty calories — sweets (candy) and/or crisps (chips). And having fruit and veggies during the day was also associated with better school performance.

4. Spend time with your kids
It’s common sense. But there’s research evidence to back this one up. A 2015 study finds that successful children come from families who recognised their children’s talents early, but also helped to motivate their children to work hard at practising and improving their skills.

Conversely, another recent study finds that children’s mental well-being is associated with time pressures experienced by their parents — children whose parents have difficulties fitting everything they need to be do into their day, are more likely to have mental health concerns.

Spending time with children, especially teenagers, also helps parents understand their children’s daily experiences. As a result, their children have less likely to have behavioural problems and more likely to be better psychologically adjusted.

Lessons for teachers

Bouquets at Peirce Reservoir

Lessons about how to motivate our students to learn are lessons for all of us. Not just for teachers. These are lessons which apply to supervisors and managers who coach their team and staff. They apply to mentors, team leaders, and workshop trainers. And they apply to parents coaching their kids to be the best they can be. Basically, everyone.

So, what’s the recipe for success?

1. Stop saying the word “fail”
Telling students that they’re going to fail in their exams isn’t the best way to motivate students. It just makes it more likely for them to do so. A 2014 study has data to support this idea. In this study, students who were frequently reminded about failure by their teachers were not only less motivated to study, they scored worse in exams than students whose teachers did not use fear messages with their students. So parents, don’t threaten your kids about failing the exam. Instead, set realistic and specific goals for them. And reward and affirm their achievements to build self-confidence in them.

2. Have high expectations
That teachers’ prejudices have a profound effect on students and their performance is not new. It’s a robust effect. Known as the Pygmalion effect in a study by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in 1968, the study showed that when teachers place high expectations on students, students are likely to perform to those expectations. But a new study also finds that teachers’ opinions about their students’ abilities (or perception of their lack of abilities) adversely affects the exam performance of these students years later. Teachers’ biases matter. Be careful what you wish for.

3. Encourage active participation
A 2014 study showed that students’ test performance improved with teaching methods which encouraged active learning. Pre-class assignments and small group discussions helped students retain information about key concepts about calculus. But it’s not just for calculus, physics or engineering. Here are some ideas and resources for incorporating active learning into the classroom. Like this lesson plan for learning about nutrients and this one on chemistry.

4. Explain in your own words and do it again soon
We’re most likely to remember something we’ve learnt if we get the opportunity to remember it on more than one occasion, and if we receive feedback about our mistakes earlier. These methods yield better exam performance, according to a recent study on undergraduate students. And we remember it better if we generate explanations in our own words. A 2014 study shows that this works with kids too. Here’s a summary of the best practices for learning.

5. Less distractions are better
A 2014 study showed that young children performed better on test questions and were better at attending to the lesson when their classroom was more sparsely decorated. But this applies to us adults, not just children. Think about the last time you were at a workshop, lecture, or seminar: How much information were you absorbing while you were replying Whatsapp, checking Facebook, and flicking through Instagram? It may surprise you but we’re much more effective at retaining information when we had to take notes by hand (for a recap why, read our earlier post).

6. Natural lighting boosts learning
A 2015 study on classrooms in UK found that learning was influenced by factors such as natural light, temperature, air quality, and the colour of classrooms. And in comparison, the layout of the school such as play areas did not contribute to children’s learning as much as the layout of the classroom. So sunlight doesn’t just help to regulate our sleep routines and help with the production of vitamin D. It’s for learning too!

Happy Teachers’ Day!

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.

Talking about change

Over a decade ago, we used to have a campaign in schools which aimed to help children with unhealthy BMIs reach a more desirable body mass index. It was of course a bad idea. For obvious reasons.

That was eventually replaced with a programme which promotes a healthy lifestyle to all children, not just those with undesirable BMIs. Although children who are overweight are still a target for bullies, at least schools aren’t their bit to add to the stigma of being overweight.

These were lessons not learnt, apparently. Because there was a Childhood Obesity campaign in another part of the world a few years ago, which had children talking about their experiences of being discriminated against for their weight. Yes, more airtime to the stigma of being fat.

And if it’s not obvious why these campaigns are counter-productive, there’s research to suggest that it is so. A 2013 study, which asked 1085 respondents to evaluate a number of existing health campaigns, found that the motivation to adopt healthy lifestyle changes and their confidence about doing so was not greater after viewing a stigmatizing campaign compared to a less stigmatizing campaign.

It also doesn’t help that the American Medical Association now considers obesity to be a disease. A recent study found that for people with a BMI higher than 30, this information made them less concerned about healthy eating and more likely to choose a higher-calorie snack, compared to others who were told that obesity is not a disease or given some other unrelated public health information. Giving obesity the disease label, appears to send home the message, “Don’t bother trying to manage your weight through healthy eating or physical activity”.

Given the fact that younger children have difficulties distinguishing children’s TV programming and advertisements, it’s a good thing that fast food advertising is now a thing of the past here. It will not be possible for ads with foods containing too much salt, sugar, and/or saturated fat to reach children aged 12 years and below (read about those guidelines here). Happy meals might have to turn into healthier meals in order to reach their target audience.

There are however other ways to tackle childhood obesity. Here’s advice from the experts for talking to children and adults:

1. Don’t talk about healthy eating
It seems like a good idea to help by talking about healthy eating than body size or weight. But research suggests the opposite. A 2013 study found that overweight teenagers whose parent(s) talked about healthy eating, were more likely to use unhealthy weight-control methods (e.g., throwing up) and to binge eat, than if their parent(s) had talked about their size or weight. In contrast, those whose parent talked about body size or weight, were likely to “diet”. Instead, it might be good to talk about what foods to eat, not healthy eating.

2. Affirm their feelings and provide emotional support
Having a one-time “You can eat more fruits and vegetables. And why don’t you exercise more?” conversation with someone you care about could instill in them a negative attitude about food and exercise. It could make them conscious about their body shape, size and/or weight. It’s crucial that your children know you love them regardless of their shape, size, and weight. Here’s a list of what to say and what not to say for parents.

And telling them that they’re fat (shock tactics) are likely to backfire. Results from a recent study demonstrate the self-fulfilling prophecy: Girls who were told they were fat when they were 10 years old, were at a much higher risk of having a BMI above 30 nine years later. So don’t threaten, judge, and nag. Ask your teenagers and close friends how you can help.

3. Start with small lifestyle changes
Rather than talk to children and teenagers about healthy eating habits, it’s easier to help them be healthy by walking the talk. Parents can feed their families more fruits and vegetables, and store fewer sugared drinks at home (more tips here). Fruits and veggies don’t need to be eaten plain or raw. There are many food ideas to make fun meals with fruits and veggies: try this website for more ideas. Preparing meals together is a great way to introduce healthy ingredients to loved ones. Getting your kids to try everything (at least once) isn’t easy. But it’s worth the effort.

4. Do it together with them
It’s easier to help children and loved ones adopt healthy eating habits and incorporate physical activity into their regular routine if it’s a collaborative decision. This guide for parents advocates making changes as a family. It’s easier to persuade someone to eat healthy and be active if you’re also doing it together with them. Try shopping together for healthy food options. Make the visit to the Bird Park or River Safari a family day outing (it’s more effective than if you sell it to them as fun rather than a chance to exercise).

5. Assess their readiness for change
Making healthy lifestyle changes isn’t as easy as it sounds. Being ready for change can make things easier. But not everyone is equipped for conversations about the motivation for change and how to make those changes. But there are tools to equip health professionals for such conversations. One such tool is motivational interviewing — a “collaborative conversation for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change“. And in fact, there’s a free app for practicing such conversations. It’s called Change Talk.

Developing young children’s social and emotional skills

Developing emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence
is the buzzword in the modern workplace. But social and emotional skills are actually abilities which can be nurtured when children are young.

Success isn’t the only key ingredient for success. Knowing how to read, recognize, and respond to one’s own as well as other people’s emotions are key skills for the workplace. The ability to make friends and sustain social relationships are crucial to thriving at work and at school. Being able to manage our emotions including impulses and anger are important elements for success in life.

Parents play an important role in building empathy and resilience in their children. Here are some tips for developing emotional intelligence in young children:

Positive endings good, sad endings bad
Every story usually has a lesson to learn. The hare and the tortoise: Being persistent wins the race. The goose with the golden eggs: Don’t be greedy. The wolf in sheep’s clothing: Appearances can be deceiving. But it turns out that we learn best from stories which have a good ending. A 2014 study finds that children respond more positively to a moral story which promotes honesty than one which warns us about the consequences of dishonesty.

Encourage empathy with a habit of reading
Encourage your children to read fiction to gain an understanding about other people’s emotions and mental states. In a 2014 study of 1,000 adults, participants who read literary text extracts (e.g., Anton Chekov) were better at detecting emotions in others than control participants who were asked to read popular fiction or non-fiction. Another advantage of encouraging children to read is that those with more advanced reading skills are likely to do well in school. A recent twin study has established that reading ability at 7 years predicts how children perform in intelligence tests later in life.

Spare the rod, but don’t spoil the child
A new study provides evidence for this idea. In this 2014 study, occasions when parents spanked their children at home were captured on video-tape. Rather than using spanking as intentional discipline, parents in this study were observed to be often motivated by impulse or their emotions. Most spanking incidents were also in response to minor wrongs, and their children typically misbehaved within 10 minutes of the spanking. So, focus on being consistent and on providing opportunities to reward good behaviours. If helpful, encourage children to see things from the perspective of others.

Understand your child’s needs
Spending time with your infant or toddler is important. Babies have more opportunities to learn new words from their caregivers when their caregivers spend time talking to them. But time spent with young children doesn’t just benefit them cognitively.

A 2014 study shows that children with secure emotional bonds with their main caregiver (parents) have better social skills. Securely attached children tend to respond positively to other children on their first meeting. Such children also show an ability to adapt to their play peers: With play peers who show frustration and anger easily, securely attached children use appropriate strategies such as requests for toys rather than attempts to just grab toys.

Conversely, not having strong emotional bonds with caregivers increases the risk of problem behaviour at home and difficulties with academic subjects at school. Researchers of a recent UK study observe that children without a strong emotional bond to their parent(s) by the age of 3 years, are at risk for social and emotional problems (e.g., aggressive behaviours, deliquency, depression) later in life.

Encourage children to experience challenges early
Help your children explore the world for themselves. A new study found that teenagers who experienced challenges on a 10-day youth sailing “Outward Bound” experience were more resilient after the experience and more resilient than a control peer group studying an academic course. Telling your children to try harder also makes them willing to work harder, a new study suggests.

What do smartphones do for your child’s brain?

Boys Laughing with Video Game

Research is clear about the benefits of face-to-face parent-child interactions over watching TV. Children have a much better chance to learn new vocabulary from human interactions than from a TV programme (here’s why), including even those which have been designed with a very young audience in mind. A new experimental study shows that parents interact less and say fewer things to their toddlers, when the TV is on in the background than when it is not. Another new study shows that having TV on in the background diverts young children’s attention away from play and learning. In this latter study, exposure to non-age-appropriate TV is associated with poorer cognitive abilities.

But time spent on TV and other media impacts not only young children’s language and cognitive abilities. Time spent on TV and gaming adversely affects the development of young children’s social skills and emotional understanding. A recent experimental study found that children’s emotional intelligence (specifically, their ability to recognize emotions) improved when they had the opportunity to interact with their peers for 5 smartphone-free days. A recent nation-wide study in the UK involving 5,000 children aged between 10 and 15 years, also reveals fewer emotional and social problems among those who spend less than an hour a day on video games.

Research about the psychological impact of children’s access to smart phones is still playing catch-up, but findings from a 2014 study involving 3,604 children links longer use of electronic media to poorer mental well-being among children as young as 2 to 6 years of age. In this study, young children’ emotional problems increase with each additional hour they spend watching TV and/or playing electronic games.

In short, it’s important to provide your children with opportunities to learn through social interactions and face-to-face conversations. Looking for some alternatives to electronic media and TV programming? Here are some ways to boost your child’s learning:

1. Read to your kids
“The number of words a child hears in early life will determine their academic success and IQ in later life”. This fact is the one reason why boosting your child’s early spoken language skills and capacity for understanding speech is so important.

A host of studies find that reading to young children promotes their language, reading, thinking, motor, emotional and social skills (here’s the science explained). The tendency for mums to read and talk to their babies while breastfeeding them, may also be the reason why breastfed children score well on IQ tests and at school.

A new study shows that reading to children as early as 9 months of age boosts school readiness in terms of their maths and reading skills.

2. Choose picture books with a story
Reading benefits children’s language in the long-term, when parents read picture books with a story rather than flashcard-type picture books. A 2014 study shows that toddlers could learn sophisticated animal facts when parents read to them from a book where animals were part of a story.

3. Engage in conversations with your baby
Babies often sound like they’re just making gurgly sounds when they haven’t learnt to say words which we use. But a new study shows that if mothers vocally respond to their baby’s babbling as if having a conversation with their baby, infants are more likely to develop language earlier.

4. Napping is good for the young ones too
A 2014 study shows that infants and preschoolers are better at retaining newly learnt information after they nap. Here’s a bit more evidence for the importance of sleep.

5. Feed your baby’s brain with frequent snacks
A 2013 local study found that toddlers whose parents spent more time reading to their children and who had snacks in addition to their main meals, to have relatively larger vocabularies. A 2007 study finds that breakfast foods which provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain (which, not surprising consumes far more energy among young children than adults), such as oats, helps children maintain their attention in class.

Tips and tricks for parents to get through the exams

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The local schooling culture can be pretty punishing on children. The emphasis tends to be on results, specifically academic ones. Parents have high expectations for their children.

So parents try their best to get their children to attend a school with a reputation for turning out solid academic results (even though according to the Ministry of Education, all schools are good schools).

Even if chasing a good-school dream is not one of all parents, good grades are still the goal of most parents (even though we will willingly acknowledge that strengthening children’s social skills and their capacity to understand and manage their emotions are important goals too).

The costs of this exam-oriented culture are papable. A third of children surveyed in a 2001 UNICEF survey expressed their greatest fear to be failure at examinations and tests. Stress responses and burnout among primary school children are well-documented. And parents are not unaware about the amount of stress experienced by their children: Academic stress is the top concern of parents.

But tuition is not the only way to learn.

What can research tell us about the best ways to learn?

1. Take notes by hand
In the good ol’ days, handouts were sparse and everyone took notes by hand. It’s different now: Laptops are everywhere these days.

But there may be a good reason to return to the good ol’ days: A 2014 study found that undergraduates were as good at remembering facts when they wrote their notes as when they typed them out.

But those who took notes by hand were much better at retaining conceptual information. This is likely explains why #2 (see below) reliably produces good retention of study material.

2. Explain it in your words
Researchers recommend elaborative interrogation. That’s a fancy word for saying students learn best by generating an explanation for why a fact or concept is true. We remember facts better when we’re preparing to teach it to someone else. Try it and you’ll find that it works.

3. Throw away the highlighter
Highlighting or underlining key words and phrases in the textbook is a waste of time. So is re-reading the textbook. Don’t copy definitions or textbook explanations verbatim in order to remember them. Instead, rephrase them using your own words (see #2).

4. Keep testing yourself
One way to know if you’ve learnt anything is to review the main concepts using the self-test questions at the end of a chapter. Testing yourself on the same material several times but spread out over an extended period of time (known as distributed practice) is one reliable method to study. It strengthens our memory for concepts and facts already studied.

5. Using imagery and mnemonics to learn
Not all studies show that using imagery and mnemonics to remember concepts help with learning. It may be that these two strategies help students in some contexts, but not others.

6. Study two or three subjects together
Studies show that we’re better at retaining information previously studied if we study and test ourselves using interleaved practice. This means tackling different subtopics or different subjects in a single study session. It also means randomly shuffling questions from different subtopics or subjects into a single quiz.

7. The truth about learning styles
It’s true that we typically have a preferred way to absorb new material. We may prefer to have things illustrated rather than expressed in words. We may prefer hands-on learning via interactions than didactic-style lectures. But there’s little evidence that superior performance results from being taught in our preferred style of learning. Need more convincing? Read this article from Huffington Post.

8. Stay warm
A 2014 study found that test performance was optimized when participants were allowed to solve problems at their preferred temperature. Those who liked it warm did better at 25 deg C., while those who liked it cooler did better at 15 deg C.. Sweaters are exam essentials for those who like to stay warm.

And what about helping your kids manage exam stress?

Local resources like Focus on the Family suggest helping children make a study plan. The National Library of Singapore has recommended reading for parents.

Tips from HPB for managing exam stress include yoga, deep breathing exercises, eating calming foods, and listening to music. These may be useful to university students. As for learning to say no, we can just see parents letting their kids skip on household chores and family meals now.

Research indicates the following to be effective ways to help children manage exam stress:

  • Use words of encouragement
    A classic study showed that children whose teachers had low expectations of their academic performance performed more poorly compared to children whose teachers expect great things from them.Use encouragement to motivate your children. Avoid using threats or making predictions that they will fail. Because children will try to live up to your expectations.
  • Reward children’s behaviours
    A 1998 study found that children were more willing to try a more challenging task if parents praised their children’s efforts rather than praised their children for being clever. This means rewarding your children for their behaviour not for their intelligence.
  • Sleep is important
    A 2014 JAMA Pediatrics study found that children who got more sleep performed better at school. There’s plenty of evidence that sleep is essential for the brain to consolidate and store what has been learnt in long-term memory.
  • Complex carbs for breakfast
    Studies show that breakfast is important for classroom learning. But two previous studies — published in 2007 and 2003 — found that a low glycaemic index breakfast (like oats) helped children maintain their attention on cognitive tasks through the morning.
  • Don’t forget to express your care and concern
    A 2014 study examined the characteristics of the Tiger Mum parenting style. The researchers conclude that American Asian children don’t resent parental pressure because they also experience support from parents. So don’t forget to tell your children that you care about them (not just their grades).

 

 

When is it a good time to talk about smoking?

Smoking begins early. A survey in 2000 found that a quarter of teenagers had smoked before, and more than 1 in 10 had smoked in the past month. Telling your children not to smoke doesn’t work. So what does?

Prisoner Holding Cigarette Between Bars

Talk to your kids about the health risks of nicotine before addictions take over!

1. Talk to your kids before they are teenagers!
It turns out that if you haven’t already started smoking by age 18, you’re not really going to start. Smokers tend to start young, so it’s important to get them to hear the message early. So talk to your kids about the effects of smoking before they are teenagers!

2. Nagging is not a communication strategy
Parent-child talks are more effective when you invite your children to participate in a two-way conversation and when you use a tone that shows that you care.

3. Speak the same language as your kids
Not every teenager cares about the long-term effects of smoking (lung cancer, head and neck cancer, heart attacks, stroke). They may not care about the effects of secondhand smoke.

Such facts don’t work as well as telling teenagers about wrinkly skin and yellow teeth, which result from tobacco use. Here’s a fact sheet that’s been designed for teens.

4. Be supportive
Teenage brains are more susceptible to becoming dependent on nicotine than those of adults. You can have a more meaningful conversation with your teenager if you can stay away from sounding judgemental, accusatory, or condescending. 

5. Using peer pressure to your advantage
A recent study found peer pressure works both ways. But it’s more common for smoking teenagers to introduce their non-smoking peers to tobacco than the other way around. Non-smoking teenagers are relatively less successful at dissuading peers from smoking. 

It might be because teenagers lack knowledge about the more effective ways to quit tobacco. Do you have The Knowledge? (Here are more resources for teenagers).

6. How to be cool (but not smoke)
Or it may be that peer pressure works because smoking is seen as being cool. Consumer research show that being cool is about breaking rules which are seen as unfair or unnecessary, while not breaking legitimate rules.

So that means campaigns will be effective if they educate teenagers that they can choose to stop smoking. And that’s what the research says: A 1999 study showed that teenagers, who made an independent decision not to smoke, reduced their smoking in subsequent months.

7. Beware the effect film noir has on your kids
Movies which glamourize smoking may have an unintended effect on you and your family.

In a recent study, young adults were more likely to endorse alcohol use after watching movie clips where alcohol was portrayed in a good rather than bad light, even though alcohol consumption was not the main theme of any of the movies watched. This likely applies to tobacco as well.

No one makes movies like they used to. But you might want to talk to your kids about the reality behind Hollywood’s golden age after you and the kids watch To Have and Have Not.

8. Children who stay in school longer are less likely to smoke
It’s been known for a while that there are fewer smokers among those with more years of education. A 2014 study found that those who smoked at age 16 were more likely to be smokers as adults and less likely to have a university degree.

But having better problem-solving abilities does not explain this trend. Rather, family factors are likely to be responsible. Teenagers who feel connected to their parents and are monitored by their parents are less likely to smoke.

9. Do what you preach
Children learn by example. Those with parents who smoke are 3 times more likely to smoke. A 2006 study conducted in New Zealand found that parental smoking was responsible for an estimated 40% of teenagers who smoked.