Learning, it’s no child’s play

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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.

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Autism: What have we learnt so far?

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Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which individuals have difficulties with social interactions and communication and a reliance for routines and/or repetitive behaviours (Read this NIH fact sheet for more information). Individuals with autism also tend to display sensory seeking behaviour and according to more recent scientific endeavours, experience high rates of gastrointestinal issues.

It’s a disorder which receives much attention in both the press and in research. But research findings, despite advancing at the pace of greyhounds chasing a bunny on the race track, don’t always accompany news stories. The public’s understanding and awareness of this disorder is still work-in-progress, even though local resources for autism has vastly improved.

Research links the use of joint attention — the ability to use gaze and gestures to share attention — to autism, but a recent study points to a more accurate red flag for autism — a social smile during joint attention. This 2014 study observes that infants at 8 months tend to look at an object of interest and then smile at the person they are interacting with, before looking back at the object of interest, during joint attention. In contrast, infants at risk for autism tend not to direct the social smile at the other person in between looking at object and at the other person.

Other research has established that individuals with autism find faces aversive, and as a result have difficulties recognising the emotions of others (more about their difficulties with empathy here). In fact, a hot-off-the-press study finds that individuals with autism focus on areas of contrast and colour of real photographs and the centre of the image, whereas those who don’t have autism look almost exclusively at faces in the same photographs. And this tendency emerges at a young age: a 2014 study observes infants at 6 months to fixate on faces when someone is speaking. In contrast, infants diagnosed with autism later look away from the eyes and mouth when someone is speaking.

Recent research has also identified two other markers useful for screening autism among children aged 9 to 12 months. A 2014 study finds that babies with a head circumference that is at or higher than the 75th percentile at 9 months and infants who fail the tonic neck reflex (also known as the head tilt reflex) are at a higher risk for autism.

With slightly older children, nonverbal screening tools may be useful. A 2015 study proposes a novel way of screening for autism: It turns out that individuals with autism don’t reduce their sniffing of unpleasant smells (and conversely increase their sniffing of pleasant ones). In contrast, their peers who don’t have autism “stop” a wiffy smell in about 305 ms. Another 2015 study finds a higher proportion of children who are subsequently diagnosed with autism among families where parents voiced concerns about their child’s sensory and motor abilities from the age of 6 months, and their child’s language and social communication abilities from the age of 12 to 15 months. So although autism cannot be diagnosed till 2 years of age, there are clear indications and red flags which are proving to be effective for screening autism at a much younger age.

Screening for autism aside, there are still no clear answers to what contributes to autism. Recent research does however indicate differences in brain structure between individuals with autism and peers who don’t have autism. Apart from differences which have been observed in the brain structures which connect the two brain hemispheres to each other, a 2014 study observes a lack of neural pruning — the process by which neural connections which we don’t use are eliminated — among children with autism (for a more in-depth discussion, read this article). Genetic factors are acknowledged to contribute to autism, but environmental factors are also considered to play an important role. Increasing evidence that the composition of gut bacteria differs in individuals with autism from that of their peers who don’t have autism, has led some to suggest that gut bacteria to be a possible contributing factor to autism. While a 2015 study definitively excludes MMR vaccines as a contributing factor to autism (read more about the study here), another 2015 study speculates that other chemicals, such as solvents and pesticides, to which expectant mothers may have exposure, can adversely affect foetal development.

Despite the mixed findings about the cause of autism, more recent research does offer some promising news about effective interventions and strategies found to be useful for helping children and adolescents with autism. Just as children who don’t have autism can be trained to enhance their ability to identify emotional expressions and young preschoolers with autism can be taught social skills, recent research demonstrates that early intervention programmes play an important role in helping children with autism improve their social skills, as well as cognitive and language abilities.

One 2012 study has reported that an intensive programme comprising 20-hours-a-week one-to-one training with interpersonal exchanges over a period of 2 years, yields improved brain responses to faces among infants with autism aged 12 to 30 months. Use of this therapeutic intervention by parents has been shown to be effective on even young infants with autism. In this 2014 study, at-risk 6-month-olds, who showed signs of autism at the start of intervention (e.g., a lack of interest in social interactions and communication), had better cognitive and language skills 12 to 30 months later. In a follow-up study of these infants, further improvements were observed after 2 years of intervention. Infants’ cognitive, communication, and adaptive skills (skills for everyday living) were observed to undergo greater improvement compared to peers with autism who attended a preschool programme and who were given speech therapy.

Other groups of researchers have also shown that parent training is also an effective way to improve the quality of social interactions between parents and infants with autism. A 2014 study has shown that teaching parents to support their children’s learning during everyday activities results in better language and social communication among toddlers with autism. In another recent study, one-year-olds with autism whose parents received coaching on how to attract their infant’s attention and interest their infant in social interaction games produced better outcomes than peers receiving community-based early intervention and monitoring. A separate 2015 study has also shown that the benefits of parent training over a period of 24 weeks to include a reduction in disruptive and aggressive behaviours among children with autism aged 3 to 7 years (Supernanny also some useful tips…). It’s evident that there are various effective therapeutic options available to families of children with autism.

Interventions which reduce the severity of children’s autistic behaviours are important. But support for families are as, if not more, important. This is particularly true for caregivers and parents of children with autism, who experience a high level of caregiving stress on a daily basis and can be at risk for caregiver burn out. Journal writing has been found to help mothers manage their stress levels, while mothers are less likely to experience depression if their partners share the burden of caregiving. But it’s often easier said than done. Respite care — which provides parents and caregivers with time off to take of themselves — can play an important role for helping parents and caregivers manage their stress. And more public awareness won’t do anybody any harm either.

World Autism Awareness Day is a few months away but there’s no time like the present to support a greater public awareness of autism.

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.

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.

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).

 

 

Study smart, not harder

Studying for the exams

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

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

1. Test yourself (again and again)

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

2. Understand the information

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

3. Try learning outside the classroom 

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

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

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

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

Autism: Facts and Tips

autism updates

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

1. The cause for autism is as yet unknown.

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

3. Autism can be diagnosed in early childhood. 

4. More boys than girls are diagnosed with autism.

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

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

Talking to your teen

Talking to your teen

It’s the start of a new year, and a chance to start afresh. Along with making new New Year resolutions to eat healthy, exercise more, work smart, sleep well, and party less, maybe one of your resolutions was to engage in better communications with your family, specifically your children.

One of the challenges facing parents in this day and age is that the unfashionable problems of substance and alcohol use issues persist today while newfangled problems of online gaming addictions have surfaced and are likely to stay for a while. But just as there are national hotlines to help grown-ups address their own problems, there are a number of resources to help children, as well as to help parents provide the right direction for their children:

1. Local resources

  • www.youthinmind.sg is a chat forum for youths
  • 1800 274 4788 Tinkle Friend Helpline for children | S’pore Children’s Society
  • 6346 9332 | Teen Challenge Youth Axis offers counselling services
  • 1800 377 2252 | Touchline offers advice on life issues
  • 6336 3434 | Youthline is a counselling hotline
  • A list of helplines for parents from NCSS (PDF)

2. Understanding addictions

3. Online gaming

4. Alcohol use

5. Substance use