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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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.

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.

Things to do in the June holidays

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

Boy Photographing Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Dealing with the terrible twos

Parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How well do you know your baby?

Looking after baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Television for babies

TV for babies

Recent reports and forum letters question the promotion of an ipad baby seat (e.g., “Infant iPad seats raise concerns about screen time for babies“, Washington Post, 11 Dec 2013; “Some unanswered questions“, Straits Times, 17 Dec 2013; see Psychology Today for some answers). These highlight a growing concern about using ipad games and youtube video programming as babysitters.

Research findings are clear about the benefits of real human interactions for language development. As this TED talk demonstrates, learning from a human being is different from listening to the same words overheard from an audio-video source, such as TV (here’s the science behind it all).

Numerous studies show that precocious language development in infancy is associated with parents who speak often to their babies. In contrast, there appears to be only moderate benefits for language acquisition from watching an educational programme like Dora the explorer. In fact, TV is strongly discouraged for toddlers and infants (AAP).

It has been suggested that longterm exposure to TV programming at an early age is associated with shorter attention spans (“Limit your child’s TV time“, Straits Times, 29 Dec 2013; NY Times, 9 May 2011). But that evidence is correlational in nature. Children who have shorter attention spans tend to watch more television. It may not be the case that TV shortens their attention span. Instead, attention deficits are recognised to have other causes (The US CDC has this useful factsheet).

Social interactions are also opportunities for learning. Which is what makes play an important element for children’s learning, as this commentary in The Independent (12 Jan 2014), “Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less” explains. And time spent watching TV is not time spent playing.

On the other hand, playing together with young children on the iPad provides similar benefits to that gained with a picture book, as others have suggested (“Parenting in the age of apps: Is that iPad help or harm?“). iPads aren’t all that bad as long as they’re not the babysitter.