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.

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.

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)!