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.

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.