087: How You Can Unleash Your Child’s Potential?

It’s hard to identify our preconceptions, let alone breaking them because most parents believe that they are always acting in the best interest of their children. On hindsight, however, we would probably admit that there were occasions when we could have made better decisions.

Using a personal story, here are four steps to breaking preconceptions that could unleash the potential of your children:

(1) Uncover your preconceptions

(2) Re-discover what your child can do

(3) Start a new learning journey

(4) Walk the journey together

Uncover Your Preconceptions

“Could I have held back my son’s development?” This startling realisation dawned on me after my sixteen-year-old autistic son, Cairn, demonstrated his Maths prowess at school recently by doing square roots of 3-4-digit figures mentally two weeks ago (See 85: “How Far Can This Child Go”). In retrospect, I had stopped teaching Cairn Maths in the last three years.

“Cairn tries to solve square root mentally” (Photography by Ms. Lim WT)

The realisation made me uncover two preconceptions— beliefs that had hindered me from pursuing my son’s abilities in certain areas further.

Preconception One:

Cairn should focus on developing independent-living skills and enhance his employability, even if it means disregarding his strengths and interest.

“Cairn packs the inventory for his e-store.” (Photography by William WK Tan)

Preconception Two:

Cairn should learn only English since he is already facing daunting obstacles in language acquisition due to his poor receptive and expressive communication ability.

“Cairn’s recent English homework.” (Photography by William WK Tan)

Do not get me wrong. Of course it is good to develop independent-living and enhance employability. And it is also prudent not to impose the burden of learning an additional language on the child when he is already struggling with learning one. The bigger question is, even as we work on these priorities, are we compromising on their strengths and interests?

Re-Discover What Your Child Can Do

I deliberated on the things Cairn can learn by utilising his strength in Maths—coding, computer literacy skills, memory and thinking techniques, and high school Maths topics such as algebraic equations and calculus. The more I thought about it, the more possibilities I could see. I felt a renewed sense of excitement, a feeling that’s often lost in parents when their children get older.

Out of curiosity, I tested Cairn’s memory using the value of PI. Cairn memorised up to 10 decimal places (3. 1415926535 ) effortlessly and could recall every digit correctly even after 2 weeks. His memory astounded me!

“Cairn writes the value of Pi” (Photography by William WK Tan)

Then I thought to myself, “Does Cairn know how to read and write any Chinese word?”

I turned to Cairn and asked, “Do you know the numbers from one to ten in Chinese?”

Without hesitation, Cairn recited and wrote the Chinese character of each numeral. Those were the characters I taught him more than ten years ago!

Start A New Learning Journey

“Would you be willing to do something for your brother for just fifteen minutes every day?”

That’s the question I asked Conan, Cairn’s fourteen-year-old younger brother, after I showed him the Chinese words that Cairn could remember. Conan started giving Cairn 15 minute-lesson from the next day.

“Conan guided Cairn to write Chinese Characters.”(Photography by William WK Tan)

“Now you copy the word, “thousand” which is “qiān” (千) in Chinese three more times,” Conan was telling Cairn to learn from copying the words that he didn’t know.

“Next, do you know the Chinese word for ten thousand?” Conan asked.

Cairn replied, “wàn“(万)!”

He had actually stolen a quick glance at the book and copied the character.

“You ah!”, Conan laughed and moved on to teaching Cairn more words. Towards the end of the session, Conan was praising and hugging his brother, who was also beaming a wide smile.

Conan told me his observations, “Cairn can read and write many words like “dà” (大-big) xiǎo” (小-small), shàng (上-up), xià (下-down) even before I taught him.”

“Words that Cairn recently learnt.” (Photography by William WK Tan)

Walk The Journey Together

“I really appreciate that you are spending time with your brother like this. It takes commitment to do it daily. Thank you!” I told him.

I also told Conan my observations of his lesson, “I like how you motivate your brother with praises and encouragement. You didn’t reprimand him when he copied the word. You just moved on. That kept his motivation going!”

Conan looked pleased.

“There is, however, no need to keep testing him with questions. It can become stressful. Read to him more. You can tailor the lesson in any way to match his liking.”

Conan remarked with a chuckle, “He obviously likes to copy.”

“Cairn enjoys writing Chinese Characters” (Photography by William WK Tan)

Two weeks had lapsed since we embarked on this new endeavour. It has become a routine for Cairn to take the Chinese textbook and his Writing practise book to the sofa after dinner, where Conan would start working with him.

I have no idea how long Conan can sustain his efforts. One month; three months or a year? But I hope it would be long enough for Conan to realise that he benefits as much, if not, more than Cairn from walking this journey together with his brother.

“Rainbow” (WordPress Free Picture)

I hope our endeavour offers you some useful insights to how you can unleash the potential of your children.

William W K Tan

086: Should I Bring A Baby With Disabilities To This World?

To Keep The Child Or Not?

If someone is struggling with the painful decision of keeping a baby who is likely to be born with disabilities, what would you say to her?

Two days ago, a pregnant woman sought advice in a parenting group in the social media. She wrote about her dilemma,

“I am at the 13th week of my second pregnancy. A recent Down Syndrome test revealed an absence of nasal bone in the foetus, which caused alarm. I just did a further blood screening test, which will reveal the result in two week’s time. I am worried sick. What if the baby is inflicted with Down Syndrome? If the risk is high, should I keep the baby? Should I bring the poor child to suffer in this world.”

I was mulling over her words till the wee hours of morning. I felt compelled to share with her my thoughts, hoping that it would help the poor mother in her decision-making. Here’s my heartfelt sharing with her, which, to my surprise, garnered a lot of positive reaction from other parents.

Cherish The Opportunity To Make A Deliberate Decision

“I have a child with special needs. And I have not met any parent who deliberately CHOSE to be parenting a child with special needs. So, you have a precious opportunity to make a deliberate decision now.

I can tell you unequivocally that raising a child with special needs is a rewarding gift of love, humility and empathy. Raising my son has taught me what unconditional love and absolute patience mean. The journey so far might have been fraught with difficult moments, but I believe I have emerged a better person.

Weekend runs with my children (Photography by William WK Tan)

You can do even better. But that is only if you and your husband are willing to accept, love and support not only the child, but also each other unconditionally.

The Onus Is Solely On Parents

My son brings me much joy with his innocent smiles and every small step of progress he made. Life itself is a gift, disabilities not withstanding. It is not a suffering to any child if they are adequately loved and cared for. I am of the opinion that the argument children with disabilities will surely lead a life of hardship is flawed.

The real question is whether you and your husband are willing to accept that the child is not the problem. The real issue is whether parents are prepared to:

(1) accept the child fully;

(2) take up their responsibilities;

(3) learn about their child; and

(4) allocate time and resources wisely

Consider your family’s circumstances and the things you need to do to receive the child. If the more you know, the less scared you become, then you are ready to go on the journey.

A Journey (Photography by William WK Tan)

Let’s pray for the best and be prepared for the worst. Hopefully, it is a mistake. Meanwhile, please do serious research by watching video documentaries on raising children with Down Syndrome and read up everything you can find. If possible, visit some happy kids at the Down Syndrome Association. Better still, speak to parents of these kids.

In the end, after u have done all your research and had heart-to-heart discussion with your spouse, whatever decision you arrive is not for others to judge. You would know in your heart if you have made the right decision.”

From the heart (Photography by William WK Tan)

I hope my words have helped someone out there.

William W K Tan

24 October 2020, Saturday

085 How Far Can This Child Go?

Everyone is good at something!

This is a real story about how a teacher uncovers the extent of a child’s potential out of a genuine curiosity to find out “how far can this child go?”.

Two days ago, Ms. Lim, a special needs school teacher, decided to tell her class an important message, “Remember this—everyone has something that he or she is good at.”

Knowing that Cairn, a 16 year-old student, who has moderate autism and speech difficulties, is good at simple Maths calculations, she asked the boy to perform an addition of two six-digit figures in front of the class.

Ms Lim was astounded to hear the boy saying out the correct answer before her fingers even finished keying in the numbers on the calculator!

Testing the child’s limits!

Encouraged by Cairn’s mental calculation prowess, Ms Lim asked Cairn to solve subtraction, multiplication and even division of six-digit figures. The boy answered every question correctly without pen and paper!

Testing the child’s limit, Ms. Lim wrote 2 to the power of 3.

The whole class watched the question in bewilderment, “What’s that? Miss Lim, what’s that? How come we had never see this kind of question before?”

Before she could explain, Cairn answered, “Eight!”

Surprised, Ms Lim thought to herself quietly, “Wow! Cairn knows how to do indices! Let’s test him a little more!”

Randomly, she wrote 16 to the power of 3 on the whiteboard, half thinking that he is unlikely to solve it mentally, even if he knows indices.

To solve this question mentally, one has to perform a series of calculations on the head:

(Step 1) 16 x 6= 96;

(Step 2) 16 x10 = 160;

(Step 3) then add 96 and 160 = 256;

(Step 4) 256 x 6 = 1536 which involves several carry-overs;

(Step 5) 256 x 10 = 2560;

(Final Step 6) 1536 + 2560 = 4096.

Cairn took a while to think as the class waited in silence. The moment he said the correct answer, the whole class erupted in applause. Classmates went up and gave Cairn a huge pat on his shoulder and congratulated him after he could answer all of the questions! The students were saying to him like they were talking to their younger brother, “Ah boy!!!! Good ah!” Their euphoria also attracted teachers from other classes to see what Cairn was doing!

Keep Searching What Your Strength Is

Cairn’s spectacular performance had many students started thinking, “How come he is so good at math? What am I good at then?”

This was a great teaching moment. Ms Lim took the opportunity to encourage the class, “Like I said, everyone is good at something. All you have to do is to keep searching what your strength is!”

The next day, Ms Lim took a video of how Cairn learns and performs square root for the first time.

Looking at the examples she created for Cairn on the whiteboard, I could tell how much she believed in my boy’s ability to figure the logic on his own. All this while, I am fully aware of Cairn’s strength in Maths, but unlike Ms Lim, I had stopped asking, “how much more can his strength be expanded?”, after I had switched my focus to work on enhancing his employability.

Do not underestimate the intrinsic value of learning

That’s the problem with most typical Singaporean parents. In the face of practical concerns, we would encourage children to learn only what is of use, instead of what is in their interest and strength.

I do not think that I am wrong to focus on my son’s employability, but I had unwittingly neglected on expanding his strengths further. Yet, I have kept on polishing my writing and photography skills as a hobby in recent years. And I know how much personal satisfaction I had gained from doing such endeavours.

Although I do not know how Cairn’s strength in mental calculation can be translated to employable skills, I now know the intrinsic value in encouraging Cairn to pursue a subject or area where his interest lies. Can you feel the enthusiasm that overflows from his back when he is trying to learn a Maths concept on his own?

William

p.s: Special thanks to Ms Lim Wan Ting for your passion and commitment in discovering children’s potential! And for being such a wonderful teacher!

Ms Lim is not the only wonderful teacher I know. Over these years at Grace Orchard School (GOS), Cairn had encountered many excellent Teachers and therapists who had gone the extra mile to help him. Thank you, GOS principal, Mrs Goh and your team!

#specialneeds#autism#strengths#sgenable#discoverstrengthe#teachers#greatteacher#

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081 How To Discover Joy From Tending To A Vending Machine?

How does an autistic child discover joy from work?

About two weeks ago, I received a picture sent from an unknown phone number. The picture depicted a hand holding two packets of snacks high up, next to a note I wrote and pasted on the vending machine — “Party Snacks at $2 only. We just wanted to bring you more smiles!” These party snacks were specially packed by Cairn to sell snacks in bundle at a discounted price to the residents.

Beneath that picture, the sender wrote me an encouraging message, “Keep up the good work!! The packs really brought more smiles to my family.”

Screenshot with consent from customer.

I was moved. A customer reciprocated the efforts that we have put in and wrote us a feedback.

Excitedly, I shared the customer’s feedback with my family – “People appreciate what we are doing.”

I praised my sixteen-year old son, Cairn, who has been running the snacks machine since three months ago, “You are doing a great job! Your work brings smiles to others.”

Cairn grinned at my compliments, but it was unclear to me how much an autistic boy can comprehend the significance. Cairn understands well that his job is to refill snacks and collect money. But does he know the higher purpose, that is, to bring convenience and joy to others?

I hope my son discovers the joy of working. But it seemed like a tall order to explain that to an autistic person with limited verbal ability.

An Opportunity To See A Happy Customer 

Shortly, another learning opportunity arose when Cairn and I chanced upon a little boy in orange pyjamas one evening. Pointing at a snicker bar in the vending machine, the boy pleaded repeatedly to his care-giver and domestic helper, “Aunty, I want that chocolate!”

Picture taken of the boy and his domestic helper.

I pulled Cairn aside and said, “Don’t go too near. Let your customer buy first.”

Cairn watched on quietly as the domestic helper pocketed out some coins and inserted into the machine. The boy picked up a bar of chocolate in jubilation. I asked Cairn, “What did the boy buy?”

“Snicker!” A quick and confident reply ensued.

“And how does the boy feel?” I asked.

Cairn smiled and replied, “The boy feels happy!”

“Why?” I probed further.

“The boy feels happy because he eats chocolate!” Cairn explained. The boy had un-wrapped his snicker and was munching away happily!

I nodded approvingly, “Yes, you are right.” I continued, “You see? You make people happy by refilling the snacks for them. Good job!”

Cairn’s grin grew wider.

A Close Encounter With A Customer

Two days ago, a man in his thirties approached us most unexpectedly as when we were about to refill the machine. He said, “I wanted to tell you…”

I was half-expecting him to say something like “the snacks did not drop the previous time I bought”. I hear that kind of complaint occasionally.

That kind of problems were largely solved after I provided my mobile number as the customer service hotline on the machine. I remembered how pleasantly surprised a sweet-looking lady was to find her problem solved shortly after she texted me at night.

Screenshot with consent from customer.

Instead, the man said,“… You are doing a great job!”

Surprised, I could only reply with a “Thank you” and became tongue-tied. Receiving compliments from customers in text messages is nothing new, but it felt different hearing such encouraging words in person.

The man said with a chuckle, “You kept improving the selection of snacks. I really liked that Hainanese Chicken Rice Mamee Noodle you recommended in the machine! The taste is so authentic that I took a picture and shared with my friends.”

Source: https://mothership.sg/2019/08/hainanese-chicken-rice-mamee-where-to-buy/

I said “Thank you” profusely. The man probably thought that I was not good with words, as he had no idea the emotion stirring in me. Cairn probably felt it. He was standing next to me, grinning even wider than ever. He couldn’t say in words but he understood.

Gradually, Cairn is getting the idea that he is doing a happy business. It brings great joy to my family to see the excitement on his face as Carin collects and count his daily earnings, though meagre at this stage. Cairn would meticulously stacks the coins and adds up the sum.

Cairn counts his daily earnings.

Thoughts on moving forward

I have received several queries about setting up the vending business.

Let me be upfront, it costs me only SGD$5000 to get started, that’s all. You may spend more, up to SGD$10K if you chose newer and more sophisticated models of vending machine. The real challenge is not the money involved, but the real work behind — the business set-up, the types of machine, the sourcing of merchandise, the placement of machine, and the methods to improve sales and so forth. All that takes a lot of time and energy, and I can imagine people giving up easily. But looking at how Cairn has flourished, it is worth all the effort I have put in.

What I need to do next is to improve the earning yield of the vending machine and increase the number of machines for my son. One day, I hope Cairn can operate multiple machines in the neighbourhood and earn his own keep. It is important that my son, like any other person in the society, leads a productive and fulfilling life.

https://www.timeout.com/tokyo/news/

I hope to help others too. That’s why I had shared the five principles of job-creation in the previous post. Helping more families will spur me to look out for more locations, more machines and create more job opportunities for the disadvantaged ones in the society is a meaningful thing to do. And I envision that it would be beneficial for Cairn and other children in disadvantaged situations to form a closely-knitted network where families help each other to improve their children’s livelihood. And this is where I can truly apply my coaching skills and know-how as an education consultant.

So, if you are asking me questions on behalf of a friend with a child with disabilities, get your friend to contact me directly. But if you are asking just out of personal interest, please be patient to read and learn more from my blogs.

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With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the world now, we are grateful to all the personnel working tirelessly at the front line to keep us safe. For me, I stay focus on simple things that brings joy to me and my family. I hope you are doing the same too. Take good care, everyone! For ourselves and others!

William W K Tan

28 March 2020

078 How To Choose Schools Wisely?

A Grave Mistake That Parents Make

On the 21 November, the results of the this year’s Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) were released. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to chose a suitable secondary school for the children.

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/psle-results-2019-primary-6-students-secondary-school-express-12113634

As the school-posting system is entirely based on the merit of academic results, many parents tend to make their decision around their children’s PSLE score.

But I know one of the gravest mistakes parents make is to allow their decision to be dictated by their children’s PSLE score.

Four years ago, the good news of a friend, AP’s son’s admission to a premier school turned into a story of hectic struggles for the family. They even moved house to be closer to the school to make life easier for their son. My friend reflected, “The first year was rough. My son did not expect tests to cover stuff that the teacher didn’t teach in class. Over the years, he is coping better, but his self-esteem was somewhat dented. I started to question if it was a good decision.”

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Another friend, BQ lamented that her relationship strained terribly after she influenced her daughter to change her choice of school to a premier one where she had few friends. She was heartbroken one day when her daughter made an outburst in tears while struggling with her school work, “You made me choose this school!”

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And there was this friend, CR who revealed, “I resorted to emotional blackmail and tried all ways to make my son choose the school I thought was in his best interest. My boy stubbornly refused. Now, looking at how he has blossomed in the school he chose, I am embarrassed to admit that my son’s judgement was better.”

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Over the years, I have become convinced that it’s prudent to look beyond the cut-off-points of schools, and ask ourselves one question: what kind of school suits my child best?

Know Your Child’s Personality

Last year, I had to confront the same question as my younger son, Conan took PSLE.

Conan’s score of 270 could get him into any school of his choice. It seemed like a no-brainer to choose the most sought-after premier school, the Raffles Institution (RI), that accepts only students scoring around 260 and above. His school teacher also suggested Conan choose RI like the other top boys.

Source: http://www.ri.edu.sg

But my wife and I reckoned RI would attract the top students from most primary schools. A fiercely competitive environment like that might not be a good fit for Conan’s personality.

We saw what he was like in the last three years when he was placed in the GIfted Education Program (GEP). The boy loved to be in the company of his smart and boisterous GEP friends, but dreaded being repeatedly told by his teachers to work harder in some subjects like Maths which he paled in comparison to others. Subsequently, he even dipped in Science at Primary five, a subject that he used to excel in.

Conan knew what worked for him. He said, “I thrive better when I am not compelled by others to do their bidding. I do best when I pursue things at a pace that I enjoy. What’s the point of getting good grades if I don’t enjoy the subject and would give up eventually anyway?”

So, we eliminated the obvious choice that everyone thought we would chose.

How To Reach A Consensual Decision?

More important than the decision itself is the decision-making process. My wife and I agreed that Conan must be involved in the decision-making. But we were hesitant to let him have the final say.

So, I set the rules, “You can have a bigger say in the choice of school. But you cannot make a unilateral decision on a matter that may affect the whole family. So, it has to be a consensual decision that everybody agrees as one family.”

Conan agreed. But he had his mind set on only one school — River Valley High School (RV), a reputable school in the furthest western part of Singapore. His rationale was that RV is co-Ed, offers the Integrated Program (IP) that allowed him to study up to senior high school level in six years, and the school was clearly not the choice of fiercely competitive top students.

Source: https://m.facebook.com/River-Valley-High-School-Singapore-Official-352563478111277/

But we had a practical concern— it would take nearly one and a half hour to commute between home and school.

We explained, “The school hours in secondary school are longer. And the workload is also heavier. It will be dreadful to spend so much time on the road, depriving you of your rest time, personal and family time.”

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But the boy was not easily persuaded. He argued, “Travelling time is not a problem to me. I can always find something to do on the move.”

Then he changed tack and made a pitch,

“Dad, didn’t you always want me to be better in Chinese? As RV is very strong in Chinese language and culture, it will be good for my Chinese studies.”

I replied in laughter, “That’s a good sales pitch! But I am not falling for that. Long commute time is a real concern, especially during the rainy season and the exam period. And it affects the quality of your school life more than you believe it matters.”

So I decided, “Let’s keep an open mind to consider at least one more school. Meanwhile, we will travel with you to RV by public transport for the next few days to experience how it is like.”

Who Played Into The Hands of The Other?

On a Saturday morning, our family travelled together to RV. Along the journey, I told Conan anecdotes of students who are studying in RV that I gathered from friends and the chat room of RV students. And we discussed the other schools that meet his requirements of co-ed and IP.

Conan agreed that National Junior College (NJC), which takes 30 to 40 minutes lesser time to commute, is a viable alternative. And the school offered unique and interesting programs like the compulsory 4-6 weeks annual boarding school program.

Source: https://nationaljc.moe.edu.sg

But Conan still insisted that RV was his first choice.

On the second day, during our commute to RV, I shared my thoughts with Conan,

“Both RV and NJC are good schools. But I think the ethos in NJC may be a better fit for you because the principal of NJC spoke more about their values and the uniqueness of their programmes , while the principal of RV emphasised on their scholastic achievements and results.”

Conan listened thoughtfully but he did not say a word.

On the way back, I remarked, “The journey is tolerable without the weekday crowds. But you may not find seats during peak hours and have to stand all the way for ninety minutes.”

Source: https://medium.com/mozzer-expressions/the-art-of-standing-up-on-a-bus-dcbf85a20e37

Having stated the disadvantage, I threw in a carrot,

“You know that I don’t like to give monetary reward. But since you did so exceptionally well this time, and I have not figured what to reward you.. I will give you a monetary reward of $500 if you choose NJC.” Then I feigned regret instantly, “No, it’s not right. Forget that I suggested it.”

His mum intercepted and said to me, “No way! How can you retract your words to your son so quickly?”

Then turning to Conan, she suggested, “Since it’s the first time that your Dad is so generous, get him to give you more!”

Conan took cue from his mother and said, “Dad, I can take up NJC, depending on what’s your best offer?”

I laughed, “You are opportunistic. $200 more, that’s as far as I am willing to go!”

“$700. It’s a deal!” Conan laughed heartily. And his mother joined in with laughter of triumph.

“Are you two in cahoots?” I looked at them with suspicion. The mother and son laughed even more.

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Conan said, “Actually, I am fine with both schools. Just wanted to see how generous you can be. You must keep your words now!”

“Okay. A deal is a deal.” I nodded, “But your old man is a poor man. I can only give you in instalments of $100 per month over seven months.”

To me, it was just an extra amount I would probably have to fork out as his allowance anyway. To Conan, however, he told me later that he was actually fine to make NJC his first choice by the second day, so the $700 incentive was actually an extra windfall.

Somehow till today, however, I cannot help feeling that both of us had played into the hands of someone else.

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Important Considerations

Nonetheless, the decision turned out good. Fast forward one year, Conan has made new friends, continues to do well in his studies and has enjoyed the boarding experience at NJC tremendously!

To parents of PSLE students who are finalising on the school choices before 27 November this year, hopefully you find my personal anecdotes entertaining and meaningful.

Find a school that suits your child best. Making a wishful decision can turn a good news today into a nightmare, whereas a good decision can turn even a disappointing news today into a blessing in disguise tomorrow.

Think again:

(1) The kind of school environment – Will you be comfortable with the type of students and their family backgrounds?

(2) The rigour of their curriculum – Will your child’s self-esteem be adversely hit when they are compared to their peers?

(3) The travel time between school and home – Will the child become too tired?

(4) The school culture and ethos – Find out reviews from friends with kids studying in the schools you are choosing.

A good decision is made when your child feels good in his or her new school, not when everyone else, ironically except your kid, thinks that the school is good.

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Bear in mind, children are the ones going to study in the school you choose for the next 4-6 years. Parents, please set the rules, listen to them and find consensus!

All the best!

William W K Tan

25 Nov 2019

076 How To Prepare Children For Unexpected PSLE Results?

If parents are already stressed out, what about the children?

On a Saturday morning, I greeted a neighbour, “Have a happy weekend!”

“It’s a sad weekend,” he replied unexpectedly before going on to explain,

“The children are having a grilling time preparing for examinations.”

My neighbour’s daughter was one of nearly forty thousand twelve-year-old children taking the national examination, Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in Singapore this year. His words reminded me that PSLE was around the corner at the third week of September.

Source: https://sg.news.yahoo.com

PSLE is widely perceived as a one-time life-changing event that greatly affects children’s future. Parents with children taking PSLE do get jittery. Many parents will take leave from work and some even resign from work to support their children in preparing for the examination.  

I overheard a mother complaining to a friend how stressed out she felt. Her complaint drew a blunt remark from her friend,

“Your child is the one taking the exam, not you. If parents are already stressed out, how are children going to take it?”

Is the stress real or imagined?

People who are unfamiliar with the Singapore education system probably cannot fully grasp what makes the PSLE so stressful. At one glance of the statistics, nearly every student passes and advances to secondary schools. With only a meagre 2% of the cohort failing, onlookers may be forgiven to think the fear for PSLE is more imagined than real.

The devil is in the details. Children are pigeon-holed into different academic streams according to their PSLE results, which directly affects their chances of gaining admission to the preferred national universities in the long run. And a difference of one point in the PSLE aggregate score may cost children to miss the cut-off point for admission to the premier schools they covet. A less-than-expected performance at PSLE inevitably brings big disappointment to parents who have done whatever they could to support their children. Most detrimentally, it is not a blow that every twelve year old student is ready to deal with.

Source: https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/parents-compile-list-top-psle-scores?amp

A friend X told me, “My daughter was utterly shocked to receive her PSLE score four years ago. She cannot go to the same secondary schools with her better-performing friends. Overnight, the world she knew collapsed. My daughter felt she was not good enough compared to peers. Her self-esteem never quite recovered since. And it got worse over the years. At sixteen now, she starts questioning why she has to go to school since she is not cut for studies.”

By many measures, Singapore is highly regarded for having one of the best public education systems in the world for producing a large pool of academically excellent children. But the deafening voice of promoting meritocracy has drowned the voices of those whose self esteem has been scarred . It is only of late that it dawns upon the ministry of education to abolish, in five years’ time, the streaming of students.

What matters most is always the child!

Knowing that my friend X has another daughter taking PSLE this year, I wondered what I could do to assuage her anxiety. Immediately, I shared with her a thoughtful message written by a well-meaning teacher to her primary-six student,

“You are about to sit for your first major examination. I know you are getting the jitters so in the midst of all this, I want to tell you that this test does not assess all that makes you special and dear to heart.

The people who scored these tests do not know how creative you are. They have not seen how well you design or draw. They have not seen how great you are at coming up with games, improvising them to entertain and amuse your friends. They do not know how confident you are when speaking in a large group. They have no idea how you have always been a teacher’s trusted helper, handling every task assigned well.

The scores that you get in this examination will tell you of how you did that day but not everything about you. They will not tell you how you have improved on something that you felt was once difficult. Neither will they tell you of how you had shown resilience in this examination and pulled through.

Whatever it is, it will not make you any less than who you really are… ”

**Special thanks to KQ for sharing her cherished message from her teacher Michele.

I was moved. The thing that matters most is never the results, but the child. And my friend X was also nearly brought to tears after reading this heartfelt message. She said, “This teacher is so thoughtful and wise. She makes me want to write a similar personal message to my daughter!”

I hope more parents and teachers would do the same!

Be prepared for the unexpected results

Last year, a few weeks after the PSLE examination, I thought there was a need to have a conversation with my then twelve year old son, Conan, about the impending release of the results. 

“We all hope for the best. But we must also be prepared for the worst.” I prefaced the topic before asking Conan, “So, what’s your prediction?”

“Well, I hope to get a score of 260. I guess it will be alright if I get 250s.” Conan spoke carefully as he made his prediction. Then he mischievously changed his tone, “But if I get 240s, that is definitely a no-no! I don’t wish to get a lower PSLE score than you did.”

I laughed at his remark before correcting his view,

“Do you know that the PSLE score is computed by a formula that compares your marks against all other students in Singapore?” That means even if you have done well enough, but everyone else is doing better, you may still end up with a lower score than you expected.”

Source: https://mothership.sg/2018/10/how-to-calculate-psle-t-score-aggregate

Conan frowned. I took a jibe at him,

“Well, it’s a possibility. You didn’t push yourself as hard as some of your classmates did. Did you not say so yourself?”

Conan disagreed with a cheeky smile, “Pushing hard is a bad idea. A balance of work and play is always important to do well in exams. ”

“Let’s hope you are right. My point is to be prepared for unexpected results.” I said before adding,

“At best, you will get to be happy for a few days. Or at worst, you go to a secondary school that you least expect. It’s not a big deal…”

Before my sentence could finish, my wife abruptly stopped me, “Oh please, stop saying things that may jinx my son’s good fortune!”

Picture from WordPress Photo Library.

After the results were out, my wife gleefully called to tell me the good news. Clearly, my words did not bring my son any bad luck.

Examination stress may leave a lasting impact on a person

Even in adulthood, I have had occasional nightmares about making a frantic search for the correct examination hall. Those nightmares started from the time I took the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A -level in abbreviation) at eighteen years old. I am not sure how many children can handle exam stress well at a vulnerable age of twelve.

Examination stress may leave a lasting impact on a person. I think it’s still better to prepare our children for the unexpected results, don’t you agree?

Finally, I wish to say a big Thank You for spreading my messages. We hit more than 2300 views for the previous article! That was a big encouragement to me.

William W K Tan

4 October 2019, Friday

Like, share, comment, follow or subscribe if u like to encourage me to keep writing ✍️.

075 Insights Into Making School Choices

Can you imagine how thankful I felt when the school teachers of my two children coincidentally made a similar remark at the teacher-and-parent meetings recently, “We have no worry about his academic performance. Your son is among the top students in his class.”

I mulled over the remark repeatedly and arrived at some insights that are hopefully useful to others:

    Never let others have the final say about you
    Do not end up like a dead fish
    The big fish in a small pond
    Do not seek success dictated by others

A family of two tales

Things weren’t always so rosy.

My elder son, Kyan, aged fifteen, now studies in a high school for special needs students. Prior to this, Kyan barely coped with the academic demands in a mainstream school for nearly five years despite making good progress. His academic ability turned out to be relatively better than his classmates in the new school. His special needs teacher said, ” Kyan is an exemplary student in Maths and reading for the other students in class.”

Picture: Kyan loves solving fractions.

His younger brother, Conan, aged thirteen, now studies in a junior high school for academically excellent students. He was consistently ranked among the top five students in his cohort up to primary three. But Conan went through a rough patch in Primary five, a year after he was transferred to another school that offered the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), a rigorous education programme designed for the most intellectually-gifted students in the country. Conan revealed, perhaps with a little exaggeration, “I felt driven to the brink of depression at one point of time.”

Never let others have the final say about you

After the recent teacher-and-parents meetings, I excitedly told Conan about the positive comments I received,

“Your teachers in the new high school spoke very well of you. But I was most surprised by what your Maths teacher said.”

Conan looked at me with anticipation.

“She was telling me how good and quick you are at Maths.” I said.

Conan replied with a triumphant smile, “Talking about that, I only took a small fraction of the allotted time to complete all the problems correctly in a recent test.”

Picture: WordPress Photo Library

“No wonder.” I said, “I was told that you would always finish all the homework on the spot even before she finished teaching the class. She revealed that you are one of the two students in this cohort, whom she observed, to be of high calibre.”

Conan was grinning from ear to ear. I continued,

“Do you know what my response was?” I paused, then teased him, “I was tempted to ask your teacher, ‘Excuse me, are you talking to the right parent?’”  

We both laughed. Conan understood why I made the remark.  His confidence in Maths plummeted badly after his performance repeatedly paled in comparison to his brighter classmates in Primary five. Since then, he saw Maths as his Achilles heel. 

Picture: WordPress Photo Library

Having worked in the education field for twenty years, it has always disturbed me how children’s confidence in studies is adversely affected by test scores, comparison with peers and teacher’s comments. I cautioned Conan,

“That’s what I have been telling you. Never let test results, or for that matter, anyone else to have the final say about you. Keep trying and learning to know yourself better.”

Do not end up like a dead fish

I think one of the most precious lessons for children is to have them learn to know themselves better. I was inspired by a wise statement that Einstein purportedly made,

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Source: https://www.tellwut.com/uploads/

As there is no substantial evidence to suggest that Einstein said these words, I made up a fable to tell Conan when he was younger.

“A tadpole and a fish were friends who grew up in the same pond.  One day, the fish saw the tadpole, which had turned into a frog, leaping to the land and hopping back into the water. The fish was envious and thought, “If my friend can do it, surely I can do so too.” So the fish leapt up high and far with all its might.  It successfully landed far away from the bank. What do you think happened to the fish in the end?”

Conan, amused by the story, replied, “It became a dead fish, of course. The fish couldn’t possibly leap back into the water.”

“Precisely, don’t be a dead fish, my son!” I added a cautionary note in laughter before saying, “Keep learning to know who you really are.”

Source: http://www.cndajin.com/

The big fish in a small pond

Conan apparently took the lesson of “know thy self” to heart.

Last year, Conan achieved a remarkable score of 270 at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), a national examination for all primary six students in Singapore. Everyone expected he would opt for the prized school of Raffles Institution (RI) that top students were gunning for.  But he was adamant that the school would not be a good fit for him. He explained,

“Dad, I know myself. I am good at learning things quickly. But I am also laid back. That school’s competitive culture won’t suit me.”

I laughed, “I am glad that you know yourself well.” 

But I wanted him to know what he was giving up. I told him, “To many people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to enter RI. The school has produced two out of the three prime ministers since our country’s independence. And they also produce many successful people in all fields. It’s almost like a guarantee for success in life to gain admission to the school.”

Conan replied, “No thanks. I will probably struggle and lose motivation eventually.”

After much deliberation, Conan chose National Junior College (NJC,) a reputably good high school that matched his needs and aligned with our expectation. I asked Conan how he thought of the decision after nearly nine months in NJC. He explained

“It’s just the big-fish-in-a-small-pond effect that I am doing well now.”

Source: https://nationaltrotguide.com.au/

He elaborated, “I have compared with my GEP friends who are attending different junior high schools. Most of us are doing about the same kind of stuff, except for RI. You would be in awe of the “out-of-the-world” kind of questions my RI friends have to tackle.”

“So do you think you have made a good decision?” I asked.

Conan replied, “Well, the good thing is I am having an easy time. I have lots of free time to read, play games and do the stuff I like. ”

Do not seek success dictated by others

There were moments that I wondered if I have short-changed Conan’s future by not pushing him a little harder like what some Asian tiger moms would do.

But I thought quietly to myself, “I know NJC. It was my alma mater at senior high school level. It’s just the first year in the six-year programme. It’s a matter of time that Conan has to rise to bigger challenges in the subsequent years. Let’s see how things go as he grows older.”

In the meantime, I am heartened that Conan has found time to pick new hobbies such as reading Chinese novels this year. He has also become more engaged with the family, and even takes the initiative to take care of his autistic brother. These were things that he was less inclined to do when the school stress heated up two years ago. 

Picture: Conan reads to Kyan in the library.

We’d rather our children grow up holistically to become wholesome people who keep learning for the betterment of themselves and others, than to become people who are obsessed with pursuing success dictated by others. Don’t you agree?

Like, share, comment, follow or subscribe if u like to encourage me to keep writing ✍️. Thank you!

William W K Tan

(aka Uncle William)

15 Sep 2019, Sunday