Preparing for Primary 1: Setting them on the right path

Reading about the Primary 5 boy who committed suicide over his results and the two students from a top JC who ended their lives a few months ago, discussions about our highly stressful education system have been raging. I feel heavy hearted, because for every case we hear about, there are many more suicide attempts and distress signals which go unheard.

We all want the best for our children, and as parents with pre-school children, what can we do to give them a headstart without giving them unnecessary stress?

The solution is not pumping them with tuition. Amidst the proliferation of Primary 1 prep classes, experts warn against pre-teaching content and concepts which will be covered in Primary 1.

Dr Nimala Karuppiah, an early childhood and special needs education lecturer at the National Institute of Education, said that these classes may “over-prepare” young children for primary school. They may become bored and uninterested in learning. Once that happens, it is difficult to make them love learning again,” she says.

However, we recognise that the transition from pre-school to primary school is significant, and there are many areas we do need to prepare our children in, to ensure a smooth transition.

Getting ready for P1

Ask any parent with a primary school kid (or 5, like me) and he or she will be able to tell you that navigating primary school requires more than just being able to sit down with your books.

In a normal school day, they need to be able to pack their school bags according to the timetable, copy down homework in their homework diaries, start on their homework at the right time, communicate important information, remember to ask parents to sign consent forms, learn their spelling, pay attention in class, follow instructions, obey rules, wait their turn, adapt to change, buy food from the canteen, make new friends, handle disappointments, and so much more.

These are categorised as Executive Functioning skills. Instead of hoping that they will somehow ‘get it’, these skills can be improved with direct teaching. We had an interesting conversation amongst a group of teachers. The secondary school teachers assumed these skills were taught at the primary levels, while the primary school teachers expected P1 kids to come equipped with these “common sense” traits.

The fact is, during our generation, we picked these skills up via incidental learning. These days, children are receiving less face-to-face contact, supervision and support from both parents and teachers. Coupled with more demands placed on them, that is where the breakdown happens and many of these skills are not developed in children by the time they enter formal schooling at age 7.

Before they embark on their primary school journey, teaching children How to learn in a What to learn culture will go a long way towards helping them achieve their potential.

In our Primary 1 Prep camps, we cover the basics of Executive Functioning skills such as task initiation, organisation, planning and prioritising, flexibility, strengthening sustained attention, problem-solving, improving working memory and impulse control, amongst others.

By equipping them with skills and strategies which they can harness for all subjects, they will be able to handle the demands of our curriculum and forge ahead over the years. We want to give them that learning edge.

At each age level, students are expected to cope with an increase in workload and independence, and without a firm foundation and proper system, we may see a drop in performance, which usually becomes apparent at Primary 3 or 4.

Recent studies show that all children stand to benefit from developing these executive functioning skills, and school becomes less overwhelming and more manageable. We teach them how to plan their activities, make schedules, get started, and see them through. The goal is to gradually fade supervision and increase self-reliance.

#5’s homework (P3)

In our fast-changing world, it is not enough to be book-smart. On top of these practical strategies, we hope to inculcate in them a growth mindset, where they are not afraid of challenges, see failure as a learning experience and have the resilience to keep persevering.

Whether they are eager or anxious in moving to a big school, this is the best time to frame primary school in a positive light. The role of an educator or parent as a mediator is very powerful, but often overlooked. Our teachers stand as a mediator to frame, interpret and draw attention to what the child is about to learn or experience, benefiting a lifetime of learning.

As we equip them with the necessary skills, we want our K2s to be excited about embarking on this new phase of their lives, taking pride in their work and taking ownership of their learning.

The gift we wish to give every child who comes through our doors is the knowledge that they are able. That they have it in them and can succeed in what they set their minds on, no matter how many times they may fail.

They will keep going. They will never give up.

And that, is the hallmark of a Little Executive.

P1 Prep Class

This year-end school holidays, we are bringing back our extremely well-received Astronaut camp, for K1 to P4 children. More details about the activities we did in a review by Debra, mum of Ryan (N2), about Astro Daryl’s great adventure by A Pancake Princess, A P2 child –Dana’s experience of learning Executive Functioning skills, and how we incorporate the Growth Mindset while the kids are having fun! The kids said it was the best camp ever, and some wished the camp lasted the whole year and they could come here every day.

Astronaut Training Camp: 13-16 December 2016
9am – 12pm: K1 – P2
2pm – 5pm: P1 – P4

The kids who have enjoyed Astronaut Training camp are looking forward to our Dinosaur camp which promises to be just as exciting, as we trace how dinosaurs lived through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceons periods, while learning about evolution. This camp also highlights inductive and deductive reasoning skills, sequencing and problem-solving abilities, and is suitable for N2 – P4 children.

Dino Discovery Camp: 29 November – 2 December 2016
9am – 12pm: N2 – K2
2pm – 5pm: P1 – P4

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Parent Teacher Meetings – Tips from a mum of 6

As you can imagine, I have sat through numerous parent-teacher-meetings (PTMs) over the years. In the early days, I used to discuss the obvious. Their marks, their behaviour, if they were having or giving any problems. Some friends tell me they see no point in going for PTM after P1 or P2 because the teachers always say the same things. For me, I look forward to these sessions because in such a short time, issues get ironed out and I discover new insights about my child. Here are 6 tips to make the most of your PTM. (these tips are for primary school PTMs, but some are general and can be applied to secondary and kindergarten levels as well.)

1. Do your homework

You only have 15 minutes. Make every minute count. Be prepared. Know what grades your child got. Have a casual chat with your child beforehand to sniff out any issues she might be having, whether it is regarding her studies, friends or teachers. If there are any specific concerns, list them down so that you can immediately zoom in on them.

When #1 was in P4, she had some problems with her classmates and kept telling me about them. I listened, but thought of it as usual ‘friendship’ issues amongst girls. Luckily I mentioned it to her teacher and only then did I learn that it was a form of serious emotional bullying as #1 was being ostracised by the entire class as instigated by one girl. Her teacher took the matter very seriously and dealt swiftly with the class. Thankfully the problem was nipped in the bud and #1 was not emotionally scarred.

In some schools, you are only allowed to chat with the form teacher, whereas in other schools, you are free to speak with all the subject teachers. Find out from your child which teacher you will be seeing and how much face-to-face contact he or she has had with your child so that you have an idea of how much the teacher knows about your child.

For example in P1, #5’s form teacher taught him English and Math so she was able to give me a good picture of him in school. On the other hand, #4’s form teacher had just taken over the class because the previous teacher resigned, so his insight of her was limited. In such a case, I would look for a subject teacher to speak to if need be.

2. Set the tone

I can only imagine that it is very intense for the teacher to have to sit through a full day of discussion with parents and recall information on every child. If I ask surface questions, I get surface answers. I have discovered that by being open and approachable, the teacher would be more forth-coming with her insights. Being with the students everyday, the teacher is in a unique position to notice traits in them, which become all the more obvious when seen in the light of 40 other children. Many teachers have pointed out pertinent observations of my children, both good and bad, which I have failed to see.

Last time, when a teacher started to point out some negative feedback about my child, my natural response was to be defensive or I would try to explain my point of view. I have since learnt to bite my tongue and hear her through. I used to flinch when the teacher said, “I hope you don’t mind me being frank.” The teacher may have noticed some character traits in your child, but if it seems like you are unable to handle it or that you might be combative, the teacher will likely not tell you everything she might have wanted to.

Now, when I hear those words, I am calm about it because I know that however painful it may be to have to hear negative comments about my dear child, I will leave the room with a better understanding of her. With the nuggets of information I glean, I am able to address my child’s weaknesses and she would benefit as a result of it. It is also good training for the child to see that we can be critical of a behaviour without attacking her personally, and she will be more able to accept constructive criticism in future.

3. Discuss academic work 

I try to quickly find out what went wrong with the subjects that she fared badly at. Was it that she did not study hard enough? Did she not manage to pick up the skills and strategies to answer the questions in the way she needs to? Or has she not been paying attention, or gets easily distracted? Once we figure out the reasons, we can set targets and devise a simple action plan.

During #2’s P6 year she was hardly given any homework. I asked the teacher why that was so. He explained that as she was in one of the top classes, all the other kids had tuition for virtually every subject and most were over-stretched. Apparently in the previous year, there were kids who buckled under the pressure and their minds went blank during the PSLE. So they decided to reduce the stress by minimising homework from school. I told her teacher that she did not have any tuition besides Chinese and I was relying on the school teachers. He was surprised and agreed to give her individual homework, which worked out well.

Besides looking at the raw score of their marks, I always like to know the percentile across the whole level. That gives me a more accurate picture. A 60 in Chinese may seem ok, but if that was the lowest 20th percentile, then I’ll have to start worrying. Likewise, I have seen dismal scores of 55 for English, but later found out that because the paper was so tough, it was in the top 80th percentile.

These information are not meant for us to compare the child with others but simply to have a starting point to work towards improvement. The child might start off with being in the lowest 15th percentile in a weak subject, but so long as she is putting in her best effort and is gradually improving, it is enough.

4. Connect with the teacher

Teachers face a class of 40 students, and most have to handle a few classes. The PTM is a time for me to introduce myself to the teacher and for her to put a parent’s face to the child. When #3 was in P5, I spoke to her Math teacher and he had good things to say about her. Attentive, quick learner, spontaneous in answering questions. I thanked him for teaching her so well and he gave me his word that he would look out for her as she did not have a tutor to rely on.

After the mid-year exams, he called me to come in and meet with him in school. She had failed her Math paper and he was worried about her. He told me that she had stopped volunteering answers in class and was constantly doodling while he was teaching. We went through the paper together and figured out that there were chapters she could not grasp and was probably getting demoralised. I had a chat with her and she shared that Math was getting too difficult and she had given up. We worked out a plan and with Mr Tan’s help, she was able to get back on track.

Teachers are incredibly busy, so once the contact is made, it is easier for the teacher to communicate with the parent, and vice versa, either via email, a call or even a quick chat during school events. (Yes, I’m always doing that, to the point where now my kids will point their teacher out to me saying, “Mum, Mr Tan is there, do you want to go over and say hi?”)

5. Their teacher is your ally

It is very important for our children to know that we as parents are in alignment with their teachers. When #3 was in P6, they had a teacher who came from another school. This teacher had a no-nonsense style of discipline and she was very strict and expected them to give of their best. Naturally, #3 did not like her nor her style of teaching. She kept complaining to me about her harsh methods but never once did I simply agree with her nor put her teacher down. In fact, after hearing her daily rants of how ‘unreasonable’ and ‘mean’ she was, I told her that she sounds like an excellent teacher. When I finally got to meet Mrs L at the PTM, it was like meeting a like-minded friend. Mrs L shared with me that #3 was a tough nut to crack. She had quietly showed her disdain for her tough methods and was uncooperative.

At the PTM, I told her that I was in full support of her methods and would have a nice chat with #3. After that, Mrs L reported that her whole attitude changed and the fire in her turned from being a destructive force to a positive one and her grades soared as a result.

I hear from teachers that in the upper primary, some students think they know better and can thus be obstinate. I try never to undermine their teachers because it is akin to parenting. Both parties have to present a united front for the child to respect the teacher and to learn well. There were instances where my kids came home and complained about their teachers and I made comments such as “Aiyo, why your teacher so bad”, without realising that it impacted their view of the teacher. So now I don’t do that any more. And besides, I have come to the realisation that kids tend to exaggerate or obliterate facts to their advantage.

6. Show your appreciation

I had just attended #3’s PTM and was extremely heartened and humbled by her teacher’s genuine care and concern for her. Settling into Secondary 1 had been quite difficult for her. The subjects had doubled, she got home past 7pm most evenings and wasn’t getting enough sleep, and was disinterested in the new subjects. Her teachers found her to be uncooperative, but her co-form teacher took the trouble to take her aside to have a personal conversation with her. Only then did she see a different side of her and from there, she was able to address the problems easily. I have never seen any teacher have such great faith in a ‘challenging’ child, and her genuine concern for #3 touched me deeply. I wrote an email to thank her, and she replied that she was grateful for my words of encouragement as it is appreciation like that from parents which spur her on.

Save tip: By working hand-in-hand with their teachers, I have managed to hold out on tuition for my kids until the P5 or P6 year. Because sometimes, there are other factors which are impacting on their ability to learn and the sooner these problems are addressed, the better it is for the child.

Sane tip: Parents are allocated 15 minutes, but I have been to sessions where the wait ended up to be almost 2 hours long. You can imagine the mood of the parents and the stress of the teacher. Hardly conducive for a good discussion. Try to be concise and get to the root of the problem instead of telling stories and dwelling on one point in detail.

Educating a child is indeed a partnership between the home and the school. Hence, the more successful the partnership, the better it is for your child.

Related posts:

6 tips to really prepare your child for P1

6 things to do in the PSLE year

~ – a blog on parening 6 kids in Singapore ~

School Stories #7: Who has an obsession with TUITION?

I love our current Education minister. His new road map is truly visionary. He says that:

“Parents would have to give up their obsession with grades; employers would have to hire based on skills, not degrees; and teachers should strive for an all-round development of their students.”

And how does he propose we do that?

“One is to go beyond learning for grades to learning for mastery of skills.”

“Second, develop a lifelong learning habit among Singaporeans so that they are equipped for changing economic realities.”

“The third is to move from learning for work to learning for life, so that a student develops interests beyond work and a commitment to serve society.”

I am excited to see what his ministry is going to roll out to make these a reality. He is indeed courageous to take on this path which “no other country has travelled”. I am firmly behind you, Mr Heng!!

One area they are looking to tackle is THE TUITION PROBLEM. Mr Png Eng Huat (MP for Hougang) asked for a survey to get to the bottom of Singaporeans’ obsession with tuition, joining at least three other MPs in warning about over-reliance on tuition.

Obsession with tuition?

Why does it sound like we parents have nothing else better to do with our money?

Besides a small percentage of ‘tiger mum’ parents who are giving their kids tuition even though they are already scoring all As and A*s, for most of us, it is borne out of necessity.

Here’s how my kids ended up having tuition.

For my eldest, I did not know much about the whole primary school scene when she entered Primary 1. The hubs and I chose the closest primary school to our home and left her in the good hands of the school (or so we thought). I did not give her tuition from P1 to P5 as I expected her teachers to prepare her sufficiently for the exams. The only tuition she tried out was 6 months at Berries, a group tuition centre for Chinese, when she was in P4. As I did not see any improvement in her grades, I withdrew her.

I had a shock of my life when she failed her Math and Science at the end of P5. How was she ready for PSLE?

I scrambled to ask around for recommendations and realised that everyone we knew gave their kids tuition. We had no choice but to pay through our noses for private tuition to help her plug the gaps.

In a mere 8 months, she managed to soar from failing grades to score 4 As with an aggregate of 240 for her PSLE.

For #2, she has always been a very consistent student probably because she’s a very obedient child. From the time she was in P1, I told her that she had to pay attention to her teachers and listen in class. And that was what she did. This traditional method of teaching also suits her learning style so she had no problems with school work.

Since she was not failing any subjects I held out giving her any tuition. It was only after her P6 mid-year exams where she scored mostly Bs that I decided she needed some extra help to tackle the papers. I gave her tuition for all subjects but on hindsight, 4 months was too short for her to get used to her tutors’ style of teaching to really have an impact on her grades. In the end, she scored 230, which I felt was below her potential.

For #3, she is a visual learner and a hands-on approach suits her better. It was no surprise that she always did badly academically even though it is obvious to all of us that she is extremely bright.

I made the decision to start her on English and Chinese tuition from P5 because she was very weak in both subjects. Thank goodness I found tutors who were creative and managed to make the lessons fun and engaging. I added on Math and Science tuition for her in P6 because she barely managed to pass the exams.

As they were all one-to-one lessons, she picked up very quickly because the tutors could accommodate to her learning style. In the end, she enjoyed her lessons very much and managed to score 229. With such an aggregate, she is now in a school which suits her very well and she loves school. They use different modalities to learn, such as group discussions, project work and lively debates in class. If I had not given her tuition at all, she would likely have ended up in normal academic or normal technical which is a wrong fit for her.

What do these examples show?

That if we leave our kids to the education system, it may not be able to do justice to their capabilities.

Now that I am more aware of the limitations of our education system, I am keeping a finger on the pulse to monitor their progress. And if they are not learning what they are supposed to be learning, I have to supplement it with tuition.

The tuition industry has ballooned into a billion dollar industry, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge what it does right.

Most tuition centres have class sizes with a maximum of 12 to 15 students. 40 in a class is just too big a class for effective learning. If only we could shrink our classes to 25 or 30 students.

Tutors are paid to teach. Not to run events, chaperon kids to competitions, deal with parents’ complains or attend endless meetings. Perhaps a teacher’s main job should be to teach as well.

Such a radical road map is what Singapore needs at this crossroads. I just hope that it will be rolled out with urgency. If a new minister gets rotated for this portfolio, who knows what vision he might hold?

I certainly hope things will be shaken up. Currently I have no choice but to give my kids tuition in their P6 (or perhaps even P5) year. And it looks like they might also need tuition in certain subjects in the Sec 4 year, such as in ‘A’ Maths, Chemistry, Physics or Chinese.

Let us all – parents, teachers and employers rally together and embrace this new vision to move the next generation towards a more meaningful education to face the future.

I can’t wait to save money by eliminating the need for tuition.

School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

Related posts:

6 tips to Really prepare your child for P1

6 things to do in the PSLE year

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

PSLE score – what’s it to you?

This year was the first time I went to school to collect the PSLE results. #3 asked me to go because both of her best friends’ mums were going. Needless to say, the anticipation in the school hall was killing everyone. I don’t know who was more anxious, the students or the parents.

Ok, I’m sure all of you want to know what #3 got, since I did put #1 and #2’s score up on my blog previously. Some people are secretive about it, but to me, it doesn’t say very much. So here it is. She got 4 ‘A’s with an aggregate of 229. We are all very proud of her because even until P4, she was hyperactive and found it hard to sit for more than 15 minutes. She had always been in one of the last classes and was still failing some subjects at the beginning of P6. The fact that she took the exams very seriously, was motivated to do well and gave of her best efforts was already cause for celebration. She was jumping for joy and exclaiming “I got an A for Chinese!”

On the other hand, her best friend scored 246 and cried.

The whole day, my phone beeped non-stop with people asking me her results. I understand how anxious her tutors were to know if their hard work had paid off, and I understand the concern of family. But there were many other people who just wanted to know her score.

What is it about people wanting to know other people’s kids’ scores? So that they would feel better about themselves if their kid scored higher? Or that they could put a number to a child’s intelligence? Or make all sorts of judgements about the child and his family?

Poor kids. I really feel sorry for them when adults asked them their grades and they have to face their reactions, and worse, sometimes face expressions with a split second of “oh gosh, that’s bad” before the adults regain their composure and said something positive. And strangely the adults seemed only interested in knowing the aggregate without asking them if they felt they had done their best, if they had shown an improvement, or anything else about the child as a person.

So before you ask a child his or her PSLE score, please ask yourself why do you want to know it, and what is the message you would want to tell the child after you hear it. Because kids are shaped in part by society, and your reaction to the child might stay in his or her mind for a long time. Please spare a thought for these children who are grappling with what these 3 numbers mean. 

Related posts:

Why we went on vacation just before the PSLE

Countdown: 3 months to the PSLE

6 things to do in the PSLE year

School Stories:

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

6 tips to choose a primary school

My 5 older kids are between Primary 2 and Secondary 4, so looking back, here are some pointers that you might want to consider in choosing a primary school that is right for your child and your family.

1) Distance

For me, this is by far the most important criteria.

For the Child:

If she is on the school bus, the further away the school, the earlier the pick up time. Schools which are very near or quite near the home have a pick up time of around 6am. Schools that are much further away might even have a 5.30 pick up time. My 3 older kids were lucky as their entire school bus was filled with kids from our same condo, so their pick up time was 6.45. Do check with neighbours or friends with kids in the school, or you can get the bus company’s number off the school’s website to get an indicative timing. Such early hours are really tough on the children, as they might end up not getting adequate sleep at night and can’t concentrate well during class. A lack of sleep also affects their immunity which makes them more prone to picking up viruses going around. 

#4’s bus picks her up at 6am and she arrives in school around 6.30. That is a whole 45 minutes sitting in the hall waiting for assembly to start (some arrive even earlier). Compare that with being able to wake up at 7am, have a quick breakfast and walk to school just in time for assembly. It has also been found that walking to school increases the child’s focus for a few hours thereafter, so that’s another plus. I know of 1 or 2 schools where the principals push the timing back to a more decent hour of around 8am. That allows the working parents a bit more time to spend with the kids at night and before school. If you live far away, the journey back home would also be longer and not only will it be a waste of time, but the child might be very hungry.

In the P5/P6 years, they may be starting to take public transport. This would help them to learn some independence, free up the parents from their chauffeuring duties, or to save some money as school bus fares increase every few years. For me, I needed to get them independent because I wouldn’t be able to juggle ferrying so many kids at the same time. The older ones were able to take the public bus home from the time they were in P5, after their CCAs or supplementary classes (which are compulsory)*. I was comfortable with that because our house was just 3 bus stops away and they did not have to cross any roads.

* Most schools do have a school bus service at 4pm for the kids who are staying back, but that monthly fee is paid on top of the normal to and fro journey, and it costs more than the daily trip.

For the Parent:

If you are ferrying your child, the further the school, the longer the time it will take you, especially during the morning peak hour traffic after dropping your child. Don’t forget that you have to do this everyday for the next 6 years. A friend was just asking me how I managed their daily schedules. With 2 kids, she is already finding it very difficult to juggle their pick up times and sending them to tuition after school. By 5pm, she’s usually very highly strung due to rushing here and rushing there getting everyone on time. For me, I eliminate a lot of the stress by keeping school and any other activity as close to home as possible to cut travelling time. It’s also easy for them to get home themselves if need be.

Project work in upper primary:

In some schools, they require the students to do group work occasionally in the upper levels. If no one stays near the school, they usually end up staying in school to do it together. If your child is on the school bus, and you are working, you will need to arrange for her to go back on her own. For us, as we live near their schools, I encourage them to invite their group of friends back so that they would have a safe place to do their work and so that I can get to know who they are mixing with. If you live far away from school, all these logistic issues get that little bit more tricky, especially if you have more than 1 child, so just something to keep in mind.

Another plus point:

We used to live in a condo very near the school and there were many kids going to the same school. When they were sick, their bus-mates or classmates living in the same condo would come and drop off their homework. They would do the same for their friends. Once, when one of their classmate had her leg in a cast, they baked a batch of cookies for her and visited her. There’s also a sense of camaraderie in the playground as they are all from the same school. It’s like the old days when the kids played together and went to the same village school, and everyone looks out for one another.

2) CCAs

CCAs will play a big part in your child’s life in primary school for several reasons. Not only does it encourage friendship and inculcate a lot of other character values not learnt through lesson time, it also allows an opportunity for your child to participate in activities that would not be found via outside enrichment courses such as scouting, being part of a marching band, or learning to be an entrepreneur to name a few. And of course, it is more convenient as you don’t have the hassle of taking them to an external vendor for the classes. Another very important point is that in secondary school, for most schools, you have to choose 1 CCA and stick to it for 4 years. So it is during the primary school years where the child should try out different CCAs to see where their interests or talents lie. Or having tried out a particular CCA, to know that they really do not enjoy it so they won’t choose it in secondary school.

Some schools have very limited CCAs, as they would rather concentrate on those few areas where they are strong in (so that they can win more medals). Some schools have CCAs which are only open to students at the competitive level, so only those who pass the try outs will be allowed in. Some other schools only encourage students to join CCAs at the P4 level, unless you have prior experience in a particular sport. On the other hand, some schools encourage the children to participate in CCAs from P1, and even allow them to take as many CCAs as they can handle. So try to find out what sort of CCAs the school offers, and the CCA policy of the school and see if it fits your needs.

3) Elite school vs heartland school

The great debate. Firstly, all ‘elite’ schools are not equal. Secondly, what actually defines an ‘elite’ school? And thirdly, should all schools in the top 10 list be automatically classified as elite? After having my kids in ‘elite’ schools, missionary schools, and heartland schools, I think we should look past these labels and get to the heart of the matter. Instead of viewing them as elite vs heartland schools, if you really want to do your homework, regardless of what sort of school it is and what reputation it had in the past, you should find out if the school has these attributes which should be the hallmark of a good school.

  • A wide range of programs for the students (learning journeys, overseas trips, post PSLE activities etc.) Just a note on overseas trips, it doesn’t necessarily mean the further the destination, the better.
  • A wide variety of CCAs to choose from, and decent coaches.
  • Adequate resources
  • Good teachers who are not over-burdened with other non-teaching responsibilities
  • Special programs which aid in learning (many heartland schools these days have very innovative programs)
  • Niche CCAs or programs which their school is recognised for. But do find out if the niche activities are only for an elite few or for the entire cohort to participate. For example, some schools have a proper rock climbing wall, but is it only for those in the school team, or for the entire student population to enjoy?

Something to bear in mind if you do want to consider putting your child in an ‘elite’ school. Would you rather your child be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? It’s the reality in most schools whereby they allocate the best teachers to the top few classes in a bid to boost their top scorers. Also, we have heard of many stories whereby students fared averagely in an ‘elite’ primary school, but when they went to a heartland secondary school, they were placed in the top class and shined. 

Another very important point is that contrary to popular belief, teachers in heartland schools put in much more effort in teaching the students. They are aware that most of their students may not have tuition, and are very willing to give them extra help. In contrast, most kids in ‘elite’ schools have already learnt a lot of the material from their tutors, so much so that there is an incredulous refrain amongst parents of such schools that “the kids go to school more to be tested than to be taught”. The classic chicken and egg situation.

4) The Principal

Who the principal is sets the tone of the school. If the principal has the welfare of the teachers and the students at heart, I’ll say that is a great school to put your child in. Because where her priorities lie will filter down to every aspect of the school system. Is she concerned only about achieving academic success? Or is she passionate about making the school a vibrant environment for holistic learning? Is she very focused on chasing awards? Or is she keen on developing every child.

The MOE has done yet another round of rotating the principals. Hopefully, that has eased the pressure off entry into some very popular schools. And it is great that new life and expertise can be injected into heartland schools. So don’t harp too much on what the school has done or achieved in the past, but have an open mind on what the school is currently doing, especially if it has a new principal to helm the school. 

5) If you have a mix of girls and boys, consider choosing a mixed school

By watching my kids, I realised that there’s a strong sense of bonding by going to the same school. Wearing the same school uniform, taking the same school bus, talking about the same teachers. During the holidays, they get the same charity drive cards, which is so much more fun and less intimidating to do together, and they even get the same homework. For example, on the first day of school, both #4 and #5 received the same worksheet whereby they had to draw and write some things about themselves. I have never seen #5 so eager to do homework before! They shared ideas, and the older one was proud to teach the younger one a better way of colouring and decorating the page. During our daily dinners, they also have so much to talk about that went on in school that day as they will be sharing with each other some exciting tidbit about their friends or teachers. It also makes everything easier for the younger sibling to adapt to. #1 used to take #2 home with her on the public bus after their CCAs when she was in P5 and the younger one was in P3. Then it was #2’s turn to teach #3 to take the public bus home.

6) Opportunity for play?

This point may be seen as trivia to some parents, and will probably not be one of the main criteria in choosing a school, but it could be a tie-breaker. The transition from kindergarten to primary 1 is significant, not only the extra hours spent at school, but work becomes more ‘serious’. When I asked a lot of children in P1 from various schools if they liked school, I noticed something very telling. The kids who were happier tell me that they have fun with their friends during recess and before assembly in the mornings. The kids who tell me they dislike school or that school is boring usually come from schools whereby once they arrive in school, instead of going to the classrooms where they can mingle while waiting for the assembly bell to ring, they have to head straight to the hall for silent reading. And during recess, some schools have very restrictive rules, such as no playing in the field, no playing at the exercise equipment (in case accidents happen), and no staying upstairs in the classrooms. However in some schools, the kids are running around happily in the field, on the basketball court or even in the playground. Yes, some primary schools do have proper playgrounds for the kids to enjoy!

Another benefit of active play during recess is that the number of kids with ADHD or problems with focusing is rising. I think this can partly be attributed to the increased usage of gadgets coupled with a high intake of colouring and preservatives in our food. One way to alleviate it is to allow the kids to move and expand their energy during recess so that they can focus better. 

Besides, after going to school for 6 years, I don’t just expect my child to emerge with a certificate. I expect her to have formed many good friendships and memories which will perhaps last her through her lifetime. Don’t we remember the good ol’ days of playing zero point during recess? I think it was the highlight of our school day!

At the end of the day, whichever school your child gets into, the best thing you can do for your child is to partner the school. I made this mistake with my older kids. The hubs and I decided to put our kids in the nearest school to our house, which happened to be a SAP school. However, over the years, there were so many problems with the school. A lack of communication, no standardisation with the delivery of syllabus, and even getting untrained teachers for the whole year, just to name a few. I kept mentioning how disappointed I was with the school in front of the kids. I realised that I shouldn’t have done that. I should either try to find a solution for things which I could, and for those that I could not, I should just live with it as it doesn’t help the kids for me to mention all the negative things about the school.

If you are trying to get into a school which you feel is ‘better’, perhaps you should keep the plans to the adults. Because if the child gets the idea that you are trying to get into the ‘better’ school, but in the end failed and she has to go to the ‘2nd choice’ school, who knows what the child might make of that? We all want them to start on a positive note, so you might want to keep the child in the dark, and when the results are out, then you tell the child which school she is going to and point out the pros of the school.

Sane tip: It doesn’t matter what type of school it is. Look at each school as it is, without any biases, take a piece of paper, draw up the pros and cons of the 2 or 3 schools you have narrowed down, then make an informed and wise decision based on facts. There’s a strange phenomenon in #3’s school. Year after year, there is fierce balloting for places. People are fighting to get into her school as it has a good reputation for grades. Yet, after the kids enter the school, the parents have many dissatisfactions with the school and then they ask “What is so good about this school?” So don’t just follow the crowd based on popular demand, but make an informed decision.

Save tip: Besides the obvious savings of cheaper school bus fares if you live nearer the school, or even free, if it is within walking distance, I also realised another thing. For the humbler heartland schools, your child will ask you for money less frequently. If you are in a school where there are more affluent families, your child will ask you for money for all sorts of things. It could be donations, expensive CCAs like sailing or golf, or subscription for magazines delivered via the school. Of course you are not obligated to join or buy any of it, but if everyone else is buying the magazines or if your child’s best friend is participating in it, your child might keep insisting on it. So find a school which fits your requirements.

#4 is in an ‘elite’ school, and she tells me that she’s the only one in class without a phone and most of her classmates have the latest iPhone 5. I told her that’s great, she has so many friends to borrow a phone from in case she’s ever in an emergency and needs to call me. And of course, before the year end school holidays, they will invariably chat about their holiday destinations. It’s common to hear of Club med ski holidays, or even trips to the States or Europe. So just bear in mind that will be the peer environment your child will be exposed to.

I hope the above tips were useful, and for parents with kids already in the school system, if you have any other suggestions which might be helpful to other parents, do share with us via the comments!

To read a mummy’s account of her son’s first week in Primary One, click here.

For 6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child, click here.

For how I prepare my kids in their PSLE year, click here.

#1 – When your son gets into fights in school
#2 – My son the loan shark
#3 – So kids can’t play once they start school?

#11 – How #2 topped her level in English
#12 – DSA. Yet another initiative parents have warped
#13 – Tuition – First line of attack?
#14 – Why do exams have to be so stressful?
#15 – First day mix up!
#16 – The day I forgot to pick my son from school
#17 – No more T-score. Now what?
#18 – Tackling the new school year
#19 – She did it, without tuition.
#20 – So who’s smarter?
#21 – Why I do not coach my kids anymore.


About MummyWee

Michelle Choy is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 7-turning-17 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in areas like resilience and executive function, to survive today’s volatile world. She is also a parenting coach and has been featured on national TV, radio and print media.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Another award for #3

I was indeed surprised to find yet another award for #3 in the mail!

This time, it is a Good Progress Award. All the years, she has always been at the tail end of her class, but this semester, thanks to her English and Chinese tutors who tailored the lessons to her learning style, she became interested in her school work and started to pay more attention in class as well. 

But what made me most happy was that during the exam period, #4 asked if I could sit with her to supervise her revision like all her friends’ mummies did. Before I could open my mouth, #3 told her: “Don’t you know what mummy is trying to teach us? To be independent and self-motivated so that even when she is not with us, we will know what to do. If you need to rely on mummy being next to you, then next time how?” Wow. I was more proud of her for having managed to internalise what I have taught them than her improved grades per se. Ah, this time, I deserve to give myself a little pat on the back 😉

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Can we really have a brand new education system?

I’m glad my post An open letter to all principals spurred some other bloggers to pen their views on our education system. Whether we agree with one another or not is another matter, but at least we are trying in our own small way to effect some change. The livelier the discussion on this subject, the better. An ex-teacher wrote a post on her blog, titled “What’s wrong with the world’s best education system?“. She feels it is not so much the principals but the system which is the problem.

She believes that the way the ministry runs its schools are very much corporate world-like. Yes, I totally agree with her. In fact, I heard that the EPMS could have possibly been adapted from the Ministry of Defence. How is that even remotely possible, many parents must be thinking. Well, I hope it was not. But I can see why teachers say they feel they are like just another machine, tasked to churn out more and more As. And yes, I do agree that the system needs a major overhaul. And I hope they can scrap the EPMS and replace it with something more humane. But in the meantime, we cannot just sit and wait for change to manifest as it would take years. #1 entered Primary 1 almost a decade ago. 9 years later, nothing significant on the ground has changed. That is why I hope principals and teachers could stand their ground, leave the KPIs aside and put the children first. Yes, even at the expense of a lower salary and probably zero chance of a promotion. I know, it is much, much easier said than done. That is why only a handful have done it or are doing it. And in my books, they deserve the highest accolades and the deepest gratitude from parents.

A fellow blogger, Petunia Lee, who is a seasoned education blogger, agrees with me that principals have a lot of leeway and power in running their schools. She explains the nuts and bolts of how schools are run in her post titled “Power & Influence in the MOE“. Her post begins with the observation that “Principals of schools run little fiefdoms within each school”. She also notices that principals are all rowing their boats in different directions, and the only way Mr Heng’s vision for ‘every school a good school’ can be achieved is if power is brought back to MOE HQ.

About 2 months ago, our PM announced that they would do away with the T-scores and use broad-based banding to allocate places in secondary schools. Since then, there are no follow-up concrete information on what other criteria they will use to differentiate the students when there are more applicants than places. I find it incredibly unbelievable, but I hear parents saying that they have to start changing their strategy. They can foresee that there will be a horde of students with similar grades, so how to differentiate their child? These ultra kiasu parents are now searching for enrichment classes in music, sports, and the arts to beef up their child’s portfolio. This brings to mind the university admission requirements in the U.S., where the competition for places in top schools is so keen that they not only require stellar results, but the students need to show a whole portfolio of extracurricular activities, including community and charity work, and outstanding personal qualities such as leadership, self-confidence and good character. Will our 12-year olds be put through that in the future? 

Another parent blogger, Pamela Tan, who’s husband is a Math teacher in a secondary school shares the plight of secondary students who come from dysfunctional families and her disbelief that it is actually in the interest of the schools to expel these students so that their performance or non-performance (as the case may be) will not hinder the school’s performance. Read her post in “The story of the stationery Bento“.

Amidst all these seemingly depressing and unsurmountable challenges facing our education system, I see a glimmer of hope after reading an article in the Straits times. Lawrence Lien, a NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament) and chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and chairman of the Lien Foundation mooted the idea of setting up a prototype full school that is child-centric after his education study trip to Finland. I quote: “The philosophy of the school should be child-centric, process-driven and geared towards holistic learning. Assessments should be focused on tracking progress against a child’s individual potential, not on how he or she compares with others. Since the school will include both primary and secondary levels, no PSLE will be necessary.”

I love it already! This is exactly the type of school I have been envisaging for my kids. I have always wished that our schools would adopt many aspects of the Finnish education system. Dare I dream that it could materialise in my children’s time? For Kate perhaps. She still has 5 years before she enters Primary 1. Mr Lien speaks of what he wants for his 3 children: “I want my children to be developed holistically as whole persons. I wish for them to witness and practise values every moment, so that values become part of their being. I hope they will become lifelong lovers of learning, motivated to acquire new knowledge to serve and transform society. I desire their school to be a genuine community that reflects a society that I want to live in – warm, collaborative, inclusive and oriented towards a common good.” AH… if only our schools were a fraction of what he has painted, I would be contented. Sad, how sad that we have been eating dirt for so long, even grass tastes good.

The ex-teacher I mentioned earlier explained that she left the system because of a fundamental crisis she faced in the values system and the dissonance between what’s professed and practised. I have heard that sentiment echoed by many teachers who have left the teaching service. Perhaps we can gather all these like-minded and passionate teachers who truly love teaching young people and who see it their mission to impart values along with knowledge, to staff this school. There are many opportunities for teachable moments which do not require any extra time or effort, only the willingness to do so. 

#1 was so fortunate to have had a form teacher in her P5 year who wove values and morales into her lessons. How do I know? #1 constantly shared with me what her teacher taught them and I watched how she interacted with them on the many excursions I accompanied them on. Teachers do play a big part in a student’s life. Many children have told me how they dislike a particular teacher and how they hate that subject. On the other hand, I have seen how good teachers are able to motivate their students to push beyond what they can comfortably achieve. The exceptional ones are able to go as far as to change the lives of their students. It’s time we provided an environment which will support these teachers.  

I am very excited at the prospect of a school where they are competing with no one other than themselves and where the joy of learning is eminent on all the children’s faces. I will be the first to put my kids in that school!

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

An open letter to all principals

I applaud the MOE’s move to assign experienced principals to helm heartland schools. My 5 school-going children are in 4 different schools so I can see firsthand how a principal makes a difference. To begin with, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the principal of #4 and #5’s school (I will not disclose the school to protect their privacy). She is very approachable, always greeting parents with a smile, and she stands shoulder to shoulder with her teachers (even in the rain) to receive the students when they are dropped off in the mornings. When I stop her to have a quick word about some concerns I have, she is willing to listen and she does follow up with the problem.

However, to make ‘every school a good school’ I do believe that there are several other factors to consider besides the implementation of niche programs or other hardware. Let me just share with you some scenarios on the ground.

1) A friend’s child could not get into a popular primary school and was posted to a heartland school. She had no qualms about it and was very excited to journey with her child in her education. She decided to get involved and was on the parent support group. However, after 2 years in the school, she was greatly disappointed. In one instance, she asked the teacher why the one and only excursion in that year had to be cancelled and the teacher replied: “Do you know that it costs us $170 to charter a bus there and back? We don’t have that kind of money.” In some CCAs, they did not have adequate funding so they roped in willing parents with some basic skills to teach the children.

When her daughter got into the gifted program, she was transferred to a top school in P4. There, she saw a world of difference. Not only were there many more CCAs to choose from, but they could afford to hire the best coaches for their students. The ratio of coaches to students was much better and the kids could have more attention. There were also more opportunities for excursions and overseas trips. She can now see very clearly why parents are fighting to get into the best schools.

Issue: The allocation of funding should be balanced across the levels and programs so that all students will benefit, instead of having a bulk of the money channelled into niche programs or programs to raise the profile of the school.

2) Another friend shared with me her story. Her eldest son got into a SAP school in P1 and she was quite sure he was in safe hands. She did not give him any tuition, but at P6, she realised too late that the school only taught half, and expected parents to settle the other half of their education out of their own pocket. Her son scored 180 and went to a heartland school. She was fine about it. However, within a few months, she saw her son change drastically. He sat next to a boy whose parents were busy at work the whole day. The boy introduced her son to Lan gaming and he came home at 10pm every day, even during school days. They had so many family quarrels and she couldn’t control her son. She went into depression and had to seek help. She was desperate and heartbroken. Now with her 3rd child, she takes no chances and gives her daughter tuition, hoping that she will get into a much better school than her brother.

I am aware that such negative influences are also present in ‘top’ schools, but the prevalance is lower. I do believe that we as parents have the bulk of the responsibility in instilling the right values and morals in our children so that they would stand firm against negative peer influence. However, which parent wouldn’t prefer to leave their child in a good school environment so that they can have peace of mind while they go to work. I would think that I’m not far off the mark when I say that most parents do think that many heartland schools are good schools when it comes to having good programs and dedicated teachers coming up with innovative teaching methods etc. However, the concern lies in the friends the child is going to mix with.

Issue: Peer influence

3) #1 had a best friend in P6. She ended up scoring 240 while her classmate scored 190. They went to different schools. I took them out shortly after they entered Sec 1 and was very sad to hear the stories her friend shared. She was telling us how scary it was in school. She related an incident where they were in class having lessons, and suddenly a Sec 3 boy slammed through the doors and barged into her classroom. He went up to one of her classmate and punched him in the face. Her teacher tried to restrain the boys but the older boy was oblivious to the teacher and went on harassing the other boy, all the while spewing vulgarities. Both of them were then hauled to the disciplinary master. Apparently, the Sec 1 boy had stood on the toilet bowl and looked over to the other boy’s cubicle during recess. Besides such drama which probably petrified the class, there are other daily disruptions to lessons whereby the teacher is constantly wasting time dealing with some disciplinary matter or other.

Issue: Discipline and bad classroom environment.

4) During the final year exams in Sec 1, a friend called up to ask if her daughter could study with my daughter so that she could get some ‘good influence’. She said that her daughter did not want to study as it would seem uncool, and she would be labelled a ‘nerd’. It would take a strong child to stand up to this type of school culture. In comparison, I can see healthy competition going on amongst the students in my daughter’s class where they try to out-beat one another in their exams.

Issue: A student culture that does not promote studying

5) A teacher shared with me that it was a world of a difference coming from a heartland school and being transferred to a ‘top 10′ school. Before, her students never did her homework and she had to go around to the HDB block of flats after school to hunt for her students. She would find them at the playground and have to tell them to go home and do her homework and to revise. She even had to buy alarm clocks and go to her students’ homes and tell the parents to get their children to school on time. In the top school, she was surprised that most of her students already knew what was in the syllabus!

Just a suggestion: In situations like these where parents are too busy working to make ends meet to take charge of their children, perhaps the schools can step in. They could get a mentor program running where they provide rooms in school for these latchkey children and get the students who are doing well academically to mentor the weaker students under the supervision of a teacher. Instead of letting the negative influence prevail, have the other children provide a positive influence to their classmates. 

6)In #3’s school, we had a change of principal. This principal was highly acclaimed as she achieved a lot at her previous school. However, having been here for the past 6 years, she has left many parents disappointed on so many aspects. But I’ll just like to highlight one very simple incident. There was a case of HFMD going on in one of the classes (it was a P4 class). No information was provided to any of the parents in that class nor in any of the other P4 classes. Bear in mind that the students shuffle around for their banding subjects. Many days later, my daughter came down with HFMD. I did not even know anything about it until the day she got it. I asked her if any of her other classmates were absent. She told me yes, another 9 of them. I was shocked. I immediately called up the school and voiced my concern and asked what was the protocol for such contagious diseases? I never got a reply from the school, even after leaving an email for the principal. I heard from the parents of the class with the first case of HFMD that it had spread to more than half the class. The parents banded together and went to school to insist on a meeting with the principal. The principal’s stand was that the exams were round the corner and she would not shut down any class. In the end, my younger children caught HFMD. I’m sure many other siblings of those kids caught it too. We as parents could see where the principal’s priorities were, and it definitely was not the student’s or their family’s welfare. But what I was most disappointed in was that the school did not even have the decency to inform parents about it. We would have understood the school’s viewpoint to complete the syllabus and we could have made our own decisions whether to send our children to school or not. 

In contrast, in #5’s school, when one of his classmate came down with chickenpox, a doctor was called in immediately and all the students were screened. I had to go in and pick him up from school as he was suspected of having chicken pox. As it turned out, it was just some scratches, but they would rather err on the side of caution.

I could go on and on with other examples, but I think you get the point. If every school could someday really be good schools in all these other aspects, I can safely say that most parents would be comfortable sending their kids to any school. This would really alleviate a lot of the unnecessary competition going on at the PSLE level and a lot of unnecessary parental stress at the P1 registration exercise.

In my post 6 tips to choose a secondary school that is right for your child, I highlighted some very admirable principals who had dared to be different and implemented many out of the box strategies and programs for their students. 

I humbly appeal to all principals. You are not the head of a corporation. You are a leader, with the power to inspire and garner the energies of a legion of teachers under your wing. Who in turn have the power to influence and shape the lives of thousands of young people, who will go on to shape our country. Take good care of your teachers, even if it may mean a smaller bonus or less accolades for your school. Lead your teachers with integrity, courage and wisdom. After all, isn’t that what we are trying to teach our children? 

I had a cousin who was a principal. Sadly, she has left us. However, till today, when I meet parents who had children from Fairfield Methodist, they still remember her fondly. They tell me she was a principal with a heart. I sincerely hope that as you go about your challenging tasks ahead of you, you do it with a heart. 

To read about the Dialogue Session I was invited to at the MOE, click here.

 ~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~