Let’s not hide behind the convenient “late bloomer” narrative

My son had his first Edusave Award.

Many would call him a “late bloomer”. However, I feel we should not use the “late bloomer” label loosely, because it blind sides us to the potential we could have provided for him.

Being a “late bloomer” suggests that either a child finally “wakes up” and studies hard in secondary school, polytechnic, or University, or a child’s “intelligence” kicks in at a later age. Both of which are not true in his case.

Let me explain.

My son has a learning profile that does not match our current education system. He was a very active preschooler, outspoken, curious, and the type of child who thinks out of the box and always asks “Why?” and “Why not?”

He does not do that out of defiance, but because that’s how his mind operates. He genuinely wants to know the reason why something is the way it is, or why something can’t be done. Can we find a way to get around it? Has it been proven? Only after he has tried all sorts of ways to get around it without success will he conclude that he hasn’t managed to find a way yet. Many a times, he stumbles upon new discoveries while figuring things out.

However, this does not sit well with formal education as teachers have a syllabus to get on with, and they can’t manage a class of 40 with random kids piping up constantly, even if their questions or observations are legitimate. I understand, because I am an educator myself.

From the time he was young, we could tell that he is a bright child. He had never-ending questions, all logical, but it took a lot of patience to answer them! He easily picked up the rules of games quicker than his older siblings, and was doing advanced puzzles which he found around the house.

At 4, I sent him to Act 3 for a week of speech and drama holiday camp and the teacher said that he could memorize all his lines as well as the lines of every other child in the play in one morning.

When it was time to enrol him in preschool, I was in a dilemma. Having peeked into the kindergarten classrooms of my 4 girls which were of the traditional model, I was certain that my son needed an environment that was more hands-on and developmentally appropriate. Despite the logistics hassle, I decided to put him in a school with an experiential learning philosophy with a lot more outdoor time.

As expected, his preschool teachers commented that he talked a lot, moved non-stop, had lots of big ideas, was a natural leader, was curious how things worked (yes, a nightmare for most teachers) and was very creative. His creations and designs were very complex, always symmetrical, and had detachable parts that could “fly out”. Only when he was creating could he sit for long periods, fully focused, and he had the patience to dig through the entire box to find the pieces that he needed. He could conceptualise things easily in his mind, and could visualise them vividly before they take form.

They understood his learning style, and could accommodate them without compromising the curriculum outcome.

However, once he entered Primary school, all I heard was complaints from his teachers. His education journey went downhill from there. I had a lot of calls and texts from his form teacher.

Feedback from his P1 form teacher:

He talks a lot and asks too many questions when he should just listen to the instructions and obey them. He’s unable to sit still at his desk and pay attention and gets easily distracted and ends up distracting his classmates.

His perspective as a 7-year old:

When I questioned him about his “bad behaviour” that his teacher kept complaining to me about, he was surprised. He said that she kept repeating herself and taught the same concept 3 times so he tuned out and was thinking of his own stuff. The lesson was boring so he chatted with his friend next to him. It was hard for him to stay put on the chair and listen to her talk. He wanted to walk around the classroom and find something interesting to work on.

This kind of “out-of-the-norm” classroom behaviour earned him a reputation of being a “naughty” boy, and it became a self-perpetuating prophecy.

His P6 science teacher even told me at the PTM that he should save all his questions for when he goes to secondary school. Right now, just keep quiet, conform and focus on the PSLE and regurgitate the “key phrases”.

The one and only teacher who told me that he was not a naughty boy like everyone made it out to be was a male teacher. He shared that my son was actually a sweet boy when you spent time to get to know him and to hear him out, and he admitted that an international school would have suited him much better.

With the wisdom of hindsight, of my 6 kids, this child should have been homeschooled so that he could reach his potential and not feel like a misfit.

The turn around finally came when he entered an all-boys school in Secondary One. For the first time, he didn’t feel judged or labelled, and the teachers were more accepting of their different learning styles.

Not surprisingly, his favourite subjects in school is Design & Technology and Art. The other subjects with a content-heavy curriculum are still not ideal for his learning profile, and I’m looking forward to checking out the options in Polytechnic, where it is practical based and industry relevant, which would suit him much better.

There are indeed many more pathways now after the O levels. MOE has done a lot to widen the options at the tertiary level and I love asking my kids’ friends what courses they are in! The most unexpected one I’ve heard so far is a perfumery and cosmetic science course, and other interesting poly courses include game design, sports coaching, vet science, animation and film production. More importantly, the opportunities for our children to enter University via other routes besides the A levels or IB path are also increasing.

All of that is excellent, as we nurture life long learners, but what about the precious first 10 years of their formal education?

If my son’s primary school education was of a different model, one of exploration and experiential hands-on classroom activities, he would certainly not be a “late bloomer”.

It is too late for him to turn back the clock, but not too late for us to look ahead and take this group of children seriously.

These are the mavericks who have the potential to chart new horizons for the future of Singapore in a progressively disrupted world. Let’s not systematically kill the spirit of such kids but let their unconventional genius find root and take shape.

The sad thing is, my son is now very quiet, school is uninspiring and uninteresting, and his only creative outlet is in digital games, where strategy, creativity, and innovation is called for.

I can’t wait for him to finish his secondary education and to move on to something more relevant which sparks his interest, and where he can finally bloom.

Why a co-ed school was wrong for my son, and more school stories.

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 co-Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in areas like resilience and executive function. She is a Parent Coach and her signature Mummy Wee: Parenting Secrets courses help parents navigate this challenging journey. She is an Award winning blogger of Mummy Wee Blog and has been regularly featured on national TV, radio and print media.

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