Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wake-up call for Singapore kindergartens

The Straits Times, 27 June 2012

By Leslie Kay Lim and Lin Zhaowei 

A GLOBAL survey on early-childhood education has given Singapore a disappointing report card.

The Republic was ranked 29th in a field of 45 developed and emerging economies covered in the survey into the extent to which governments provide good, inclusive early-childhood education to those aged three to six.

The top three spots were taken by Nordic states Finland, Sweden and Norway; in the Asia-Pacific, New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia outdid Singapore. 

The study was commissioned by local philanthropic group the Lien Foundation.

The 'Starting Well' Index, as it is called, evaluated pre-school education in four areas - social context, availability, affordability and quality.

Singapore fared well in 'social context'. This was a nod to its high literacy rates and standard of living, which means children here do not suffer from malnutrition or ill health.

But it scored only 'average' in availability, as children here do not have a legal right to pre-school education. The report said that making it a legal right makes governments accountable - obligated to provide pre-school to those who want it, as distinct from making it mandatory. 

Despite this, the report noted that the level of pre-school enrolment here is high.

Singapore also did only 'average' for affordability. 

The report noted that the Government here balances having a pre-school sector that is market-driven - with families paying for the pre-school of their choice - by providing direct subsidies to eligible lower-income families.

But Singapore's worst performance came in the 'quality' department.

Reasons for this included a high teacher-student ratio of 1:20. 

Another aspect which pulled Singapore down in this area was relatively low average wages and the low entry requirements for pre-school teachers. 

The median monthly wage for preschool teachers was about $1,600 in 2010, which means half the teachers were drawing above this, and the other half, below. This was just half the national median wage that year.

Qualifications-wise, pre-school teachers in the top-10-ranked economies have degrees; teachers here only need to have five O-level credits and a diploma in pre-school education.

But if this impinged on the quality of pre-school education here, the report said the Government had stepped in to provide curriculum guidelines.

The report also noted the weak link between pre-school and primary school here, and the relatively low level of parental involvement that ensures that learning continues at home.

Nordic countries top the rankings largely because of their governments' long-term investment and prioritisation of early-childhood development, said the report. 

By contrast, Singapore spends only a third of what Norway does on pre-school education per child.

Calling the ranking a timely wake-up call, Lien Foundation chief executive Lee Poh Wah said research had shown good pre-school education pays off with less remedial schooling down the line - and even lower crime rates: 'If there is a weak link in our national education system, the pre-school phase would be it.

'The ideal of equal opportunity for children in our society should start from pre-school. A better playing field would give disadvantaged children a head start that could change their life outcomes.'

Pre-school education consultant Khoo Kim Choo suggested that the Government not only provide subsidies to parents, but also to pre-school operators. This could go towards raising teacher salaries and defraying rising rental costs. 

The Ministry of Education could step in to take over K2 classes, she added. This would standardise the curriculum and ensure all children have a smooth transition to primary school.

How Singapore fared in the four areas assessed

THE 'Starting Well' Index ranked each of the 45 economies in four areas defining the quality of their pre-school education. Singapore's pre-school system was ranked 29th overall as a result of its performance in the following areas: 

Social context: Ranked joint 1st with 27 economies such as Finland and Japan.

In this area, Singapore scored the maximum points as a result of its low infant mortality rate and high literacy among adults, among other factors. 

Availability: Ranked 25th

Singapore came in the bottom half primarily because children here do not have a legal right to pre-school education, which would entail the Government being obligated to provide it. However, despite the sector being run by private players, pre-school attendance is nearly 100 per cent. 

The Government just announced the building of 200 child-care centres as one among many moves to arrest the declining birth rate. 

Affordability: Ranked 21st

With the pre-school sector here run by private operators, households earning less than $3,500 a month or $875 per head every month are eligible for Government subsidies on school fees. 

Quality: Ranked 30th 

The teacher-to-children ratio, at 1:20, is relatively high, compared to a ratio of between 1:5 and 1:11 in the economies ranked in the top 10. 

The average wage and qualifications of pre-school teachers here also lag behind other economies in the index.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bullyproof your child from young

The Sunday Times, 24 June 2012

New York - Teaching kids to become 'bullyproof' is all the rage. Books, videos and websites promise to show parents how to protect their kids from being bullied. School districts are buying classroom programmes such as Bully-Proofing Your School.

But can you really make a child invulnerable to getting picked on? Even so, should the burden be on potential victims to learn these skills, rather than on punishing or reforming the bullies?

Parents and educators say when bullyproofing programmes are done right, children can be taught the social and emotional skills they need to avoid becoming victims.

But bullyproofing is not just about getting bullies to move on to a different target. It is also about creating a culture of kindness, beginning in preschool, and encouraging kids to develop strong friendships that can prevent the social isolation sometimes caused by extreme bullying.

Bullies 'sniff out kids who lack connections or who are isolated because of depression, disabilities or differences in size and shape', says Mr Malcolm Smith, a family education and policy specialist at the University of New Hampshire, who has been researching peer victimisation for more than 30 years.

'So if you're worried about your child being a victim, the best thing a parent can do from a very young age is ask, 'Who's got your back? When you're on the bus, when you're in the hall, who's got your back?'

'If they can't name someone, you should help them establish connections to their peers.'

Psychologist Joel Haber, a consultant on the recent documentary Bully, says 'most kids can learn skills to make themselves less likely to have the big reactions' that feed bullies.

'Let's say you're one of those kids who, when I make fun of your clothes, you get really angry and dramatic. If I taught you in a role-play situation as a parent or a therapist to react differently, even if you felt upset inside, you would get a totally different reaction from the bully.

'And if you saw that kids wouldn't tease you, your confidence would go up.'

One way parents can help is to normalise conversations about school social life so that kids are comfortable talking about it.

Do not just ask: 'How was school today?' Ask instead: 'Who'd you have lunch with, who'd you sit with, who'd you play with, what happens on the bus, do you ever notice kids getting teased or picked on or excluded?' advises Dr Haber.

Teaching a kid to appear confident physically can sometimes be easier than teaching verbal skills, says Mr Jim Bisenius, a therapist who has taught his Bully- Proofing Youth programme in more than 400 schools in Ohio and elsewhere.

'If a kid who's never been mean in his life tries to fake it or tries to outdo a bully with a verbal comeback, the bully sees right through that.'

Dr Haber says parents and schools can start in preschool years by discouraging hitting, pushing and teasing: 'Ask, how would you feel if someone did that to you?'

Children can even be taught that being kind is fun. 'Addict your child to kindness,' says Mr Smith. 'There are releases in the brain that feed endorphins that are very positive when you act with kindness. Encourage your kids to go over to a kid who's alone and bring them in.'

And beware the example you set when you treat a waitress or clerk rudely. 'If you're the kind of person who is constantly criticising, you're unconsciously role- modelling behaviours that kids will test out,' says Dr Haber.

Associated Press

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Real reason behind Singapore’s obsession with tuition

By Daniel Wong
Singapore is a tuition nation.
Previous reports from the Department of Statistics show that households spent $820 million a year on both centre and home-based private tuition.
In addition, the number of tuition centres has increased five times over the past decade. There are now more than 500 centres in Singapore.
In comparison, there are fewer than 400 primary and secondary schools in total.
Through my work as an education excellence coach and speaker, I've had the privilege of speaking to and working with thousands of students. Through these interactions, I estimate that more than 90% of students attend some form of tuition classes.
Students continually complain about their huge struggle to complete their school and tuition homework, participate actively in their co-curricular activities, and lead a somewhat balanced life.
Most students tell me that they don't get more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep every night because there's just so much they have to do!
Clearly, there's something wrong with this picture.
In this article, I'll share my observations about how our obsession with tuition reveals deeper issues we face as a society—issues that go far beyond the pursuit of academic success.
The fear of failure starts with parents
Parents send their children for tuition classes because they fear their children getting left behind. That's a reasonable fear, because it seems like every other student attends classes outside of school.
But the bigger fear that parents have is the fear of failure, not just for their children, but for themselves, too.
It's difficult to measure your performance as a parent, so parents often subconsciously gauge their success by how their children are doing in school.
Your child is a straight-A student? Then you must be doing a wonderful job!
Your child is struggling academically? Then you're failing as a parent.
Few parents verbalize it, but these thoughts are at the core of their decision to send their children for tuition classes. At the end of the day, no parent wants to feel like a failure.
What parents really want for their children
There are other implications, too. Parents' fear of failure gets passed on to their children, who grow up thinking that the best path is the one that's free from failure, risk and disappointment.
But is that really the best path? No, that's merely the good path, yet it's also the one that parents unintentionally push their children to pursue. A lot of the time, the best path is the one that's full of uncertainty and adversity.
That's why it's generally incorrect to say that parents want what's best for their children, because they usually only want what's good.
Be curious, not competitive
Moreover, parents who are fixated on their children's academic performance instill a spirit of competition in their children. In today's Information Age, however, what's needed in order to excel is a spirit of curiosity, rather than a spirit of competition.
There's an incredible amount of information available on the internet, which means that if you want to become knowledgeable in some field, you probably could. It just requires that you have enough genuine curiosity to compel you to look up the information online.
If students are caught up trying to compete with their peers and outperform them, it's difficult to cultivate a real love for learning and discovery—the things that form the basis of a meaningful education and of long-term success in the Information Age.
Success is more about will than skill
Furthermore, if students feel like they're being forced to improve academically, there's a limit to how successful they can become. To achieve success—I'll go one step further and use the word "greatness"—in any field, you need to make a conscious decision to be great.
After all, no great pianist, athlete, engineer, doctor, mechanic, nurse or entrepreneur became that way without intentionally choosing the path of excellence.
You can't force anyone to become great. It's possible to force someone to become mediocre or even good, but greatness requires commitment.
If parents make their children go for tuition classes without also empowering them to take full responsibility for their own education, it's impossible for the children to become great students.
At the heart of it, greatness is much more a matter of will than it is of skill. Before we teach our students the skill of studying more effectively and of doing better on exams, we need to encourage them to make a deliberate choice about their education, their future and their life.
Tuition isn't a bad thing
Just to be clear, on its own, tuition isn't a horrible thing. I have no doubt that tuition classes can help children to become more disciplined, knowledgeable, hardworking and determined.
Nevertheless, if it's not done with the correct mindset, sending children for tuition classes can be dangerous.
It's possible that we're currently creating a generation of sleep-deprived, overworked, unfulfilled, and unhappy students. I fear that this generation of unhappy students is going to become a generation of unhappy workers and, later on, a generation of unhappy parents.
This is a problem we cannot ignore.
So whether you, as a parent, decide to send your children for tuition classes or not, I urge you to make that decision with the right perspective. Make sure your children understand that it's more important to finish well than it is to finish first.
The future of our country depends on it.

Daniel Wong is the author of "The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success". He is also an education excellence coach and speaker. He writes regularly about topics related to education, career and personal development at Living Large.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The 7 best ways to banish germs

It doesn't take a germ warrior to keep a family well protected from bug-borne illness. Just follow these seven basic, important steps:

1Wash hands at strategic times
Teach your children to wash their hands before eating and after going to the bathroom, petting an animal, or playing outside.

2Don’t skimp on scrubbing
Do hand washing right: With soap and water, it takes 20 seconds of scrubbing to kill the germs that need to be killed.

3Carry a handy cleaner
Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer with you for visits to playgrounds, mall food courts, and other places where a sink might not be handy. Be sure to cover every part of the hand, including under the nails, if possible.

4Squelch the scariest germs
After preparing meat or poultry, wash cutting boards with hot, soapy water and spray countertops with disinfectant. The bacteria commonly found on raw meats – including campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli – are more dangerous than any other germs you're likely to have in the house.

5Tend injuries with TLC
Wash small cuts and scrapes with soap and water. Apply an antibacterial ointment, put on a bandage, and change the bandage every day until the wound heals.

6Stop germs at the door
Make sure your children are up-to-date on their vaccinations, including their yearly flu shot or nasal spray flu vaccine. A child in daycare or school who's been vaccinated against the flu is less likely to bring home a bug that can infect the entire family.

7Do a wipe-down
If someone in your house is sick, take a moment to clean doorknobs, television remotes, toys, and other items your children touch throughout the day. Use a household cleaner or make your own by combining 1 tablespoon of bleach with 1 quart (4 cups) of water.

by Chris Woolston