How We Chose Our Daughter’s Pre-School

In Singapore, there are countless pre-schools the search for “the one” is daunting. I  visited over 20 before deciding. So I thought I’d write it to help  parents make this journey easier  🙂

Determine the kind of education you want for your kids

Our criteria:

  1. Play-based / inquiry-based curriculum
  2. Bilingual immersion in English and Chinese
  3. Daily physical (preferably outdoor) activity
  4. A music/movement program that is taken seriously
  5. No homework

With just five criteria, we managed to disqualify MOST schools within 5 kilometers from home. Many schools don’t offer daily physical activity and don’t have a qualified music teacher. There was one school where the teacher was singing off key and, in another, they had musical toys that were not chromatic. Many do not have bilingual immersion. We also disqualified every school in a shopping mall.

Determine how much you’re willing to spend

There was one school I was interested in but costs over $2,000 a month. We skipped it even though we heard many good things about it.

Check school reviews

Check online reviews, but be discerning. My daughter’s school gets consistently poor review by parents who think the school is not “academic” enough and wastes too much time on physical activities and music/movement. The poor reviews are actually my reasons for wanting to check it out!

But there are poor reviews that are off-putting. I crossed out a school for consistent review of “no clear curriculum, teachers not communicating with the parents, lack of discipline”. These are general bad things you want to stay away from.

Then it’s down to the visit

Once you have budget + criteria, your final choice would be dependent on what you see during the visit. Some important notes:

1. Bring your child. There was one school I had high hopes for – the curriculum was play-based, lots of physical activities, teachers very animated … but my child hated the classrooms. They  were tiny with full floor-to-ceiling walls and no natural light … even I felt claustrophobic.

In another, the school was located on such uneven terrain there were so many outdoor stairs to get in and out of the school. I just thought it was safety hazard.

2. Ask what sets them apart from other schools. Some school administrators / teachers have absolutely no idea what makes their school distinct. I cross these schools out immediately for lack of direction / focus.

There was one school that I loved (but beyond our budget) where they have a “library cart” that visits each classroom and every child gets to bring home 1 fiction + 1 non fiction book every week for their parents to read. I like their focus on literature 🙂

There was another school I really like that looks like Little House on The Prairie: huge playground on grass field, fishing pond, tree house, rabbits and chickens, big breezy classrooms that don’t require aircon. If this school is within 5kms from home, I probably would have sent my daughter there.

3. Ask them what they do to prepare kids for P1. This question doesn’t quite apply to me because I just want my child to love learning and develop confidence. But to many of you, the answer to this question could be important.

There was one school that prepares the kids for P1 by introducing a classroom concept (desk + chair for each child) at K1 and K2. There was another that starts introducing worksheet at K1/K2.

I intentionally don’t name these schools because what I find “unfit” for us doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. You can comment if you want to know which schools these are 😀 but hopefully the steps help you out!

Ngajarin fokus dan prioritas, duh susahnya ….

Kalau anda punya anak delapan tahun keatas, mungkin anda punya pengalaman yang sama dengan saya. Anak mulai banyak PR (dan les tambahan) tapi mereka nggak fokus pada tugas-tugasnya. Maunya main game, tidur, baca komik, main ke rumah temennya. Kadang-kadang lupa bikin PR, lupa kalo besok ada ulangan, lupa bawa buku, baju olahraganya ketinggalan, botol minumnya hilang, salah pake seragam, and so on and so forth …. 🙂

Anak saya sebentar lagi 12 tahun, dan semua gurunya memberi masukan bahwa anak ini pintar dan kreatif, tapi tidak fokus pada tugasnya, makanya nilainya suka naik turun. Kalo pas inget dan niat, nilainya selalu bagus (antara B+ sampe A+, jagoan deh!) tapi kadang-kadang lupa ini itu, bacanya ga teliti, PR-nya ga kelar, nilai PR atau ulangannya jeblok jadi D atau F.

Kalo cuma satu guru yang komplain begitu, wajar lah … mungkin kebetulan dia ga cocok ama gurunya, atau emang ga seneng pelajarannya. Tapi kalo banyak guru punya concern yang sama, berarti ini khan sudah behavioral atau attitude problem, bukan sekedar like or dislike terhadap guru atau pelajaran tertentu.

Mulai lah saya dan suami putar otak, dateng2 seminar, tanya2 ortu lain, cari tahu gimana cara melatih anak untuk fokus dan bagaimana memotivasi dia. Kami coba berbagai cara … beberapa percobaan kami di tiga-empat bulan pertama bisa dibilang ga sukses, tapi setelah kami mengubah taktik, sekarang dia jadi jauh lebih bertanggung jawab dan fokus.

Enam bulan terakhir, praise the Lord, dia menunjukkan bahwa dia bisa fokus, mengatur prioritas, dan dia jadi lebih self-motivated untuk punya nilai bagus dan jadi juara kelas. Karena sudah sukses praktek ke anak sendiri, pikir2 boleh juga sharing disini, kali2 ada orang lain yang bisa mengambil manfaatnya (amin!)

1. Buat aturan main di awal semester / caturwulan. Kami berdiskusi dengan anak kapan dia boleh main komputer, kapan dia harus tidur, dsb. Misalnya, kami sepakat bahwa:

  • Weekday dia ga boleh main game, kecuali mommy daddy-nya dua-dua tidak di rumah dan dia nganggur sesudah bikin PR, belajar u/ ulangan, latihan gitar dan latihan trombone.
  • Weekend dia boleh main game, atau main ke rumah temannya (termasuk menginap)

Dengan aturan yang jelas seperti ini – kalau perlu, ditulis lalu dipajang di kamarnya supaya dia ga lupa, kalau dia melanggar (misalnya, ketika mommy daddynya pergi dia langsung main komputer 3 jam tapi lupa bikin PR), kita nggak perlu marah2 atau teriak2. Tinggal bilang, “Kamu khan tahu kalo kamu mestinya ga main game sebelum PR kelar. Sekarang aturannya kamu langgar. Enaknya hukumannya apa?” …..   Atau … “Sekali lagi kamu langgar, koneksi internet akan kita matikan tiap kali mommy daddy pergi.”

Setelah kita pake sistem “bikin aturan main di awal”, berangsur-angsur anak kami ingat urutan prioritasnya: PR – ulangan – latihan musik …. baru main2 🙂

2. Beri reward untuk usahanya dan perilakunya, bukan nilai akhir. Waktu awal tahun ajaran (Agustus 2008), kami mengiming-imingi anak dengan iPhone (bekas bapaknya … but still, iPhone is an iPhone!) kalau dia dapat lima nilai A di rapornya. Tapi dia malah jadi stress, kadang2 kalau dapet nilai jelek trus dia nangis pula karena merasa udah ga bisa ngejar nilai rata-rata A. Dan akhirnya, di quarter 1 dan 2, dia ga pernah dapet 5 nilai A … paling banter 3 doang. Dan feedback dari guru-gurunya tetap sama: ‘ni anak masih punya masalah dengan fokus.

Akhirnya, setelah tanya sana sini, kami rubah approach-nya: dia akan dapat iPhone kalau dia put his best efforts di tugas-tugas sekolahnya (tidak lupa bikin PR, tidak lupa persiapan untuk ulangan, tidak lupa grammar and spelling check), dan feedback dari guru-gurunya membaik. Lupakan 5 nilai A … asalkan dia menunjukkan effort dan attitude yang baik selama 1 quarter (tiga bulan), iPhone akan jadi miliknya. Tiap hari Minggu, kami duduk bersama untuk memberi dia nilai effort dan attitude mingguan (antara 1-5 poin). Dia harus mencapai rata-rata 4 poin tiap minggunya untuk bisa dapat iPhone.

Setelah menjalankan sistem ini selama 10 minggu (dia 2 minggu lagi terima rapor), feedback dari guru-gurunya membaik. Dia lebih independen, kreatif dan teliti dalam mengerjakan tugas-tugasnya, karena dia tahu bahwa kami menilai usahanya, bukan hasilnya. Dia tidak stres karena dia tahu selama dia menunjukkan usaha yang keras untuk menyelesaikan tugas dan belajar, dia tidak akan di-penalti kalaupun nilainya ga bagus2 amat.

Ga cuma lebih fokus dan bisa mengatur prioritas, tapi nilainya pun jadi agak2 ajaib:  nilai Science-nya naik dari 86 jadi 99 (sim salabim!!!), nilai bahasa asing (Spanish) naik dari 82 jadi 93, bahkan nilai bahasa dan sastra Inggris yang jadi momok bagi dia pun naik dari 80 jadi 87. Target lima nilai A di akhir quarter, yang dulu jadi momok buat dia, tiba-tiba tercapai tanpa dia merasa dipaksa-paksa belajar. Di akhir proses ini, dia akhirnya sadar bahwa kalau he puts his mind into something, no one can stop him from being the best 🙂

3. Beri reward kecil2an secara berkala. Namanya anak, kadang2 masih sulit fokus pada target jangka panjang. Nah, selain sering2 mengingatkan mereka akan reward jangka panjang dan aturan mainnya, kami suka memberi anak reward untuk prestasi spesial yang dia dapat. Misalnya … ketika dia dapat nilai A untuk buku kumpulan puisinya, dia kami bawa ke Ben & Jerry’s (kami jarang beli es krim dan cemilan2 manis, jadi es krim ‘tu traktiran spesial bhuanget!). Ketika dia menyelesaikan semua PR-nya dengan cepat tapi teliti, kadang2 kami bilang, “OK, kamu boleh main game 1 jam” walaupun itu hari biasa.

Anak kami tidak pernah kami iming2-i reward kecil di muka. Kami tidak pernah bilang, “Kalau ulangan ini kamu dapat A, kamu dapat es krim” (ntar stres lagi dah!).  Kami impulse aja. Dan kadang2 reward-nya cuma, “Congratulations! Besok kamu boleh bangun lebih siang, daddy akan anter kamu ke sekolah!” (dia biasanya naik MRT). Tapi dengan hal-hal kecil ini dia jadi excited, kadang2 belon sampe rumah dia udah ribut telpon2 saya atau bapaknya … laporan di sekolah ngapain aja.

4. Dampingi anak ketika belajar. Kadang2, dosa kita sebagai orangtua adalah mengharap dari anak sesuatu yang kita sendiri ga bersedia / ga bisa lakukan. Jadi sepertinya balas dendam gitu  … dulu aku ga juara kelas, tapi anakku harus bisa! Saya dan suami berkomitmen untuk, kalau perlu, ikutan baca buku teks anak supaya kalau dia nggak ngerti, kita bisa bantu jelaskan. Kami tidak malu untuk tanya guru atau konselornya kalau kami mulai bingung bagaimana cara ngajarin sesuatu ke anak. Kami berkomitmen untuk mengajari anak bagaimana cara belajar yang cepat dan efektif, ga sekedar menyuruh dia duduk 2 jam menghapal sampai jereng tapi sebenernya kita sendiri ga tau cara belajar yang efektif. Kami berkomitmen untuk jadi pendengar yang baik ketika dia ngalor ngidul cerita tentang teman-teman dan guru2nya di sekolah, apa yang dia suka / tidak suka, dsb … selain supaya kami lebih tahu minat, bakatnya, juga supaya anak kami tahu bahwa his opinion matters. Selain itu, kami berjanji untuk tidak “mengarahkan” dia untuk membuat tugasnya sesuai ide kami (walaupun mungkin cara kami lebih keren dan cepat) –> PR-nya harus benar2 hasil karya dan pemikirannya supaya dia terlatih untuk independen dan memecahkan masalah, dan kalau nilainya bagus dia bisa bangga akan hasilnya 🙂

Setelah beberapa bulan terbingung-bingung bagaimana caranya supaya ‘ni anak ngerti yang namanya fokus dan prioritas, puji Tuhan sekarang kami mulai melihat hasil dari upaya kami selama sembilan bulan terakhir. Ga cuma prestasi, attitude dan focus-nya membaik, tapi rumah kami pun jadi tempat yang lebih damai. Jarang banget ada teriakan2, “Banyak spelling mistakes niiiiy!!!! Benerin cepetan!!!!”  atau “Whaaat????? Ulangan cuma dapet D???? Melamun kemana aja kamu waktu belajar kemaren????”, anak kami merasa orangtuanya lebih adil karena sekarang aturan mainnya jelas, dan dia jadi lebih open sama orang tuanya, sudah nggak pake ngumpet2in nilai2nya, baik atau buruk (walopun sekarang udah nyaris ga pernah ada buruknya ….).

Untuk teman-teman yang masih mencoba berbagai formula untuk ngajarin fokus dan prioritas ke anak, mungkin hal-hal ini bisa dicoba. Good luck!

Why Language Arts?

Our son is naturally talented in math and science, with consistent As in both, with practically no help from us. Many parents could only dream about this situation.

Yet, we are trying hard to work with him on one thing – his language skills. In my previous post I shared some of the issues our son is going through, from misspelling, scattered ideas, wrong use of words and grammar, absent reading, to lack of ability to extract information from a reading material.

Some people are telling us, “What’s the big deal? Universities care mostly about math and science grades! If math and science grades are high, it means your children are smart!”

And we agree that our son is smart, and that it is a blessing for us to have a son who score aces in math and science. But his life is so much more than just good grades and ability to secure a seat in a good university.

So this is why we encourage him to try his absolute best to improve his language arts:

Firstly, math and science emphasize right or wrong answer. You either get it right, or not. While they are the bases of logical thinking, they do not put a lot of emphasis on analytical thinking – where any reasons can be accepted as long as it is justified with compelling argument and evidence.

Secondly, math and science skills, at school, are used mainly for … math and science; but language skills are required in all subjects. No teacher would give a full mark for a sloppy handwritten work with scattered ideas and a lot of misspelling.

A lot of school tests, regardless of subjects, are based on the ability to recall information from reading materials. Without ability to intently read and extract important information, he is bound to lose a lot of points.

The necessity of language skills goes beyond the classrooms, well into his future adult life. As the job-market and life today would show, language skills need to go hand-in-hand with math-and-science-like logic.

To begin with, math excellence don’t show on a curriculum vitae. But if your CV is full of spelling mistakes, no employer would give you an interview.

If my son can’t count accurately, later on in life he can use a calculator to do the math. But if he can’t structure his thoughts properly in a piece of writing, nobody would understand what he’s saying and all his brilliant thoughts would go unnoticed.

If you are a super talented architect (a.k.a. someone who should be naturally talented in math, especially geometry …) who is about to build the tallest building in the world … but you fail to put a compelling proposal just because your idea is not structured and your presentation skills appalling, that building project won’t be yours. I am a living testimony to this … many times I have won new clients and projects not because my ideas are superior or cheaper than competitors. My ideas were, simply, more well-written and presented.

If you are a super talented engineer participating in a government bid to create a system that will speed up baggage checking process at airports by 50% … but you fail to meet all requirements simply because you missed taking notes of some important parts in the bidding document … your proposal will be disqualified. I have also lost projects because I missed some super simple instructions.

Some times, based on my experience and my husband’s, analytical thinking – expressed through good language skills, is the key from bringing someone up from a technical person to the top post in the organization. The higher someone gets in their career, the less their work is about technicalities and the more it is about inspiring, strategizing, and communicating ideas convincingly. Math and science don’t teach this – language arts do.

For this reason, many people I know who want to advance beyond technical positions choose to do an MBA or some general management courses – so they move on from doing the right-or-wrong process (the sciences and maths) to mastering critical thinking, strategizing and communication skills (the language arts).

And for all these reasons, I am encouraging parents and students to balance maths and sciences will the practical skills of language arts – the skills of absorbing important information from what you hear and read, the ability to combine those information you receive with your own ideas, and the art of putting your thought together in a way that makes it easy for people to understand and relate to you.

Teaching Your Kids to Read and Memorize

I have only been a parent of a school-going child for two months now, but I am inheriting an 11-year old boy who has a few learning difficulties. He finds it extremely difficult to memorize, or to extract information from a reading material. While very talented in math and science, he is struggling in social studies, reading and language arts, Spanish, basically everything that requires memorizing and reading comprehension.

We are blessed because he recognizes this issue and he’s willing to put in the effort to get better at this, knowing that he usually gets somewhere between C- and F if he doesn’t get help. However, we also don’t want him to stay up till late at night just to memorize the materials for tomorrow’s tests – something that has consistently happened when he has a memory-based test the next day.

We don’t particularly enjoy staying up late either ….

Upon sharing this with some other parents, apparently this problem is quite common. Generally speaking, most schools don’t teach the children how to read and learn – they just expect the kids to figure it out. Or if the teachers actually teach the kids how to read and memorize (which they do at my son’s school), we can’t expect the teachers to have the time to sit down with each student making sure that they get the idea of what to learn and how.

The task of walking our kids through the process of making reading and memorizing a habit and an easy task falls at home, with the parents.

So below are some of the things that my husband and I share with our son … some of these points he was also told at school:

1. Create an environment that helps kids concentrate. He usually studies at the dining table, with the TV on. Of course he gets easily distracted. Now we require him to study in his room. We also put extra lights in our living room and on his desk – bright light helps people read better. If the kids have younger siblings, try to keep their younger siblings away from them during this period.

2. Teach them how to read. My husband and I are avid readers, and we were blessed to have had teachers who taught us how to read. So among the things we share with our son are:

  • That in any reading materials, the main idea of the paragraph is usually the first or last sentence in that paragraph
  • That it is faster to read through a passage when he covers the lines below the line he’s reading with a piece of paper. This helps him to focus on the particular line he is reading
  • To pay special attention to bold words, words written in different colors, or the side quotes in a textbook

3. Teach them how to extract information from the text. Teaching them to read is rather easy. Empowering them to determine the important points of the text and remember them is much tougher. This is the process that takes time, at which you need to patiently work with your children. Some of the things we are working with him on:

  • Scanning for specific keywords. We usually ask him to firstly read questions that are given to him, and then look for specific keywords that will answer those questions. For example, if he is given a question, “How did knowledge and information get spread around in pre-historic time?” He will need to scan the text for “spread”, “pre-historic time” and “knowledge / information” to find the answer
  • Creating notes in a graphic format. We told him to make note-taking a habit. We would help him do this by creating empty graphs, tables, organizational charts, for him to fill out with information he extracted from his reading material. Therefore, on the day of test, instead of re-reading one whole book on the way to school, he brings just 1-2 page of cleverly organized notes to refresh his memory. This makes the task much more effective and simpler although it takes work at the beginning. And by teaching him to do this, we are also teaching him to be more structured in his thinking
  • Create abbreviations. To help him memorize elements, we encourage him to find abbreviations. For example, when trying to remember that … “archeology is the study of bones, artifacts, ruins and fossils from the past”, we told him he can memorize archeology as the study of BARF (bones, artifacts, ruins and fossils). Before we told him that, he couldn’t remember this definition no matter how many times he’s read it. After we did that, he remembered it instantly, and never forgot it.

We have been working with him on improving his reading and memorizing abilities for two months now, and it has helped brought his memory-based quiz and homework results from C-F to A or B.

But these tips are not yet a habit for him. When we remind him to do it, he will do it and feel good about the results he get. When laziness strikes in, he tries to play down the weight of this quiz / homework and would come back down to somewhere between C and F again.

This is normal for a pre-teen or any kid … you need to continue to patiently remind him/her the benefits of extra effort and the consequences of laziness.

Luckily to us, he genuinely feels bad when he doesn’t do well in tests and homework even though we never scold him for that or dramatize his bad results … which gives us opportunities to continue reminding him that “a bit extra effort at the beginning, and you will feel good about the results in the end”.