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Supporting your child’s learning needs

Supporting your child’s learning needs

Author:  Tan Su-Lynn

If you’re a parent who believes in taking a proactive approach to your child’s education, then you’ve probably realised by now that comparing your young one to the school’s resident whiz kid(s) is ill-advised. There is truth then, in this kernel of wisdom: “Every child is a unique gift from God”.

Understanding how your child takes in information, assimilates it, learns, is perhaps the first step to making their education a better experience for them. When parents start getting a grasp of what their child’s preferred way of learning is, they can start taking steps to work with that style of learning, instead of foisting the next flavour of the month upon their child. Individual learning styles don’t necessarily dovetail with the school’s pedagogy – but that’s OK. This just means that you’re blessed with more opportunities to help your child grow up with the values and convictions you hold dear.

Conventional wisdom tells us that people generally fall into one of three categories – visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning. But before you pigeonhole your child into one of those convenient boxes, it is worth noting that while a child may have a dominant learning style, a combination of all the styles is required to learn about the wonderful, wider world that they’re growing up in. Once you have figured out their style, you can then begin to take steps to ensure that they have ample opportunities in the classroom and at home to take advantage of that particular style.

However, there are some children who constantly struggle when they are subject to the traditional classroom setting. Despite your efforts to supervise and coach them, they might continue to face persistent difficulties with reading and writing skills, as well as attention and behavioural regulation in terms of their academic performance.

A child with learning difficulties is affected in different ways, with the impact ranging from mild to moderate or even severe, with symptoms surfacing when the time comes for them to learn literacy and numeracy skills in the classroom. Children with learning difficulties are at risk of developing low self-esteem, which in particular is a consequence of the condition going undiagnosed and/or untreated. Imagine a dewy-eyed child who, with all the innocence of  youth, proudly strives and strains to do well at school – yet never reaping a jot of acknowledgement. Imagine (or remember) what it feels like to have the purity of childlike endeavour constantly rebuffed by the shame of underperformance. To have effort always met with negativity is tough for even the most motivated child, which may lead to the development of a poor self-concept that ends up causing further social-emotional issues in future.

All children, learning difficulties or not, need love and support for them to cultivate a strong sense of self-worth, build confidence and develop resilience. In seeking ways to help your child who has a learning difficulty, bear in mind that your role as a parent is not to “cure” the difficulty, but to arm your child with the social and emotional tools they will need to work through challenges and develop strategies for compensating with their difficulties. In the long run, your child will emerge stronger and more resilient.

Even though everyone’s been a kid before, I know that the new and bewildering responsibilities of parenthood can sometimes make us forget what we, as children, wanted to have for ourselves. I’ve outlined some tips which can be invaluable to our efforts to support a child with a learning difficulty.

  1. Knowledge is power – learn everything you possibly can about your child’s learning difficulties and needs.

Doing your own research and keeping abreast of the new developments in evidence-based learning and behavioural interventions not only helps your child, it helps to foster a sense of solidarity with your child. The more you know about your child’s needs, the better you are equipped to help your child. Start with your child’s teachers and consult with professionals (e.g. educational psychologists, school psychologists, or child clinical psychologists) who are best positioned to work together with you and your child in this journey. Collaborating with your child’s school teachers and fostering a good relationship with them helps in the overall understanding of your child’s needs – this facilitates consistency between home and school, which is particularly essential for children with challenging behaviour.

  1. Be an advocate for your child by raising awareness.

While society has made great strides towards the goal of inclusivity, awareness of special education needs and learning disabilities is still limited (but growing). Embrace your role as a proactive parent, taking responsibility not only for your child’s welfare but also contributing to the child who does not have a dedicated guardian in their life. Yes, your journey will be fraught with challenges and frustrations, but always remember to remain calm and to persevere. We often don’t realise just how much children internalise behaviour and views that they perceive in their parents. As a parent, you are entrusted with the very delicate task of moulding a young mind. Your healthy optimism, perseverance, and sense of humour doesn’t just benefit you – it positively influences your child to be a self-advocate, which is a very important goal for a parent in these circumstances.

Some parents choose to hide their children’s learning difficulties in secrecy, for fear of stigma or unjust treatment by others. They might honestly feel that they’re serving the best interests of their child. On the contrary – it is this very lack of understanding and awareness from family and friends that causes the misattribution of a child’s developmental needs to ‘laziness’ or ‘poor parenting’ or ‘mischief’. By shining a light on the condition, you help others develop empathy and come to be more supportive of your child. Within the family, siblings might feel that there is more attention and preferential treatment towards the brother/sister with learning difficulties, despite being aware of their condition. Hence, it is also important for parents to reassure all their children equally that they are loved, to provide support to their work, and to include them all in routines for the child with learning difficulties.

  1. Focus on your child’s strengths, not just weaknesses.

No one is defined by disability or need. And no one is perfect either. As you embrace your child’s flaws, celebrate their strengths in the same breath. As with all other human beings, a child with learning difficulties too will come into their own personality, interests, strengths and weaknesses. Focus on the gifts and talents which your child is blessed with, and help them to nurture their areas of strengths such as in activities they excel in.

  1. Praise effort rather than outcome.

Children with learning difficulties may not always excel academically, and if they do, they likely have put in a lot more effort than their peers to have achieved a similar good grade. Acknowledge the effort made, which deserves recognition – no matter if the child has gotten the answer right or wrong. Your child is demonstrating courage when they try out new approaches to assignments and study strategies, and if you want them to learn from mistakes and be receptive to feedback, credit and praise must be given where due. It will take time for new practices and interventions to work and for new skills to be acquired, so bear in mind to focus on the long term goals, and to break larger tasks down into smaller, more manageable milestones which can be spaced out over time.

Everyone’s definition of success is different, but the aspirations you have for your child probably extend well beyond the fulfilment of good grades. Working with parents, it has been my experience that most, if not all, express the desire for their child to lead an independent life, in which they are capable of providing for themselves, and above all else, to be happy. This being the case, then success in life definitely isn’t based on just academic success, but rather on things like having a sense of self-worth, the willingness to ask for and accept help, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity and the emotional depth to form healthy relationships – values and qualities that are not quantifiable like the metric of exam grades.

  1. Keep your child motivated.

As school is most likely a source of frustration for your child who puts in much more effort than in proportion to the reward of good performance, it is important to find something in school that brings your child enjoyment, that they are motivated to pursue without much prompting. Sometimes, to taste the fruit of serendipity, one must eschew his comfort zone. This may involve having your child participate in a CCA of their choice, attend camps or other school-related activities, and encouraging your child to have good relationships with peers and teachers. It can be difficult to motivate your child to learn, and to invest time in subjects which already make them feel inferior and bad at. You will probably meet less resistance if you start from your child’s level of ability, carefully choosing lesson topics that already are of interest to them. Give them some measure of autonomy to choose how they study or complete homework – building in breaks and breaking down challenging tasks into smaller chunks gives them ownership in the crafting of their own timetable, helping to keep them motivated to follow through with their plan.

Finding a role model who has flourished in spite of their learning difficulties can show your child that success is attainable, and that it is their own choice not to allow their current difficulties to define them. Celebrity, athlete, friend, neighbour or pastor, the only requirement to those role model shoes is that your child feels comfortable talking to them.

  1. Encourage healthy lifestyle habits.

Stress may manifest differently in children than in adults. While some signs may be more overt, such as trouble sleeping, agitation, acting out, or meltdowns, others may retreat inwards – shutting down, spacing out, withdrawing and isolating. Even as adults ourselves, we may lack the prescience to recognise that our internal systems are under stress, let alone children who have not yet matured into such skills. Hence, it is your responsibility to be vigilant of signs of stress in your precious one.

Your child’s eating, sleeping and exercise habits are also vital to their overall learning ability.  With a healthy routine which incorporates a balanced diet, quality sleep and sufficient physical activity, children will be better able to focus and concentrate.

Other than the physical, paying attention to your child’s emotional needs is also important. When they are faced with the frustrating challenges presented by their learning difficulties, allow them to express their feelings in a safe space. Validate them by acknowledging that the cause of their gripe is an issue, but be careful not to coddle them into poor self-restraint. Be ready to listen when they are ready to talk, and be a grounding, reassuring presence which helps their mind integrate with their body, and re-orient into a sense of calm.

Above all, remember to take care of yourself! The uniquely sacrificial dint of parenthood sometimes diverts needed attention from our own needs. If you are to project an empathetic sense of warmth, you will first need to cultivate self-compassion, and allow yourself the space to tend to your own needs. The quality of support you are able to provide to your child is dramatically affected by your own levels of stress and exhaustion. Parenting is a full time job, but don’t let yourself burn out emotionally.

In order to do this, you need to be mindful of your own limitations. You are the best gauge of when to rouse the oarsmen to right your ship. If you have a supportive spouse, or friend, or family member, take heart. Lastly, there is great benefit in the solidarity of support groups, which serve as useful support and also reminders that you are not alone in your unfolding journey!

 

 

 

Breaking the stigma: Teaching kids how to deal with mental health issues

Breaking the stigma: Teaching kids how to deal with mental health issues

By Tan Su-Lynn

Two days ago, I read an article about mental health in schools, and how the school system was falling short of providing mental health support to students. The article began with an anecdote which illustrated how even teachers, who are charged with spreading good values sometimes behave in ways which hinders progressive movements like the destigmatisation of mental health issues in society. Not only did this teacher discount the legitimate need for psychiatric medication that some people have, he also made off-colour remarks about suicide. Given the increased scrutiny the Singaporean education system has come under, and the fact that it has been an exacerbating factor in the suicides of some children and adolescents, his remarks were remarkably insensitive at best.

Mental health should never be trivialised, and is most definitely not something that is to be joked about. Behaving like that teacher flies in the face of efforts to bring to light the importance of mental health to the functioning of a healthy society, not to mention the lives of people who do have mental health issues. Last year, nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong addressed Parliament¹, musing about how Government had called for greater efforts to combat diabetes, when in fact more people were afflicted with a mental disorder than diabetes. The costs that mental health issues impose on our healthcare system is no laughing matter, and the attitude held by that teacher was indeed regrettable.

Talking about mental health in such flippant and cavalier ways detracts from the ability to talk openly about it. There’s no denying that there is still a stigma around mental health. We, as a society, can help to overcome these barriers by speaking out about the importance of mental health, and by leading by example – we should all strive to speak in an open-minded and accepting fashion about it. It is this very stigma that often prevents people from seeking treatment, or worse yet, even recognising that they are suffering from a mental health condition. We don’t see it happening, because we are often unable to live the lives of others, but the stigma often drives people further into isolation, which has harmful effects on their condition.

In the first place, people who struggle with mental health problems often find it hard to open up about their conditions, or talk about it in ways that other people can understand. It’s with great difficulty that they finally get around to reaching out and asking for help, and unfortunately, even these efforts can be rebuffed if people don’t know how to respond. While it’s true that the onus is on people who have mental health conditions to reach out for help, their personal responsibility should be matched by the wider, shared responsibility we have to each other – to look out for one another, and to pay attention to the signs that someone we know may be suffering from a condition. We need to nurture safe spaces, where the topic of mental health is neither trivialised nor discounted. These safe spaces are essential for sharing, listening, and often are indispensable places for people to offer care in a supportive environment.

Apart from families being the ‘caring nucleus’ of a child’s life, the school environment is an invaluable place from which children derive a solid sense of security that produces strong values. The close ties that children forge with their school teachers and peers help to serve as preventive measures against the seeking out of destructive or maladaptive alternatives. Children are made to feel safe, when they can develop the anchors of strong, meaningful connections to groups as they explore and discover the wider world. It’s in these supportive environments that children learn how to trust others, and learn that seeking help from others isn’t a risky proposition. This is exactly why we need to educate people about the dangers of trivialising mental health, which is especially corrosive when school teachers perpetrate such backward attitudes.

Yet other barriers exist. Sometimes, even if the peers of school children with mental health issues are fully supportive, there simply isn’t enough information on how to get their friend the help that they need. This information vacuum detracts from well-meaning efforts, breeding fear and uncertainty about how to offer support.

It’s my belief that the move by the inclusion of mental health to the refreshed Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum is a highly commendable one. Teaching about empathy and helping skills is a grassroots move that promises to have far-reaching effects in building a resilient and caring society. Inculcating these positive values in impressionable young minds is definitely a step in the right direction, especially when these soft skills form the bedrock of a more inclusive society in which mental health is less stigmatising. On top of these efforts, in 2022 the Ministry of Education wants to bake this movement of inclusivity into the curriculum – creating a structured “peer support” environment where elected student leaders promote mental well-being is a great platform from which we can springboard discussion about thornier mental health issues.

Parents have also pointed out that that access to the internet does raise legitimate concerns about having children ‘misdiagnosing’ or ‘labelling’ themselves inaccurately – the torrent of information that the internet opens children up to also unfortunately raises the potential of false or misleading information. With this in mind, it becomes imperative for the Singapore education system to create structured guidance for students to learn how to identify and recognise the needs of themselves and others.

Even as a parent yourself, the complexity and range of severity of social-emotional/behavioural needs can be bewildering at times. It’s always okay to reach out for comfort and advice if you feel overwhelmed!

¹. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/make-mental-health-a-national-priority-like-diabetes

How to Help Someone Struggling with Addiction

How to Help Someone Struggling with Addiction

Helping someone close to you who is struggling with addiction can be a long and painful journey with plenty of heartbreak. It’s not just the person who is anguished – people who care are often put through hardship too. Friends and family may experience issues with their difficult behaviour; they may bear the brunt of their financial impropriety; and may even be affected by legal woes. At times, all this seems so overwhelming that you might be tempted to turn a blind eye out of sheer exhaustion. However, sweeping addiction under the rug ultimately leaves all parties worse off. The decision to try and get help for someone whom you care about is never easy, and yes, it takes lots of love, patience and strength.

With your support, the person you care about has a far greater chance of recovery. Every person or situation is unique, so the recovery process is never linear – expect ups and downs, from sobriety chips to relapses. Throughout it all, it’s always important to stay positive and hopeful that things can, and will get better. 

The first step you can take is to educate yourself about addiction. The more you understand this condition, the better you’ll be able to help. And the very fact that you’re reading this means you’ve already taken this first step. As you read on, you’ll discover six tips on what you can do to help a loved one struggling with addiction. I’ve found that these principles always bear reminding – simple enough, but easy to lose sight of in the thick of it all.

  1. Create a compassionate environment

This can be hard to do especially if you feel hurt and betrayed by the person with addiction. However, it’s important to keep the broader goal of recovery in perspective amidst the frustration. You should remember that addiction is neither a choice nor a moral failing – instead, addiction is a disease.

Establishing trust and compassion will nudge them to start thinking about change. I believe that compassion forms the bedrock of addiction recovery, especially with its role in healing shame. Addiction and shame are two sides of the same coin – shame may lead to addiction, and addiction most certainly breeds shame. Compassion, then becomes imperative in the recovery process, and acts like an antidote to treat the poisonous effects of shame.

Even if they don’t share their suffering with you, or outright deny their suffering, don’t stop yourself from trying to soothe and comfort them. As impatient, disappointed and angry at them as you may feel, pause and imagine how they must feel about themselves! Yes, they may appear nonchalant, or defensive about their addiction and shame. But as you catch sight of even the most fleeting glimpse of their vulnerability, your intuition tells you there must be a lifetime’s worth of self-disappointment, shame, unworthiness and anger, all roiling against the walls they put up.

We’re all worthy and deserving of love – especially those who feel unloved. Work on being empathetic. This means putting yourself in their shoes. Make your support known to them. Make your support accessible.

Above all, don’t forget to have compassion for yourself.

  1. Get support for yourself

Having a family member, a spouse, a partner or a friend with an addiction can often feel overwhelming. It’s healthy to acknowledge that helping them can be very stressful for you too.The person with addiction isn’t the only one who needs psychotherapy or counselling. Caregivers, hospice workers, counsellors and therapists all need therapy – you definitely shouldn’t deny yourself self-care either. If you’re going to support them with your best efforts, it’s crucial that you stay in-touch with your own mental health. Remember the point I made about compassion earlier? Well, compassion isn’t easy. If you’re not in the right headspace, you just might end up breeding resentment and causing friction. By focusing on your own well-being and reaching out for support, you’ll be in a far better position to help them when they are finally ready to receive your support.

You’re not alone. Many others have loved ones with the same addictions. Many others face the same painful issues that you face everyday. There are groups out there that will help you cope, and there are resources for you to draw from. All you need to do is reach out to a professional. Visit https://www.promises.com.sg/services/addictions/ to discover what the compassionate people here can do to support you.

  1. Set boundaries

While compassion is key, it is critical that you set limits for yourself and the person you’re supporting. You may instinctively want to shield them from the consequences of their own actions, but doing this only enables their addiction.

What does it mean to enable an addict? Enabling them is turning a blind eye to substance use or the addictive behaviour in your home, because it’s “safer than sketchy places”. Enabling them is covering for them because their “job was on the line”. There will never be impetus for change if you always swoop in to save the day. Setting boundaries may seem harsh and even counterintuitive, but they underpin a healthy, loving approach. Try to also have a frank and open discussion about boundaries, and how they serve everyone’s best interests.

  1. Have realistic expectations

I mentioned the ups and downs of the recovery process at the beginning of this post. So, if there’s only one thing that you should expect going in, it’s that it won’t be a smooth ride! There are obstacles to overcome – they may be in denial about addiction; they may fear the implications of seeking help (e.g losing their job, going to prison); they may feel embarrassed and angry with themselves; they may feel unworthy of help. These are just a few stumbling blocks you may have to navigate at first.

You can nag and harangue them about their addiction, but those words will go unheeded. Most people with addiction use addictive behaviour as a way of coping with stress, so you’ll likely be exacerbating tensions – which drives them to seek refuge in addictive behaviour.

Instead, continue to hold them accountable to the boundaries you’ve mutually agreed to and offer your support in the treatment process. Be prepared if boundaries are crossed, and if promises are broken. Relapses are part and parcel of the recovery process. 

 

  1. Be supportive of their treatment, and don’t forget to have fun

It isn’t only the person with addiction that has to reorient themself for lasting and meaningful change to happen – you’ll probably have to as well. Just as supporting them is tough on you, it’s probably just as hard or even harder for them to overcome addiction. No matter what treatment method they decide to go with, they need to know that you have their back, and that you respect them for it. After all, acknowledging that help is needed is a huge step in itself! In fact, the first step of the twelve step Alcoholic’s Anonymous program is this:

we admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Milestones (no matter how small) are worth celebrating. This helps keep your loved one motivated and committed to change. Recovery can be scary, so metaphorical hugs (or real ones) can be really reassuring.

People struggling with addiction often experience a decline in physical and mental well-being. Establishing a structured routine that incorporates healthy eating habits and a fitness regime is beneficial. You get to help them replace unhealthy behaviours with new joys and activities, and have fun together in the process!

  1. Remain positive and hopeful

It may seem almost impossible to stay hopeful when you learn that addiction, as a chronic disease, will stick around for the rest of their life. But it is important to remember that addiction is treatable. Addiction feeds off hopelessness, so be careful not to feed it. Regardless of where in the process they’re at, remain optimistic. If proper groundwork has been laid, the only way to go is up. If they have yet to seek help, they are likely to eventually do so with your ongoing encouragement. And if they have already started on their treatment journey, your unwavering support will help them stay committed.