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Sunday, March 29, 2020


GUEST BLOG / By Venessa Lee, International Strait Times Writer.

SINGAPORE - Siblings Nathan and Phoebe Foong have been waking up for school, where they stand to attention for the National Anthem during assembly, before heading to the canteen.

The catch? They are actually at home.

Their parents, Elvin and Esther Foong, devised "Naph School", an amalgam of the first two letters of the children's names, after the family were asked to self-isolate under a leave of absence (LOA) request.

The family's LOA was issued after their trip to visit Mrs Foong's father in Johor during the recent March school holidays. Nathan, nine, and Phoebe, seven, will return to school on April 2.

According to the Education Ministry, less than 10 per cent of students and staff across all schools are on LOA or stay-home notice (SHN), which aim to prevent the spread of Covid-19. They are both 14-day self-isolation measures, typically following overseas travel.

Some families with young children are concerned about supporting their offspring's learning away from school.

Some, like the Foongs, are finding that the enforced time at home can be bittersweet, bonding the family together, while laying bare other fissures and flaws.

Mr and Mrs Foong run a tight ship at Naph School, where the "school day", which has regular breaks, ends around 2.30pm, after which the kids have scheduled activities, such as a nap and screen time, until dinner at 6.30pm.

The menu at "Naph Canteen", which comprises a single table on the balcony of their flat, offers breakfast and lunch sets at $1.20 each, as well as 60-cent snacks like small buns and yogurt. Drinks are 40 cents per half-cup, though the kids get a credit of 10 cents if they finish a bottle of water, which is free.

Mrs Foong, 35, says she and her husband started Naph School because they wanted the children to have a similar structure to their days.

"The more formally you treat it, the more the children will see how serious you are," says Mrs Foong. She and her husband, 38, run their own business, The Treasure Box SG, which provides resources  based on their Christian faith such as storybooks and activity kits for families.

But recreating school at home has its downside.

Mrs Foong says: "Especially in the area of our children's behaviour and learning abilities, parents may be confronted with situations that make us realise that our children are not who we thought they are, or that they are not meeting our expectations and standards of who and how they should be."

The proximity of self-isolation "amplifies" the areas that need improvement, which can be a painful realisation, she says.

For instance, they realised from running Naph Canteen that Phoebe, who is in Primary 1, has difficulty counting and understanding dollars and cents.

Mrs Foong adds: "For Nathan, we realised he seeks help too fast. Once he meets a challenge in his work, his first thought is to ask (for assistance).

"We have been coaching him to attempt a question again, to try to read it again, to highlight the key words and to think of other ways to solve the problem."

Mr and Mrs Foong say they had to learn to be more patient with their children. They have also taken the opportunity to use their time together meaningfully.

"We listed out the skills we wanted to learn. The children learnt to play pick-up sticks and Papa has taught Nathan Chinese chess," says Mrs Foong.

Experts say that parents need not be overly anxious about taking the place of the child's teacher at home.

Associate Professor Tan Seng Chee, of the National Institute of Education (NIE) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), says: "The home environment is different from a school environment in terms of resources, expertise and the social environment. Trying to emulate a school environment may not always work.

"Some parents may not feel confident about teaching the subjects taught in schools, (while) some parents may equate teaching to lecturing, but lecturing is only one of the many ways to help children learn."

In fact, by gaining insights into their children's learning styles, like the Foongs did, parents would be able to better support their children, Prof Tan says.

"Parents can take this as a good opportunity to know their children better and build a stronger relationship with them," he says.

But another mother under LOA, religious teacher Suriah, 37, cannot help but feel anxious about her three children being away from school.

She enrolled her oldest daughter, Farah Syifah Mohammad Fadillah, 12, in online LOA classes provided by Cherrr, a learning platform that offers live-streamed tuition lessons, and ensures that her second daughter, Fathia Sofiyya, nine, also does her online homework and assessment books. She even prepares worksheets for her six-year-old son, Fathi Syauqi, who is in the second year of kindergarten.

"I don't want them to be left behind when they go back to school. Fathia is in Primary 3, where there are exams, and Farah is in Primary 6," says Ms Suriah, who is serving LOA with her children following a trip to Johor. She is married to a 39-year-old assistant maintenance engineer in the micro-electronics sector.

She recalls finding it hard to catch up in her studies as a private A-level student in 2003, when Sars struck and school was suspended for a while.

She finds time management to be the biggest challenge under self-isolation, finding time for herself only after the children go to sleep. She once stayed up till 5am to do her own work.

Still, she ensures that  the children stay healthy with their silat training exercises twice a day, and is staying positive.

"If you think positively, it can change how you act," she says, adding that she relieves the tensions of self-isolation in WhatsApp group chats with fellow mums.

With thousands of Singaporeans in self-isolation because of the Covid-19 crisis, families may be wondering how best to prepare if they need to hunker down at home.

At least 38,000 people are serving out stay-home notices (SHNs), which, like other 14-day self-isolation measures such as leave of absence (LOA), are aimed at inhibiting the spread of the coronavirus.

A person issued an LOA may leave his home briefly to buy essential items but someone on SHN may not.

Experts say that preparing emotionally for self-isolation is at least as important as making physical preparations.

Tensions are only to be expected if family members are thrown into unfamiliar proximity for a prolonged period, so it helps to talk about conflict beforehand.

While some parents may have visions of themselves screaming at their offspring on Day 10 under lockdown, staying calm is possible - with planning.

These guidelines to ease the stress include suggestions regarding what medicine to stock, how to make peace with your restrictions and how to keep restless children occupied.

In addition, official advisories can be found at the Ministry of Health website.

Ms June Yong, who is in charge of editorial content at Focus on the Family Singapore, suggests discussing boundaries upfront.

She says: "Involve the children in thinking about what you can do as a family to manage space constraints, routines and screen time, and device use.

"For example, if one child needs to work on an e-assignment, can he use the shared desktop at a certain time while his sibling tackles her homework that does not require the computer?"

When it comes to physical preparations, Dr Michael Wong, a family physician and consultant at Raffles Medical, advises getting supplies that will ensure a balanced, nutritious diet.

This includes groceries with a long shelf life such as frozen and tinned vegetables and fruit, rice for carbohydrates and tinned meat and fish for protein.

There is no need to buy too much food even if it has to last two weeks as food delivery services or close friends and relatives can bring food items to your doorstep, he says.

Those with underlying conditions such as diabetes would do well to have at least a month's supply of their medication in case of any emergencies.

Besides monitoring family members' health in case of Covid-19 symptoms, he recommends having medicine on hand for common illnesses, such as paracetamol for fever, antihistamines for allergies and anti-diarrhoea medication.

Talking about conflict before it erupts lays the ground for parents to reach for appropriate ways to react and gives the children a chance to raise their own concerns and needs, Ms Yong says.

Brainstorm solutions to deal with raised voices by thinking of places in the home where one can cool off, and pre-empt arguments by asking the kids to take turns when it comes to prized resources like digital devices.

"It may be more helpful to think about trying to parent calmly for the bulk of each day, or to aim for at least three to five positive interactions with each child daily, rather than setting an impossible standard of perfection (of never losing your cool)," says Ms Yong.

"If you feel you're losing control, say it out loud: 'Mummy is feeling upset and would appreciate some space. Please give me 10 minutes to cool off in my room.'

"Stating our needs early can help our kids be aware of our feelings and conscious of their actions."

She recommends parents take "sanity breaks" by stealing away for 15 minutes of quiet when everyone else is preoccupied.

Ms Yong says: "Spouses need boundaries too. Some people need peace and quiet to work; others enjoy occasional banter or background music. It helps to state each other's needs and preferences."

Set realistic expectations regarding working from home, doing household chores and child-minding, and team up on tasks such as dad supervising the children's homework while mum is cooking.

Structure is good but do not get too hung up on keeping to a minute-by-minute schedule.

Ms Yong from Focus on the Family Singapore suggests building in time for school work, chores, exercise, play and breaks.

"Bear in mind that a young child may be able to sit through a task for only around 20 to 30 minutes."

Homeschooling parent Dawn Fung, founder of Homeschool Singapore, a community of homeschoolers, suggests a heart-warming scavenger hunt.

Within 20 minutes, each child must look for five items in the home which remind them of a special memory associated with mum.

Each family member then shares why they picked the items. The children can go a few rounds with different themes, such as looking for red items only.

Mrs Anita Low-Lim, a member of Media Literacy Council and senior director at Touch Integrated Family Group, suggests child-friendly alternatives when even Netflix begins to pall: Go Noodle encourages families and children to stay active indoors through dance and meditation; WhizKidScience is an educational YouTube channel by Aiden, a teenager who conducts fun science experiments with materials that can be found at home; and But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids.

The podcast is available on Spotify and features answers to questions submitted by kids such as "Do animals get married?" and "Who invented words?"

Ms Sha-en Yeo, who runs a business, Happiness Scientists, which uses positive psychology to support people to be happier, suggests reframing the enforced solitude.

Ms Yeo, who has written resources for parenting during Covid-19, suggests looking within to think of goals that you may have neglected or pursuing personal projects like trying new recipes.

"Instead of using words like 'stuck', adopt a growth mindset by seeing potential in spending this time connecting with one another," she says.

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