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Supporting Your Teen in Secondary School: It’s Not About Tuition and Assessment Books

Is your teen entering Secondary 1 next year?

Once the dust has settled from the excitement of the PSLE results, and your teen has been assigned a secondary school, your job as a parent will be to re-envision your role in helping your teen to face the fresh challenges ahead.

So before you rush to Popular Bookstore to pick up assessment books, or line up a slate of new tutors for your teen’s consideration, ask yourself: What are the skills that I want my teen to develop in secondary school?

To define the most important skills for school success, you can first anticipate the changes ahead. Here is what your teen can expect:

  • A new environment, with new schoolmates and teachers
  • More subjects and school programmes
  • Longer school hours
  • Longer co-curricular activity (CCA) hours, especially if your teen has been selected for a school team

If your child has relied heavily on you or a tutor for academic support in primary school, you will need to accept that this will not be a sustainable approach going forward.

First, you may find yourself ill-equipped to offer homework help in secondary school — some parents are thrown off by arts subjects such as literature, while others are daunted by the increasing complexity of math and science subjects.

Second, tutoring is expensive, and your teen now has more subjects to contend with. By encouraging your teen to grow as an independent learner, you will have more funds to allocate elsewhere, and this includes your teen’s tertiary education.

Third, it will be hard for you to oversee every aspect of your teen’s schedule in secondary school. Apart from a CCA, your teen may also have remedial lessons, project meetings, and community-based activities, just to name a few.

Finally, typical teens will desire more autonomy to make decisions and discover the world on their own terms. One of the greatest gifts that you can give is letting go, and granting your teen the freedom to try, fail, and learn.

At KSP, we have previously published guides for helping teens to deal with the initial transition to secondary school, and looking beyond tests and exams to gear up for secondary school life. Do read our guides for practical suggestions that you can use right away! Also useful are the Ministry of Education’s tips for communicating with your teen in Secondary 1.

Below, we will focus on what we feel is most important for academic success in secondary school: executive functioning skills. You may have heard this term before, and it refers to skills that help us to manage ourselves and our resources, so that we can achieve goals.

Depending on your teen’s personality, these are five areas that you might like to pay most attention to during the secondary school years:

Flexibility

How well does your teen adapt to new situations and change? Entering secondary school is a significant change, and if your teen is inflexible, he or she may get frustrated with new schedules, struggle with the increased learning load, and experience anxiety when things don’t go as expected.

If your teen’s routine so far has been very well organised (by you), you can start to factor in some space for spontaneity. For instance, you could cancel a planned activity such as tuition to let your teen enjoy spending time with a friend. Inflexible thinkers need to learn that changes are not always a bad thing — do check your own behaviour to see if you are guilty of being resistant to change yourself!

Time Management

Can your teen gauge how long it will take to complete each homework task, and allocate available time to meeting deadlines? If your teen is accustomed to plenty of reminders and nagging when it comes to homework, it will definitely be a challenge to adjust to a heavier homework load in secondary school.

To practise letting go before the new school year, try letting your teen be responsible for completing tuition homework — without reminders — if tuition is still ongoing during the school holidays. Alternatively, you could assign your teen some responsibilities for the school holidays, and observe how your teen manages these responsibilities. You can discuss your expectations and agree on consequences if work is not done.

At the same time, teach your teen to differentiate between “important” and “not important” as well as “urgent” and “not urgent.” You can use a concept called the Time Management Matrix to illustrate this. An example of an “important” but “not urgent” task would be a school project that is due in several weeks. Conversely, an example of something that is neither “Important” nor “urgent” could be replying to messages on chat apps — ideally, this should be done during one’s free time.

Naturally, you may have your views about how best to manage one’s time, but you should also accept that your teen may not agree. This is where you can give your teen some freedom in planning — if he or she wants to play games before getting down to work, but eventually finds that there is not enough time to complete work, that would have more impact than anything you could say.

Task Initiation

Is your teen a procrastinator? Does your teen feel overwhelmed by assignments? Is it a challenge to get your teen to study for a test or an exam?

Sometimes, this could be because the task at hand feels massive, and your teen is not sure where to begin. If an assignment contains several sections or parts, you could show your teen how to break up a task into smaller portions. For instance, your teen could divide a math assignment with 12 questions into three sections, and work on four questions at a go before taking a short break. You could also get your teen to set a phone timer, and take breaks after 30 minutes of work.

When it comes to studying for exams, many teens may not even know what “studying” should involve. Is it reading the textbook, quizzing oneself, or working on practice papers? Talk to your teen about effective revision strategies, and let your teen decide on the approach.

Attention

Is your teen able to focus on the task at hand, or is he or she susceptible to the many distractions around? Discuss with your teen the importance of tidying the workspace, and set ground rules for phone use while work is in progress. Some parents require that their teens place their phones in a common charging area until work is complete, while others allow their teens to keep their phones with them.

This may also be the age where your teens develop the habit of playing music as they work. You can have conversations about whether or not this is the best way, or what genres of music are better for concentration. It is best to refrain from being prescriptive — both you and your teen should remain open minded and receptive to each other’s suggestions.

Check in regularly with your teen to see where he or she might need support. Students who have trouble focusing on difficult texts, such as literature texts, may find it helpful to purchase an accompanying audiobook, if available. Reading the printed text while listening to a narration can help greatly with focus and reading speed. For soft copy notes, one could use the computer’s text-to-speech tool to aid reading and concentration.

Self-Control

There are many aspects to self-control during teenhood, and this may be a time where your teen says or does things that are difficult to respond calmly to. However, it is important that you model what it means to have control over your own emotions, so that your teen knows what to aim for.

Try not to take rudeness too much to heart at this stage. Of course, do point out to your teen when he or she has said something rude or hurtful, but move on to find out why your teen feels stressed or upset. If your teen is not ready to talk, let your teen cool off and find another opportunity later in the day, perhaps during dinnertime or bedtime.

During peaceful times, share your own strategies for remaining calm, be it taking deep breaths, going for a walk, or finding a healthy distraction such as a book. Praise your teen when you see him or her dealing with difficult situations in a mature way, such as brushing off insensitive comments or dealing with feedback positively.

The other aspect of self-control that you may worry about — especially with Covid-19 forcing many of us to stay indoors — is being able to self-regulate when it comes to device use. Healthy usage is when teens are able to fulfil their responsibilities without letting devices get in the way. Teens who are aware of what is healthy for them will require little supervision, as they will be self-aware enough to realise when it is time for a screen break. They will also look forward to non-screen activities such as sports and spending time with family and friends.

As every teen is different, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to screen time. You can set rules such as time limits for device usage on weekdays and weekends, but let your teens negotiate, and be prepared that this will be an ongoing conversation.

For a start, discuss device use with your teen, and talk about what emotions our devices can trigger or what purposes they serve in our lives. For instance, you may turn to your phone to keep up with the news or to connect with loved ones, while your teen may be using it to stave off boredom or gain approval from peers. It’s good if your teen has a clear picture of what healthy device usage looks like — for best results, you should be walking the talk too.

Need more advice, or want to link up with secondary school parents in the KSP community? Join the conversations in our forum!

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