Parents Matter in Education

Psychologists of all persuasions, believe the parents were responsible, one way or the other, for whatever went wrong with a child.  They were exceptionally harsh with the mother.  Yet, the success of a child's education is often attributed to the education system and not the parent.  I agree with Nobel-winning economist James Heckman that parents are vital in the whole education ecosystem.

I propose a few areas that parents must look into to support the academic needs of the children:

  • Building cognitive and non-cognitive skills at early childhood
  • Providing a secure environment at home
  • Instilling the passion for learning
  • Inculcating good study habits
  • Imparting appropriate social and behavioral skills
  • Supporting creativity and individual intelligence

Building Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills at Early Childhood

In 2006, James Heckman introduced a new level of analysis into the importance of family in mediating the cognitive (intellectual) and non-cognitive (socio-emotional) skills development of children in the early years. In particular, Heckman shows how this distinction has become increasingly important in light of interventions exploring how children can successfully overcome disadvantage in a sustainable manner.

During a child's early years, it is crucial to work on both the cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

Cognitive or Thinking Skills

Cognitive skills are critical for learning.  These skills are often measured in IQ tests. They involve:

  • Attention Skills: The attention skills of our brain allow us to focus on one part of what is going on around us while at the same time ignoring, to some degree, other things that are going on at the same time. Attention skills are necessary for us to be able to take information from our senses (like seeing and hearing) and transfer it into our brain for use in thinking, learning, problem solving and memory. 

  • Memory: The ability to store and recall information.  In psychology, it is often broken down to sensory memory, short term (or working) memory and long term memory.  
  • Logic and Reasoning: These skills are vital especially for studying mathematics and abstract reasoning.  It involves the ability to reason, form concepts, and solve problems using unfamiliar information or novel procedures. Problem-solving ability to draw conclusions and come up with solutions by analyzing the relationships between given conditions.
  • Auditory Processing: Auditory processing is the brain’s ability to accurately perceive speech in both quiet and noisy settings.  The brain can detect, analyze and discriminate small differences in pitch, loudness and duration.  Auditory processing skill is crucial for reading and spelling. Weakness in any of the auditory processing skills will greatly hinder learning to read, reading fluency, and comprehension.
  • Visual Processing: Visual processing is the ability that allows processing and interpreting from the visual information.  Visual perception plays an important role in spelling, mathematics, and reading.  A deficit may lead to difficulties in learning, recognizing, and remembering letters and words, learning basic mathematical concepts of size, magnitude, and position, confusing likeness and minor differences, mistaking words with similar beginnings, distinguishing the main idea from insignificant details, and poor handwriting.
  • Processing Speed: Processing Speed is one of the measures of cognitive efficiency or cognitive proficiency.  It involves the ability to automatically and fluently perform relatively easy or over-learned cognitive tasks, especially when high mental efficiency is required.  It relates to the ability to process information automatically and therefore speedily, without intentional thinking through. Very often, slow processing is one root of ADHD-type behaviors. Symptoms of weaknesses here include homework taking a long time, always being the last one to get his or her shoes on, or being slow at completing even simple tasks.

Non-cognitive Skills

Non-cognitive skills are mental constructs that are believed to contribute to academic success, but do not contribute directly to academic outcomes (like cognitive skills).

They include motivation, grit, self-regulation, social skills and personality factors.

While it is believed that cognitive abilities are set by 8, non-cognitive abilities continue to grow into adolescence.  Prof Heckman's studies in 2006 also shows that the academic success of students depends on their non-cognitive skills especially at higher levels.  

Angela Lee Duckworth in a 2013 Ted talk believes grit is the single most important factor for academic success.

Example: Singapore Parents Supporting Cognitive Skills

Singapore students fare very well in an international studies on academic abilities.  In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, conducted by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD),  Singapore students had the second highest proportion (12.3%) of students who are top performers in all three domains in Reading, Mathematics and Science.  Singapore's education is an envy of many countries, and the Singaporean parents have the biggest part to play.

While Singapore is an excellent example of how parents can support and propel their offspring to academic excellence, it is imperative to add that the excessive use of tuition can impair a child's non-cognitive skill development.

A Singaporean child can do well in any education system because there is at least one concerned parent behind him/her. It is not surprising if you look at the after-school tuition rate.  An amazing 97% of Singaporean children go for tuition, higher even compared to other Asian countries like South Korea and Hong Kong with 90% each. Truly, for whatever reasons, Singaporean parents have made tuition part of the education system, and often, how well a child does is correlated to the number of tuition hours he/she receives.

With the immense support from parents in the education process, even with one of the highest student-ratio and the smallest education budget (% of GDP) amongst the first world countries, Singapore manages to produce excellent academic results.

People often credit that to the education system, and I agree. Just that my definition of education system includes a vital group of people who would go all out to support their children academically.

These parents take leave to gear their children for PSLE, an exam all twelve-year-olds take.  They take a whole year off to watch over their kids in the 'critical academic' years where their children have to sit standardized exams.  They stop their children from doing their favorite sports and the arts. They would scream at the children the moment a teacher calls to complain. They will also not hesitate to personally (or employ someone to) look over their children's shoulders to ensure homework is done.

They are a reliable source for teachers to turn to whenever their children fail to perform academically. They will find solutions. And, when all else fail, some are willing to take out a whip to discipline their children for poor performance.

Take these parents away from the education system, and I am pretty sure our children will fair pretty differently in international tests. Singapore parents are the heroes in the education system.

Having stayed in western countries, I witness the absence of such parents as they struggle to find the Asian secret to education success. Fingers point and tempers fly at the education ministers. I wonder if these people have ever looked deep within themselves to realize that if their parents won't do their parts, their children will not strive academically no matter how good their systems are, and no matter how much the government spends.

* Statistics by Sunday Times

**PISA assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students near the end of secondary education are able to analyse, reason and apply their knowledge and skills in unfamiliar settings so as to meet real-life challenges.

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