Singapore education is tough on their students. Elizabeth Knight-Hassell, who has lived here most of her life with her British citizens parents, attended and graduated from an elite Singapore primary school. She is currently attending an International School in Singapore.  In the first year at the International School, she was tasked to write a reflective paper as one of her English exercise. She shares her thoughts on the local system and how it measures up in value with the young generation. I have obtained permission from her and her parents to publish it here. Here is what she wrote:

Everyday without fail, students dressed in their school uniform, fill the library, normally with a friend, shushing each other to try and keep the volume down as they take their homework out. With their heads down and pens up, Singaporean students concentrate and try to finish their homework and studying in the library. Thousands of students go to the library freshed faced and bright-eyed. However, how happy are they?

It is generally acknowledged that students attending local schools in Singapore spend most of their time studying, with no time for play. This starts from as early as age 6 to 7 years where formal schooling begins at Primary 1. The local school system is based on meritocracy. Children attending local schools are trained to study and work hard towards exams.

Exam grades are incredibly important to the student and their family. Families want their children to enter the best academic schools which, therefore, means having the best grade possible.This creates a ferocious competition among the students often with parental guidance. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find that most children and teens studying in the local system are packed with not only lots of homework from school, but they are also busy with tuition homework and extracurricular activities known as CCAs (Co-curricular activities).

It is not unusual to find that most children are encouraged to discontinue their CCA’s to replace it with extra tuition classes, but why is this so? With the high stress to pass exams, parents are under pressure to press their children to study longer hours and put more effort in their revision so time after school becomes very precious. More and families are relying on extra tuition classes to meet that gap so they will not fall behind in school but at a price. Children are often faced with having to give up their most precious time in order to meet their parent’s expectations.

[Read: Students’ Guide To Manage Stress]

Parents expect their children to perform well and to obtain high marks from their exams. It is because of these added pressures from home that children find it hard to cope with high stress levels. Along with academic stress children also face added stressors of school life. These can include facing difficulties in making friends, being victims of bullying and for some, being unable to cope with the transitions from preschool to primary school, or from primary to secondary school.

One of the most stressful times for most children would be sitting their Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). Local students are highly competitive and shoulder their fair share of external pressure to succeed. Students feel that they have to keep on top because top local schools seem to regularly dismiss underperforming students and even those who only show an average achievement. A parent of a local student added, “They drive the kids very hard and it’s very result driven. They constantly rank the kids. It’s all very black and white. Yes or no, and they just keep drilling them which kids find hard to cope with.” It is not unusual for most local students to find themselves stressed at some point in their lives.

[Read: PSLE Survival Guide For Parents and Kids]

Students in Singapore feel like they are growing up in a pressure-cooker environment that stifles their minds leading to having a higher risk of depression. Symptoms of depression may include poor sleeping habits, over-sleeping, loss of interest or pleasure in most activities, agitation and more. Almost one-third of 6,540 secondary students surveyed in a mental health study showed a high level of depression, anxiety and stress (DAS).

From the 6,450 students who took part in the study, 4.8 per cent were experiencing severe stress; 17.1 per cent showed signs of severe anxiety while 5.2 per cent were severely depressed. In another study, focusing on Primary school children, they found 17.2 percent have symptoms of depression. “That’s terrible to think about but unfortunately true.

“What kind of life do kids have if they’re so afraid and full of stress during examinations?” Sophia Meyers, a Primary 6 student in Singapore comments. Singapore has started to realise that is a very serious problem and one that has been identified by the Ministry Of Health Department which has set up intervention programmes to help tackle this very real problem. The Healthy Mind Programme set up a system to screen symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress among students to help teachers identify students going through anxiety and possible depression.For instance, teachers have been trained to look out for signs of depression by observing changes in children’s behaviour and mood.

They can address any school-based triggers that may be impacting on children’s mental health and wellbeing. It is important to share information obtained through school observation and to find out whether the child’s mood is similar at home. When mood and behaviour changes are evident in more than one setting it usually indicates that the problems are more severe.

Parents, likewise, can do their part. So families with children that think that their child is depressed, need to talk to them about their feelings and things happening at home and at school that may be bothering them. Some parents may even want to seek medical help from their doctor or a counsellor to help with emotions and behaviour or medicine for depression. Parents can also encourage more physical activity to help develop positive connections with others. One-on-one time with parents, praise for good behaviour, and pointing out strengths build parent-child-bond.

Stress and anxiety seem to be part of everyday life and academic stress is something that all school children will experience at some point in the school life. But, it is important to know when and how to deal with the issues that cause stress before it leads to depression which is so much harder to conquer. Schools and parents can learn to be more vigilant and to be able to recognise when the child’s anxiety is not considered within the normal and healthy levels. The basics for good mental health can include a healthy diet, ensuring enough sleep, exercise, and to give positive connections with other people at home and at school.

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Editor’s Note: This post is a reprisal of an English assignment written by a 13-year-old girl who is currently attending an international School in Singapore. The paper is based on her experience attending and  graduating from a top local primary school. This post is written in her own words and the opinions expressed are her own. Please leave constructive feedback or positive comments for the young author to encourage her to continue writing and expressing her view points. We greatly appreciate your support. Do you have a junior budding writer at home? Or someone struggling with writing assignments? Please email me at meiling@universalscribbles.com if:

  1. your kids are interested to contribute a post – we will be happy to publish it.
  2. you have a question about that you will like our kids to answer

I hope that seeing their printed work and receiving encouraging comments will encourage these young writers to write. At the same time, they will be providing us with invaluable insights into their world.

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Till our next post, love yourself, love one another.

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