Small steps to help children gain confidence

At one cohort camp, I saw a Primary 5 boy who had just finished a water activity, but was standing around holding his shoes. His classmates were already moving off to the next task, but Kyle (not his real name) looked lost.

I checked to see if he was injured - he wasn't - and asked him why he wasn't joining his friends. I found out that Kyle didn't know how to tie his shoelaces. He explained that at home, a helper would always tie his shoelaces for him.

I helped Kyle with his laces so he could move on.

When I spoke to the camp instructors, they weren't surprised. They had come across Secondary 3 students who didn't know how to tie their shoelaces! These children were used to simply slipping on shoes that had pre-tied laces.

At the end of the camp, I spoke to Kyle's parents. I explained that tying shoelaces is something we, as adults, take for granted. However, for children, it's an opportunity for them to be independent - one of many important life skills.

I've also met students who refuse to use the camp bathrooms because they are afraid of insects such as cockroaches - and would rather relieve themselves behind a tree.

So, before taking our students camping, we would encourage parents to prepare the child - they could just go for a picnic at, say, East Coast Park. Then, get the child to use the public washrooms.

Really, public toilets are clean nowadays. But you'll be surprised how some children can be so used to their nice bathrooms at home that they refuse to relieve themselves in any other toilet.

I'm happy to say that by the end of every camp, students tend to return to school braver and more confident than before.

Parents who were once over-protective - perhaps due to their own fears or a lack of information - end up feeling proud of their children.

Of course, we help by keeping them updated. When parents stay engaged and in open conversation with the school, it gives them confidence to ease up on the protection, which in turn helps the child to be independent.

This is important even when there are problems, such as when the child feels too shy to make friends. For these children, recess can be the most stressful time of the day. So, when my teachers see a lonely student, they would walk with the child and encourage him to be brave and approach the group he would like to play with. These are teachable moments.

During recess, we loan out sports equipment such as balls and Frisbees for students to use. There's only one catch: They must use these as a group. The strong desire to play encourages children to make friends and be more inclusive.

And at the end of the loan, we'll remind the children to demonstrate these values outside of school.

•Dennis Yap is the principal of Punggol Cove Primary School, after serving as principal of Opera Estate Primary School and as vice-principal at Zhenghua Secondary.

•This piece first appeared in Schoolbag.sg, Ministry of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Small steps to help children gain confidence'. Print Edition | Subscribe