WFH parenting hacks: Teach kids to focus so you can work in peace

EllieFun Box co-founder Abigail Chee and her three children - (from left) 10-year-old Kyra, eight-year-old Zach and three-year-old Ariel. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Home alone with her three kids last month, Ms Abigail Chee thought she had her work-from-home routine down pat.

She put three-year-old Ariel down for her nap before a Zoom interview so she would not be disturbed. Kyra, 10, and Zach, eight, were supposed to finish their homework.

"The two older kids thought it was very funny to interrupt me and make 'bunny ears' on me. They started throwing a Frisbee across the room. No matter how many 'dagger eyes' I tried to shoot at my misbehaving kids, they didn't take the hint," recalls Ms Chee, 38, a former secondary school teacher who also has a diploma in Montessori education. She is a parenting coach who also runs a subscription box service, EllieFun Box, with a partner.

Fortunately, the interviewer was kind and invited the kids to introduce themselves, but Ms Chee still gave her two children a talking-to after the incident, explaining that their actions were disrespectful and unkind.

As Singapore hunkers down for another three weeks in phase two (heightened alert), many parents are working from home while managing kids doing home-based learning until the end of this week.

Thereafter, they will have the added challenge of keeping their little ones occupied indoors during the first half of the school holidays. Pre-schools are open, but parents are encouraged to keep tots at home.

While families are psychologically prepared this time round for a stay-home lifestyle, hiccups like the one Ms Chee experienced will still happen because "they are just kids behaving like kids. That's just part of growing up and learning from consequences", she explains.

Children who are unable to do HBL independently or play quietly are not "naughty", she stresses. Kids need movement and face-to-face interaction, hands-on activities and to use all their senses to make sense of their world, she explains.

"You can imagine how bewildering it is to children who suddenly have dad and mum home with them but they are facing a screen or locked in a room all day long, not playing with them. When they are clamouring for our attention, it means their needs are not met. Very likely, it is an emotional need for connection and attention."

Setting clear and consistent expectations is key to teaching any desired behaviour, says Ms Tan Su-Lynn, a senior educational psychologist with Promises Healthcare, a private mental health practice.

At the same time, avoid turning the next three weeks into a battle of wills, she cautions. "It is important to ensure that you mindfully maintain a balance of more positive than negative interactions with your children. After all, having more positives throughout the day helps in those moments when you have to say 'no'."

Parents should be mindful that change is difficult for everyone, including children, she adds. That is why praise, affection and small rewards - not bribes - go a long way. "By reinforcing appropriate and desirable behaviour, the more likely your children will repeat this behaviour and, over time, it will coalesce into a good habit."

It also pays to cut yourself some slack, says Mrs Cherie Tseng, 40, chief operations officer at a local fintech company. While she says her three boys aged three to 11 have proven remarkably resilient amid the shifting sand of Covid changes, they still interrupt her from time to time.

So, she lets them sleep in and takes critical meetings early in the morning where possible. She also informs her online meetings that she works in a shared office.

"After the last round, I think the first thing I am going to do is lower my standards about things - kids can be bored, we can watch more TV and if food is less healthy, it's okay. We are just focusing on getting through this."

4 steps to a more independent child

Meet their needs first

If your child's basic needs are not met, they will find it hard to focus, says parenting coach Abigail Chee.

Use the acronym "halt" when managing a clingy toddler or pre-schooler: Is he or she hungry, anxious, lonely or tired? Settle those needs first before you move on, and do not be disheartened if your child can focus on an activity only for a little while.

"Concentration is like a muscle. When they practise focus often, their concentration span will also grow," she says.

Kids in primary and secondary school are more independent, but it is important to pay close attention to their emotional needs, she adds. They may be anxious and fearful about the current Covid-19 situation or lonely because they are cut off from their friends.

"Be sure to create the time and space (over meals or exercise) to suss out what they are really thinking and feeling so they feel seen, heard, understood and loved."

Empower kids

Draw up a schedule of activities for the week together with your kids, says psychologist Tan Su-Lynn of Promises Healthcare.

These can be in the form of visuals with key words for pre-schoolers or lower-primary kids. "It is important to set realistic goals such as activities that they can complete independently without them asking you for help. Guiding children in setting goals and scheduling tasks are part of valuable life skills of time management and task organisation," she says.

Mrs Shireena Shroff Manchharam, 39, a certified image consultant and life coach, teaches her kids, aged seven and 11, to pause before they interrupt mum and dad.

"They are told to think before running around asking us for things while both my husband and I work, and to 'try and figure out' their problems. We tell them that if they do that they will grow and feel empowered, and it's a chance for them to be independent too."

Ms Shireena Shroff Manchharam with her husband Ashish Manchharam and their children Arian and Lara. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHIREENA SHROFF MANCHHARAM

Teach delayed gratification

Parents can try "if/then" statements to motivate children to behave in a desired way, Ms Tan suggests.

For example, they can say: "If you finish this piece of homework, then you can play 15 minutes of computer games with your brother" or "Each time you can stay seated for 15 minutes, you get a token, and after you get five tokens, you can exchange them for something of your choice".

Tokens reinforce good behaviour and teach kids self-monitoring skills and delayed gratification, she explains.

Prep before meetings

Always remind older children before an important call that they should not interrupt you unless there is an emergency and specify the criteria, such as a bad fall or a fire, says Ms Chee.

Mother of three Cherie Tseng also keeps a stash of craft materials that her kids can dip into when they are bored. To keep her older boys busy, she is doing a reading challenge with them and involving them in a charity project.

Ms Cherie Tseng and her family. ST PHOTO: YONG LI XUAN

Trying to do a Zoom call with a clingy toddler presents other challenges, and placing the child away from you may make the situation worse, Ms Chee says. "Try training the child to play comfortably near your work area so the child can still see you. Keep all his favourite toys near you and hand him one toy at a time so he can be entertained for a while longer.

"And the last resort - the device preloaded with some educational games I know she loves. That's the last gambit for the very important and long meetings that just won't end."

- Ms Chee is holding an online workshop tomorrow titled "Transforming your child from disruptive to focused while working from home". It costs $10 and will be recorded for future access. Register at this website.

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