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Do 4-year-olds really need private tuition?

Being a child is hard enough already, let’s not make it any harder by piling on academic stress.

This writer says additional tuition for preschoolers only feeds into this culture of unrealistically high expectation that scoring an A is the ultimate goal; that your grade on a test reflects what you are capable of as a person. Graphic: Adolfo Arranz

This writer says additional tuition for preschoolers only feeds into this culture of unrealistically high expectation that scoring an A is the ultimate goal; that your grade on a test reflects what you are capable of as a person. Graphic: Adolfo Arranz

SINGAPORE — I have a confession to make: I have no desire to push my kids into being straight-A students. In fact, I probably would be quite satisfied if they performed just enough to advance to the next level in school every year.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying I want to encourage my kids to be lazy. What I am saying, though, is that I do not want to pressure my children into joining the rat race for distinctions.

If they so happen to be blessed with the intellect to score good grades, then great for them.

But I am not going to pack their day with back-to-back additional private tuition or academic enrichment classes to obtain a “coveted” grade — and certainly not when the older boy is only four years old, and the younger one is barely two.

The pressure to excel academically is so competitive in Singapore that tuition is almost a national past-time; even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented several years ago that “tuition has become a minor national obsession”.



According to a 2015 survey conducted by The Straits Times and research company Nexus Link, four in 10 families in Singapore sent their pre-school children for tuition. These tuition classes were mainly for English, Chinese and Mathematics.

But such lessons are not necessary considering the emphasis and support for quality early childhood care and education in Singapore, experts say. On the flip side, they can even cause undue stress and anxiety for the children, which can be detrimental to their learning, growth and development.

“Childcare and pre-school programmes, with regulated recommended guidelines, provide the necessary environment and learning experiences to nurture children’s holistic development and learning as well as prepare them appropriately in their transition to formal schooling,” said Dr Theresa Lu, Head of Early Childhood Education Programme at SIM University’s School of Human Development and Social Services.

“In view of this, tuition outside of childcare or preschool is not necessary. Instead, children should be provided with more opportunities to engage in play, which would contribute to the development of their social, emotional and life-skills competencies.”

But I know of parents who — faced with scary stories of weekly “ting xie” (an exercise in Mandarin where a child listens and writes) and spelling tests in Primary One — caved in and signed their preschoolers up for S$35 hourly tuition sessions, just so their tots won’t lose out to their peers when formal schooling starts.

And who can blame them when tuition and enrichment companies touting their services suggest that their preschooler will lag behind his classmates, or claim that one-on-one tuition can help “timid” preschoolers “improve on the numerous areas in which they aren’t competent in”. Or when a teacher at their child’s kindergarten suggest they enrol their little one for additional Mandarin lessons.

I, for one, am not convinced that preschoolers need additional tuition outside of what they learn at nursery or kindergarten classes.

I believe that all it does is feed into this culture of unrealistically high expectation that scoring an A is the ultimate goal; that your grade on a test reflects what you are capable of as a person. Life is so much more than that.



For young children who are barely out of diapers, learning at this stage should not be about sitting at a table and doing worksheets endlessly, or about counting to 100 by two years of age or about spelling “hippopotamus” by age five.

Childhood is about play. Childhood is about running around in a playground, diving into in a pool, jumping on a trampoline, kicking a football around, splashing paint on a canvas.

Dr Lu agrees: “Tuition classes tend to be constrained to group-based and structured lessons, which do not cater to individual and holistic needs of the child. The structured activities and exercises with take-home work can result in additional stress for the child and limit leisure time for play, which is an essential component for the development of children.”

Being a child is already hard enough, let’s not make it any harder. From learning how to eat without making a mess to learning how to regulate their emotions (and tantrums), cope with an older/younger sibling, share their toys and everything else that we adults take for granted, such as reading, writing, colouring or even taking a shower — every day, every activity is a lesson in itself for our kids.

So let’s get those down pat before we give them additional stress over academics.

My four-year-old is pretty weak in his Mandarin. Do I worry that he might struggle with tingxie when he goes to Primary One? Definitely. Am I going to send him for Chinese enrichment classes right now? No. There is more than enough time for that later.

Right now, I have chosen instead to enrol him in activities that I think are fun, and can help build his confidence and social skills.

He has been going for football sessions since he was two, tried gymnastics at three, and just started swim class again this year.

None of these classes are very competitive; we are not expecting him to be an Olympian. But what he does get out of the activities are important life values such as rules and discipline, respect for his coaches, team work, self-awareness and confidence.

He has asked to go for piano lessons, so we might try that in future. And he is also showing keen interest in baking, so cooking classes are on the list for possible activities.

My hope is that by exposing him to a variety of activities, he will be able to discover what really interests him, and pursue them for himself when he gets older.

Should he tell me he doesn’t enjoy a particular activity and wants to stop, then we will.

I don’t believe we can force a child to be something they are not, or force them to like something they don’t. Similarly for academics, making him go for Chinese tuition at such a young age could do more harm than good and put him off the language for life. That would be counter-intuitive, wouldn’t it?





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