Q&A: Nadia Chan | Prepare young children for school with experience-learning, not words

For many parents, the prospect of a child starting school for the first time can be daunting. That may be especially so in the current Covid-19 circumstances. Even the Macau government is advising some parents that they can exempt their children from preschool if they are concerned about health safety.
The Times spoke to a clinical psychologist about this. Nadia Chan is categorized as a psychotherapist under Macau law, and knows how to prepare parents and children for the psychological challenges of starting preschool.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – What are the main challenges that parents face when their children are starting school for the first time?
Nadia Chan (NC) – Whether a child is starting in nursery school or kindergarten, parents usually think they are prepared to let the child enter a whole new world. The reality is usually different. No matter how well they have prepared or how deeply they’ve checked the facilities, it is often a moment of uncertainty for the family.
It is the first time they will face extended separation from their child. How should it be done? How should a child be prepared mentally for their first extended separation from their closest family members, which can even be the helper at home?
To prepare children for their first extended separation, adults should bear in mind that children have a different mentality. Communication between adults is based mostly on verbal language [and logic], so many parents try to “tell” their children what they can anticipate at school. This is too abstract for children to understand.
In contrast, children learn through experience. As a result, parents should prepare their children for the separation in a happy and experiential manner. Parents should take everyday chances to prepare. Parents should be aware that children perceive a thing as absent when they don’t see it and as present when they do. Parents can, for instance, use frosted glass to convey the idea that “not seeing” doesn’t equate to “not being there.”
A bad attempt at preparation is washroom breaks, which only work several times because children go to the washroom themselves and they know how long that takes.
All in all, the preparation process should be gradual and will take time.

MDT – Is it problematic for parents to only focus on their children’s academic performance?
NC – I won’t say whether it’s good or bad, though I think a conversation is always preferred. The goal is to nurture the habit of sharing daily experiences with their parents.
A more effective way of asking is to first show care about what children do at school that day. Asking them what games they play and with whom, and even what refreshments they eat. Parents should remember not to make hasty conclusions about what their children tell them. An immediate negative judgment will hinder future sharing.
A better way to respond is to use descriptive, rather than judgmental, feedback. Simply put, if a child draws a black circle, it’s a black circle. From what the child describes of the drawing, you will know what they are thinking. If the child says the black circle is a sun, parents can understand the child’s perception.
Using descriptive feedback will first, help parents understand more about the child; second, allow for greater freedom in future work; and third, avoid the child falling into the trap of focusing only on the work that receives compliments.

MDT – In due course, children are bound to face setbacks or dissatisfaction at school. How should parents prepare their children for this scenario?
NC – This scenario not only happens at school. […] When emotional fluctuations occur, the first step must be expressing that they see the change in emotions, as well as showing understanding. Next, parents can attempt to tell their child that there are things that can’t be achieved. The final step, when necessary, is to provide them with options [to change or improve].

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