Published on 11 Dec 2023

Preparing for Primary 1: Tips for kids who grew up during the Covid-19 pandemic

SINGAPORE – Muhammad Al-Zaim Muhammad Shafiq is starting Primary 1 in January 2024, but he spent much of his pre-school life wearing a mask and practising social distancing.

He started nursery school at My First Skool at Block 63 Telok Blangah Heights when he was three, shortly before Covid-19 forced all schools to shut down during the circuit breaker in April 2020.

When schools reopened almost two months later, teaching children in their formative years how to read and write became more difficult, as teachers had to find ways to express themselves clearly behind masks and face shields.

Spontaneous play ceased as their young charges learnt that standing apart was safer.

Zaim, now six, clearly missed being able to speak at will and play with his classmates, says his mother, Ms Siti Ummu Aidilah Badar, 29, a restaurant manager. Thankfully, the chatty boy has an older brother, seven, as his playmate at home.

Almost four years since the pandemic, the repercussions of what some experts call “education’s long-Covid” continue to reverberate around the world.

In the United States, for example, school closures erased two decades worth of progress in reading and mathematics.

Singapore’s quick response in pivoting to home-based learning across all levels meant that the fallout was considerably less dire here than in many other countries, but studies have yet to reveal the long-term picture as the Covid-19 generation enters formal schooling.

The ages from birth to three years old are recognised as the time when the brain develops the fastest and children are the most primed to learn.

Research from around the globe suggests that some young children who grew up during the pandemic have learning deficits in “expressive language” or being able to express how they think and feel, says Dr Mercy Karuniah Jesuvadian, a lecturer in psychology and child and human development at the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University.

How well pre-schoolers have managed to bridge that gap depended on many factors, from whether they were enrolled in pre-school during the pandemic to whether they had access to online lessons at home.

At the same time, not all pre-schools here pivoted swiftly to online teaching, a platform that is “especially tricky” for the very young as they learn best when it is hands-on and interactive, Dr Jesuvadian notes.

Local research suggests that family socio-economic status (SES) also shaped children’s learning during the pandemic, she adds. Those from higher SES families had better-educated parents who interacted more with their kids, read more to them and taught them more knowledge and skills.

Adding to the learning and development challenges was the unsaid – and often unseen – mental toll the pandemic took on the youngest members of society, who may not have been able to articulate what was happening to them.

Some kids found it difficult to adjust to the extreme changes Covid-19 brought on and showed it in different ways, from social anxiety to selective mutism.

“We had kids who were overwhelmed having to interact and go out to crowded places. We had to work on anxiety management and exposure therapy,” says Ms Pamela See, an educational and developmental psychologist with private counselling practices Think Psychological Services and Think Kids.

“Some kids had poorer social skills and needed more structured learning to close that gap. And we had some kids who did not speak in public due to anxiety.”

Pre-school educators saw first-hand the effects of the lockdown and social distancing and worked hard to help their students catch up.

Ms Thian Ai Ling, general manager of My First Skool, which has 157 centres and 24,000 pupils, says: “The current Kindergarten 2 children, who were three years old when the Covid-19 pandemic started, had limited social interactions outside of home then, as they were kept away from playgrounds and had fewer play dates.

“When they returned to pre-school, we observed behaviours such as reluctance to share or take turns. In pre-school, these children had to rely on other cues, such as the tone of voice and body language, to better read and understand their teachers who were wearing masks.”

That said, it is important to note that children’s experiences during the pandemic varied depending on many factors, including family support, says Ms Tan Su-Lynn, a senior educational psychologist at Promises Healthcare.

Zaim, for instance, seems better prepared for Primary 1 than his brother, Muhammad Al-Aniq Muhammad Shafiq, who is just a year older.

“He’s cleverer in his studies because he started school one year earlier than his brother, who started at four years old,” Ms Siti says, adding that Zaim also has better social skills because he has an elder sibling.

She credits his teachers for proactively suggesting ways to help him at home, as well as My First Skool’s Learn & Share programme (formally called its Home Learning Programme), which has online content that students could participate in together with their parents since 2021.

This hybrid approach complements the in-school curriculum.

But since Zaim does not like to share, Ms Siti is taking pains to reinforce this skill before school starts.

She has also learnt from her elder son’s Primary 1 experience of buying unnecessary items from the school bookshop and aims to teach Zaim how to manage money better.

Ms Tan says: “Early intervention services, supportive parenting and access to quality early education programmes can help mitigate the potential negative effects on children’s development and school readiness.”

Ms Thian from My First Skool adds that as social distancing measures were lifted since mid-2022, its pupils have been able to enjoy pre-pandemic activities such as field trips and in-centre events for families.

“As most of our children attend pre-school service regularly, even during the pandemic, they have not been severely impacted. In fact, this cohort of children has been observed to be more resilient and adaptable,” she says.

As the new school year beckons, Ms See reminds parents: “Every child is different and the transition process may vary. Be attuned to the needs of your child. Patience, encouragement and a supportive environment can go a long way in helping a child to adjust to a new school environment.”

7 tips to help your kid settle into Primary 1 without tears

Compared with pre-school, classes in Primary 1 can have double or triple the number of pupils that kids are used to.

They will have to learn to navigate a much larger school building, deal with teachers who may not be as loving and make new friends if their pals are in different schools.

The days may be much longer, without time for naps, and academic expectations are higher.

Experts and parents say these strategies can help smoothen the transition for you and your little one.

1. Introduce the concept of “big school”

You would have already attended the Primary 1 orientation, but continue to talk to your child about what to expect, such as making new friends and the schedule of a typical day, suggests Ms See.

You can also introduce age-appropriate books or stories around the theme of starting school to reinforce a positive experience.

Introduce the adults with different roles in the school, from teachers to canteen stall owners, and teach your child how to interact with them with respect and kindness, says Ms Thian.

“Children should also learn that they will not always be playing in the same small group as they will have a wider social circle in primary school,” she says.

“Through stories and role play, parents can create opportunities for their children to practise how to interact and talk to their peers and friends, when to ask questions in class and how to face different situations in school,” she adds.

“They can also let their children know to approach their teachers or school counsellors when they need help or when they feel uncomfortable.”

2. Set up a school routine

Start a daily routine a few weeks before school starts, including having regular times for going to sleep and waking up, as well as for meals.

“A structured routine helps children feel secure and prepared,” says Ms See.

3. Teach self-management skills

When your child wants a chocolate bar at the supermarket and you refuse, does he or she know how to register discontent without throwing a tantrum? If your answer is “no”, it is time to teach the child self-management skills.

“Being able to articulate a need and to be taken seriously by an adult who spends time and effort to listen and act is key to building the child’s confidence to navigate this new world of the ‘big school’,” says Dr Jesuvadian.

Be aware of how you are modelling behaviour as well. How do you show disappointment and how do you act when you do not meet your goals?

4. Encourage independence

A child who can dress himself or herself, use the toilet and pack and carry a school backpack independently will get a boost in confidence for handling the school day, Ms See says.

Create a packing list so your child can learn to pack his or her bag by himself or herself, Ms Thian says.

5. Teach needs versus wants

One of the common challenges parents face in Primary 1 is kids who overspend at the school bookshop.

Mr Aaron Chwee, head of wealth advisory at OCBC Bank and a father of two children aged 18 and 15, suggests familiarising yourself with the prices of items in the canteen and bookshop to set a realistic budget.

He gave his kids enough daily pocket money in Primary 1 for a main dish and a drink, with 30 cents left over so they could save it in a bank account. They were by then familiar with the concepts of “my money” versus “your money”, and were excited about the supervised autonomy of managing their money.

When they were older, this became a weekly sum so they could learn to budget.

He and his wife also played a game called Wants Versus Needs with them, where they would write down different items on pieces of paper and their kids would have to decide whether it was a want or a need. “This helped them to understand the importance of prioritising necessities,” he says, adding that the bank’s Wisma Atria branch often holds events where little ones can learn about money management.

6. Acknowledge their fears (and your own)

It is natural for your child to feel afraid about Primary 1, but do not brush off such fears with a comment like “Don’t worry, everyone is nice there. They will help”, says Dr Jesuvadian.

“The child has not yet met any of the teachers to come to any conclusion, so such a response is only going to confuse him or her,” she says.

Instead, ask your child how you or the teacher can help reduce these feelings of being frightened. How does your child think he or she can help himself or herself?

At the same time, recognise the signs of your own anxiety about the transition as kids pick up on their parents’ emotions easily, says Ms Tan.

If your child faces continued academic or emotional challenges during the transition, seek help from the school or a private expert such as a counsellor, child psychologist or educational psychologist, she says.

7. Recognise that each child is different

Even if it is not your first child entering Primary 1, it is important to treat his or her individual needs differently.

Mr Mark Tan, chief executive officer and co-founder of digital parenting resource Connected (, is not worried about his third child, Elizabeth, six, entering Primary 1 in 2024, as she has grown up with siblings and caregivers at home despite the pandemic’s social distancing measures.

“Nevertheless, one of our talking points with her has been to prepare her for a new chapter of friendships. The downside to being part of a close-knit group of siblings, with an older sister in the same school, is that she may not proactively look to socialise and making new friends may be a challenge,” says Mr Tan, who has four children aged five to nine.

Elizabeth is also meticulous by nature and can get frustrated if she does not meet her own expectations, he adds.

“Setbacks are an integral part of learning and growth, so our approach has been to affirm her meticulousness, while also encouraging her to focus on learning from her mistakes instead of dwelling on her frustration.”

He adds: “Sending her with her older sister to order food for all of us when we’re out as a family doubles as good practice to write things down so she doesn’t forget – and even if she does, it’s part of learning in a safe environment.”

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Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction. 

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