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South China Morning Post: Soft skills build solid kids

Nov 26 2012

Children require more than just academic development, so schools such as JEMS help youngsters build their confidence and character, writes Linda Yeung.

When three-year-old James Hu pulled up a chair for his pre-school teacher to sit on as his class gathered for “circle time”, he received immediate praise for what was, on the surface, just a small good deed. The thoughtful act, however, was exactly the kind that his mother, Christina Hu, hoped he would start performing when she signed him up for weekly lessons at Junior Excellent Members of Society (JEMS) Learning House, a specialist in character education.

When the teacher told the story to her afterwards, Hu was touched by her son’s actions. “The teacher found it amazing that James was willing to take the initiative to help teachers out,” she says.

For the past four years, JEMS has been trying to instill positive values among children aged three to 12, teaching concepts such as personal responsibility, time management, perseverance and gratitude. It has seen growing support among parents who are increasingly aware of how important soft skills are to their children.

“It is encouraging to see a changing culture in Hong Kong. A lot more people seem to be talking about values and social skills,” says Christine Ma Lo-ming, the centre’s founder. “People told me they had heard about our centre and asked us what exactly we did. They had heard about it from other parents and seen changes in their friend’s children.”

James used to act reserved when placed outside of his comfort zone, his mother said. Now he is more open and willing to do things on his own. “He now says: ‘Mommy, you don’t need to help me with this because I can do it myself.’ It’s a big surprise,” Hu says.

James also expresses love for his new baby sister, rather than show signs of rivalry. “They get on really well and every now and then he says: ‘I love my baby sister’,” Hu says.

JEMS has 120 children on its books and holds classes with no more than six students at a time. The classes aim to instill positive concepts and build up children’s self-confidence through a number of fun activities.

There are also regular outings, such as visits to elderly people’s homes through its longtime partner, St James Settlement. This Christmas, JEMS students will also be going on a food drive among families, neighbours and friends to gather Chinese soup ingredients for elderly people. The parents will then make the soup.

“We know from experience that what elderly residents really want is not rice, but Chinese soup,” Ma says.

While community services form part of the framework JEMS uses to foster children’s personal development, in classrooms, students engage in a number of activities. These include games and exercises such as building “friendship” bridges. These activities are designed to help them understand the pillars of building and maintaining friendships.

They also learn about issues such as environmental protection and bullying – which though a much bigger problem in the US than in Hong Kong is still a matter of concern, Ma says.

“Some students say to their peers: ‘Oh you can’t take a joke?’ They don’t feel like they are in the wrong but, in fact, they are bullying others. We help students identify bullying and know what they can do about it,” Ma says, adding that seven- and eight-year-olds are taught the differences between physical bullying, emotional bullying and cyber bullying.

A key message that JEMS constantly conveys to its young charges is their uniqueness and how this is the basis for healthy personal growth. “If children do not know their strengths and weaknesses they will not have confidence,” Ma says.

Schools and families have their role to play in nurturing self-confidence, proper values and attitudes, but Ma believes her centre is filling the gap by reinforcing valuable concepts in a relaxed, small-class environment.

A number of other organisations also nurture positive personal development. The Life Education Activity Programme, for example, reaches out to 80,000 students every year with the purpose of curbing drug addiction among young people through promoting a healthy lifestyle. On top of its parent programme, it runs mobile classes in primary and secondary schools to help students understand the effects drugs have on their bodies.

Its programmes are endorsed by the Education Bureau and the Narcotics Division of the Security Bureau. “A healthy lifestyle lays a strong foundation for young peoples’ future,” said a spokesman.

No one can dispute the importance of early training on a child’s future. Hu believes character education gives “completeness” to her son’s upbringing. “I remember a lot of what I learned when I was a child, such as good communication skills and having respect for others,” she says. “I hope to also expose my son to a wide range of experiences.”



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