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What’s in a School – Finding the Right School for Our Children

After all the thoughts bouncing around in my head about whether to homeschool or not to homeschool, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make it all work. I’m not entirely comfortable leaving everything in the hands of school, neither am I willing to go all out for homeschooling because I do not believe I am in a position to provide the kind of environment I envisage to be important for Aristotle’s development. So I’ve been thinking about how to merge the two – traditional school plus homeschooling supplement. I’m sure there are many others out there who are like us – the in-betweens (neither fully homeschooling or traditional schooling) – and if you’re out there, I hope you will share your thoughts, ideas and arguments so that we might find the right balance for our children together.

I think the first step in this process is to get the school right. However, before we can select a school, we need to figure out exactly what we want from the school, what the school should provide for our children, and whether there is such a school available. I guess it goes without saying that it is unlikely that we will find a school that will fulfill all our needs for our children. The idea is to pick the one with the best fit, identify the gaps, and fill those gaps with our “supplementary homeschool program”.

I have written a few blog posts about researching International Schools (which is eventually the direction we went because we would like to send the children overseas for further education eventually). My post on International Schools generated a lot of feedback so do visit them and check out the comments if you’re still on the hunt and looking at International Schools (I also have a blog post about British International School Kuala Lumpur that you can check out). There were a lot of comments that came back on the International Schools regarding the curriculum and disappointment about it not being “up to par”. If you are concerned about whether the school you are considering is “up to par” in terms of their curriculum, there are sites that help evaluate the school’s curriculum against National Standards.

Since writing those blog posts, I’ve been looking further into the different teaching methodologies in schools that have been proven to be successful with research. They are:

If you have heard of any other educational philosophies that have proven successful in a traditional school environment, please share them in the comments.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any Primary Schools here that follow these methodologies specifically. Although we have some preschools that claim to follow the Montessori Method, I find that most are doing an amalgamated program that incorporates some Montessori elements only. They are not true Montessori schools.

The next best thing we can do is find out what it is that these schools do that makes them successful and to look for those qualities in the schools here.

Tools of the Mind

What typically happens in a Tools of the Mind classroom:

  • Teachers systematically scaffold children’s moving along the continuum of self-regulation from being regulated by others to engaging in “shared” regulation to eventually becoming “masters of their own behavior.” Scaffolding is the process of providing, and gradually removing, external support for learning. During scaffolding the task itself is not changed but what the learner initially does is made easier with support. As the learner takes more responsibility for performance of the task, less assistance is provided.
  • Children gain control of their social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors by learning how to use a variety of “mental tools.”
  • Teaching of early literacy and mathematics emphasizes building underlying cognitive competencies such as reflective thinking and metacognition. Reflective thinking means beginning to think about how you arrived at an answer or how you are thinking about something. To engage in reflective thinking, you must have metacognition which is the ability to think about thinking. Both reflective thinking and metacognition are abilities that are considered to be part of executive function and are dependent on working memory.
  • Children practice self-regulated learning throughout the day by engaging in a variety of specifically designed developmentally appropriate self-regulation activities. For example, Graphics Practice is a self-regulation activity where children practice drawing different kinds of marks to music and must stop and start on cue.
  • Children learn to regulate their own behaviors as well as the behaviors of their friends as they enact increasingly more complex scenarios in their imaginary play in preschool and in learning activities in kindergarten.

See – a typical day in a Tools of the Mind preschool class. You can also read more about the Tools of the Mind Pre-K curriculum.

What I like best about the Tools of the Mind program is that it aims to develop the child not only academically but to develop other cognitive skills as well, such as self-regulation, memory, and focused attention so that children can think ahead. The goal is to teach children to plan and follow directions; pay attention during a set activity; and remember what the teacher tells them.

The other focus is on social-emotional school readiness which is something I am still trying to help Aristotle develop to this day. Children learn emotional and behavioral self-control, they learn to take another person’s perspective, how to resolve disagreements, and be motivated to learn. They also work on character development, such as, not losing their temper when they don’t get their way; being kind and respectful to others, solving agreements in a positive way; and wanting to learn and persisting even when it isn’t easy – definitely qualities Aristotle could work on.

These are the typical activities they do in a Tools of the Mind pre-K class:

  • Mystery Games
  • Morning Opening Activities
    – Weather, Timeline Calendar, Share the News, Message of
    the Day
  • Play and play planning
  • Movement activities
  • Literacy activities and Read Aloud
  • Math/Science activities

Montessori Method

These are the elements of a Montessori school:

  • Mixed age classrooms, with classrooms for children aged 2½ or 3 to 6 years old by far the most common
  • Student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options
  • Uninterrupted blocks of work time
  • A Constructivism or “discovery” model, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction
  • Specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators

The Finland Model

It isn’t easy to describe the Finland Model without turning this into another full length article, so here are a few things that jump out at me:

  • Although most Finnish children don’t officially start school until the age of 7, there is a strong early childhood education system that helps to develop the children and prepare them for school. The goal is to teach children the necessary skills they will need for school and for them to “learn how to learn”. It is not unlike the goals of the Tools of the Mind program.
  • There are no “gifted” classes. The more able students help the weaker students. Again there is a similarity to the structure in the Montessori Method where older children help the younger children.
  • They have a strong culture for reading. Parents of newborn babies are given books as part of their maternity package.
  • They have great teachers who are very well educated and given a free reign to plan their own curriculum. The teachers are there because it is a vocation of their choosing.
  • There is very little testing.

From what I have seen of Aristotle’s new school, I think I’m fairly satisfied that it’s in the right direction. Despite initial protests from Aristotle about going to school (which I believe are largely the result of sibling rivalry and due to the fact that Hercules isn’t required to go to school), he does enjoy school and he is making good progress with his social skills development.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

6 thoughts on “What’s in a School – Finding the Right School for Our Children

  1. Shen-Li,

    My daughter is in a montessori school from 8:30-3:00pm. We like that it is a mixed age classroom 3-6 and she gets to learn from the bigger kids. The school also has teaching materials up to grade 1 or grade 2 for more advance students. She gets to socialized in school and play with kids around her age.

    At the same time, I partially homeschool her. I felt that she is moving at a faster speed than the school. She gets individual attention at home compared to at school. Partly, I also love teaching her. We usually work together after my son goes to bed at 7:30pm. I usually try to focus on different subjects at home so that she gets the benefit of both – homeschooling and montessori. At home we focused on reading english-fluency and vocabulary, mandarin-recognising more words (kindergarten), spelling (All about Spelling Level 1), math (Right Start Level B), critical thinking (Mind Benders Book 1, Can you Find me? K-1, Math Analogies), right brain activities (flash cards), piano (Soft Mozart) and swimming (twice a week). We do not have a set schedule of what we want to do each day. It depends very much on both of us. We try to cover reading english and mandarin, math and play the piano every day. I usually will ask her to read a loud a few pages from a fiction book of my choice to make sure she understands the story and explain any difficult words. On the other hand I hope that she would have good writing skill by reading the writting style of famous author. I try to have a variety of books for our english reading – science, human biology, planets, arts, classical composers and fiction books. I had just ordered a set of wink products and mandala books and thinking of working together. We do dictation for spelling at least 3 days a week.

    Pei Lin


  2. Hi Shen!
    Hey, I was just wondering, being the lazy mom that I am, I always try and scour through your blog for info… 🙂 I plan to send my kids to an international school, my eldest being already 2, suddenly I feel that I might as well start looking into preschools now.
    You keep mentioning preschools that are already part of certain international schools, what about private preschools? Eg: Beaconhouse? Kinderland? Any recommendations for any of those? Or is it that entry into certain international schools is easier if the child already is from their own school network?
    May I also know (if you don’t mind), why didn’t you consider Private Chinese Schools?


  3. Hi Pei Lin,

    Do you have any good copies to recommend on historian scientist such as Thomas Alva Edison, Louis Pasteur, Isaac Newton or Marie Curie etc. ? It’s strange that I hardly see books of this nature nowadays in Asia, perhaps in Malaysia bookstore.


  4. FZ Teh,

    I like “Rookie Biographies series”. They have some historian scientist and people who shape our world. The reading level are for grade 1-2. I manage to find a page that have a sample of the book.

    You can see the list of Rookies Biographies series here.

    My daughter have not read any series from “DK biography”. But they are a good publisher. They are for reading grade 3-6. You can view the contents in the below website.

    Pei Lin


  5. Wow.. I’m so sorry I’m so behind in responding to comments!

    Pei-Lin – thanks for sharing your program. We are the same. With Hercules, I usually lead his program since he’s happy to follow where I go. With Aristotle, I usually let him decide what he wants to do. He is in GIS but I supplement his program at home by focussing more on right brain and brain training. Sometimes I wish I could shorten his school hours so I can have more time with him at home, though.

    Dr Jasmine – so sorry for the late reply on this. Yes, the reason we started Aristotle (my older) in GIS reception is because it is easier for him to get in. If we started him in Year 1, it will be harder and a higher risk that he might miss out. Getting him in is the key because once he is in, his brother will have an easier path because they give preference to children with siblings in their schools.

    Why not Chinese school? Because they scare me. Too intense – I cannot imagine a child enjoying the learning process in such a school and I know Aristotle will hate that kind of environment. At the end of the day, my goal for school is for the boys to develop their social side, develop life skills, learn how to learn, and develop a joy for learning. Anything that works against my goals are off my list.


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