Leading up to the exams, what parents say to their school-going children can make or break their spirit. What are the healthy conversations that parents can have with children to bolster their confidence and make them feel accepted and loved?
We consulted polytechnic lecturer and former junior college and secondary school teacher Serene Martin for her advice. As someone who grew up in the Singapore system, Serene’s passion for teaching and life coaching stems from witnessing—and personally experiencing—the toll that academic pressures can take on one’s self-esteem. These are the five questions that she recommends asking children during the exam season:
1. “Do you want more time for fun? How can we make that happen?”
Serene Martin: As the exam period can be anxiety-ridden, it is crucial to let kids know that they are still entitled to have fun, enjoy life, and do what they love. Grades are important, but allowing space for play during this period conveys the message that happiness has its rightful place in our lives, at all times. Life is fragile and can be over in an instant—it’s trite but true, so set an example for your child by treasuring the present, and encourage him or her to do the same.
2.“Did you learn anything that you found useful or interesting lately?”
SM: Often, parents project their own expectations and dreams on their children. It is a huge burden for a child, or anyone, to be at the constant receiving end, downloading instructions from others who “know better” than they do. Sit down with your children and ask them what they want for themselves. Get to know what they are curious about, and ask them how they feel about school and the exams. Take their opinions seriously—this can be liberating for children.
Having an open dialogue allows parents to understand their children’s interests, and also detect limiting beliefs that the child may have about learning that can then be addressed. It may even shed light on other things that the child may be truly passionate about, which may be something worthy of nurturing and developing beyond paper qualifications. Share your opinions and experiences with them too.
3. “Who do you admire? Why?”
SM: There is a thin line between suggesting a role model for inspiration and comparing a child to other relatives or friends as a basis for measuring a child’s performance or worse, putting a child down.
For instance, “Look, Aunty May’s son scored 90% in Maths” or “Your friend Daniel came first in the singing competition. What are you doing with yourself?” While the intention of comparing may be to push the child to perform better or to become “more competitive,” the consequences can be toxic as it can create a sense of unworthiness that is likely to persist into adulthood. The child may even start shying away from social situations for fear of being put down, and that becomes a barrier to growth. No two children are the same; they have different talents, strengths, and interests, and develop at different rates. So let your children embrace their individuality.
People with admirable traits can be appreciated across the spectrum of age and background. For instance, bringing up a person such as Steve Jobs, whom we can learn from, comes across as less of a direct comparison than referring to another student who scored an A. Parents can think out loud about how they themselves are inspired by certain role models, and how they want to change themselves to improve. This softens the impact of the comparison, and children see that they are not alone in their journey of learning and reflection.
Try not to mention the successes of other children during the exam period, or when results are received. This only heightens the tension of an already emotionally charged situation, especially if your child is struggling to cope. Timing makes a big difference as well as tone and choice of words, which speak volumes about your intentions. The self-esteem of a child is fragile so observe your children’s response to such feedback in terms of their body language and how they respond verbally—or how they have responded in the past—and use these cues to decide if it is worthwhile to broach the subject.
4. “Do you know it’s OK to fail?”
SM: Exam paranoia is rampant in Singapore. Having taught for over a decade in schools and via private tutoring, I have gone to homes where assessment books are piled in every corner, including the kitchen, and the student is fighting to stay awake. And even then, the parents insist that “more work and more practice” should be given to the child.
More is not necessarily better. Focus on the quality of revision and the quality of other aspects of life—such as health and relationships—because that impacts results and more important, the happiness and overall wellbeing of the child. Understand that no matter what you and your child do, failure can still happen and it should not be pathologised or perceived as a doomsday scenario. Failing once in a while can be a good thing; the life lessons associated with failure can strengthen a child’s character.
Everyone wants their child to do well in exams, but ultimately, you cannot walk their journey or micromanage everything, as that can suffocate learning and you may unwittingly exacerbate the stress that your child is experiencing.
5. “How would you like to enjoy yourself after the exams?”
SM: Beyond intellect, the mood, energy, and attitude of the child will influence performance. Something that parents can try is creative visualisation, which uses mental imagery and affirmations to keep one in a positive frame of mind. In a relaxed environment, play some ambient music in the background and ask your child to sit comfortably with eyes closed. Softly guide the child through imagining how he or she would like to feel and what he or she would like to enjoy once a goal has been attained—in this case, doing well for the exams. Make the images and feelings as vivid as possible.
Mindfulness and meditation are also gaining traction; these techniques are increasingly being incorporated into staff development programmes by major corporations such as Microsoft and Google. For parents who are interested in such techniques, there is a wealth of information online.