Exam Results: How Should Parents Respond?

Children can’t wait to celebrate the end of the exams, but their joy is often tempered by fear—what if they perform badly? Parents, on the other hand, may find that their relief at the exam’s end is swiftly replaced by anxiety, if their children’s results are not up to par.

How can parents respond to their children’s results in a way that is positive, loving, and encouraging? We spoke to occupational therapist Anita Leo, who runs her own practice at Insight N Access, to get her advice. Anita has 18 years of experience working with children in mainstream schools, as well as with gifted and special needs children, and here are her suggestions:

#1 Remember: Exams belong in the past.

For many children, stress does not end when a test or exam is completed, for the result is a source of stress too. Parents should begin the process of dealing with the results by accepting that things are done, and cannot be undone—don’t bring up what children could have done differently.

#2 Sit across your child when discussing results.

Avoid asking children about their scores when driving or walking beside them. This is a sensitive conversation, and you should have it while looking at your child—eye contact is important, and you’ll be able to pick up signs of stress if they are present, such as:

  • ears turning red
  • paleness
  • increased sweating
  • crying
  • fidgeting
  • hair tugging
  • nail biting
  • sitting at the edge of the seat

#3 Don’t discuss next steps on results day.

When children receive their exam results, they may feel disappointed because of their personal expectations. Or, they may be satisfied with their grades, but worried about shouldering the burden of their parents’ disappointment.

You can ask your child, “How are you?” and see if he is willing to open up to you. Alternatively, say to your child, “Let’s take today off to rest. What would you like to do?” What you’re really saying is that you’re accepting and available to bond. It also signals a willingness to put the exams and the results behind you.

#4 Your child doesn’t need a problem fixer.

When we present solutions to our children, we take the power out of their hands. If your child is unhappy about her grades, say, “I can see you are upset, this has taken a lot out of you. Today, we’ll go out and have a relaxing time. When you feel rested and ready, we’ll discuss what you want to do.”

When you’re having the discussion, ask, “Do you need help?” If your child already has tutors, ask if the tutors have been helpful. Children need to know that they have choices in life, and we take away their sense of responsibility when we swoop in to rescue them with a ready plan. If they should falter again in future, they will feel lost and helpless.

#5 Inspect the exam papers when your child is not present.

Try to do this after your child has gone to bed. Many children associate poor or less-than-satisfactory grades with failure, but the message to your child should be this: Exams show what concepts one has learned, remembered, and applied—they don’t represent a person’s abilities or potential.

As you examine your child’s papers on the quiet, take note of the questions he’s answered incorrectly, and find similar questions for him to attempt once he’s rested and ready to learn again. Don’t let your child know you’ve selected questions he missed during the exam—letting him solve problems in a relaxed environment will give you a more accurate indication of his abilities. If he manages to answer some or most of the questions correctly, you can use this as a teachable moment to show that people are prone to making mistakes when under pressure, which is why exams are not a true reflection of one’s abilities.

#6 Respect the purpose of the school holidays.

The June and December holidays should be sacred, at least for the first two weeks. Children are already dealing with insecurity about their abilities, and the prospect of seeing their holidays disappear—on account of private coaching or remedial classes—will not make them feel better. They need rest to recharge and play, before they can be ready for learning again.

#7 Remind children that exams don’t define them.

Children in Singapore are often made to feel that everything is cast in stone—that they only get one chance at a certain exam, for instance—and they feel trapped as a result. Parents need to remind their children that exams, even university exams, don’t define a person’s worth. There is always time for growth. Time is a resource, and if we value it, it can be empowering. But if we’re constantly running a race against time, we’re only playing catch up. Children should feel that they have plenty of time on their hands; this sense of freedom will help them to accomplish more in their lives.

#8 Speak with your child’s teachers.

If you’re entrusting your child’s learning to schoolteachers and external tutors, and your child doesn’t seem to be benefitting, hold the teachers accountable. Questions to consider: Can your child cope with the pace of learning in class, or during tutoring sessions? Does the teacher register that your child isn’t able to grasp concepts via her teaching methods? Children’s mistakes often have patterns—what are your child’s patterns? Are there other reasons (e.g. school bullies, inadequate sleep, illness, poor nutrition) that may have affected your child’s learning?

#9 Choose quality over quantity.

When it comes to homework, let the emphasis be on completing an assignment well. Speak to teachers and tutors if you feel they’re overloading your children with homework, and find out what the purpose of the assignments are. Also, be mindful that children can’t concentrate for long stretches at a time. Consider scheduling 30-minute work sessions with 10-minute breaks, and set limits on work—no more than four to five hours of work a day.

#10 Use a timer or an alarm clock.

Once you’ve agreed on a work schedule with your child, set a timer to help her pace herself. Unlike a parent, the clock is a neutral party for informing your child when it’s time to have a break, or begin work again. Bear in mind that loud alarm tones may trigger stress; let your child choose a tone that she likes, such as nature-themed or instrumental sounds.

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