What to Say to Your Child After Poor Exam Results

Submitted by KiasuEditor

If your kids are in Primary 3 to 5, they may still be gearing up for the year-end exams. With less exposure to tests and exams (compared to previous cohorts), they may also be less ready to handle unexpected results.

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As for parents, we know you might feel anxious about your child’s academic performance, especially if milestone exams like the PSLE are on your mind. It’s normal to feel concerned, and it shows that you care deeply about your child’s future. However, it’s best to deal with your own anxiety before discussing exam results with your child. 

Here’s a simple mindfulness exercise that may help: Find a quiet space and take three deep breaths. Then, spend a minute recalling a specific past instance where your child overcame a difficulty or demonstrated growth. Keep this memory in mind as you engage with your child, allowing it to guide your reactions and responses to their academic challenges.

Below, we’ll introduce four ways to respond to your child’s exam results, some of which may be novel for you. These responses are rooted in coaching and education strategies that prioritise a growth-oriented approach to setbacks. If you try them, please let us know in the comments, and do feel free to share your strategies too!

Tell a Different Story

This approach is based on Narrative Therapy, where people construct their identities through stories. The idea is that by “re-authoring” a narrative, individuals can perceive challenges in a way that aligns with their strengths and values.

For instance, you could say to your child, “Remember J.K. Rowling, the author of ‘Harry Potter’? She faced numerous rejections and challenges before finding success. Sometimes, a ‘no’ or a setback can be the beginning of a different, exciting journey.” Follow this up with a question like, “How do you think you can use this setback as a stepping stone to grow and succeed, just like J.K. Rowling did with her challenges?”

In this way, you encourage your child to write their own success story, where the setback of disappointing grades is just a plot point, and not the conclusion. This exercise in narrative therapy can help your child to view the situation as a temporary hurdle, rather than a permanent failure.

Cultivate a “Not Yet” Mindset

One of our KSP members recalls taking an adult learning course, where a fellow learner declared, “I’m not suitable for this class,” shortly before dropping out. This example illustrates how self-doubt can influence our decisions, often prematurely. It also underscores the importance of a growth mindset, and why it’s critical for children to develop this in their formative years.

If you’ve heard about having a growth mindset, then you’re probably familiar with the idea that abilities and intelligence can be developed with time, effort, and dedication. The term “not yet” signifies that while a goal has not been met, progress is ongoing and success is attainable with continued effort.

Here’s how you can apply it in a situation where results are less-than-ideal. Say to your child, “This is a ‘not-yet’ moment. It doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it; it just means you haven’t achieved it yet. Let’s think about what ‘not-yet’ feels like, and how it fuels us to keep going.”

Following this, you can ask your child to keep a progress journal, where you identify and record small, manageable goals related to the areas your child wants to improve in. These goals should be specific, measurable, and broken down into achievable steps. On a regular basis, have your child write down or draw what they’ve accomplished toward reaching their goals, what they’ve found challenging, and what they’ve learned. You can also add your observations and words of encouragement.

This approach not only provides a tangible way for your child to see their progress, but it also reinforces the concept of growth and continuous effort. 

Seek to Understand Emotions

When it comes to disappointing results, there are many emotions at play. But if your child is able to understand and name their emotions, it can give them more control over how they feel. 

Why is this so? Recognising and understanding one’s feelings is the first step toward managing them effectively. With this awareness, your child can move from a state of emotional confusion to one where they understand what’s happening inside them.

In addition, naming emotions often has a calming effect. According to the psychological theory known as “affect labelling,” putting feelings into words can help regulate strong emotions and reduce the intensity of the emotion being experienced. It shifts the brain’s activity from the amygdala (the area that governs emotional responses) to the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with problem-solving and critical thinking).

To have these conversations with your child, you could say, “It’s okay to feel upset or frustrated with your results. These emotions are complex. Do you know what else you’re feeling?”

If your child is not sure what they are feeling, you can refer to an “emotion wheel,” and ask them to pick any emotions that apply. Here’s an example discussion:

Child: “I feel inadequate, because I studied so hard and did all those practice papers, but it still wasn’t enough.”

Parent: “I saw how much effort you put in. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t turn out as we hoped. Did any part of the studying feel like it wasn’t clicking?”

Child: “I understood everything when I was studying, but during the exam, I just blanked out.”

Parent: “That happens to the best of us. It sounds like understanding the material isn’t the issue, but maybe we need to explore different exam strategies or ways to manage stress. What do you think?”

Child: “Maybe. I always feel rushed and nervous during exams.”

Parent: “That’s a common challenge. What if we work on some time management techniques and relaxation exercises to help you feel more at ease?”

While this may not be your exact conversation, it highlights how this exercise is not just about identifying emotions, but also collaboratively finding practical solutions. By focusing on emotional awareness and constructive actions, you’ll help build a supportive environment where your child feels heard, understood, and empowered to tackle future obstacles.

Create Peer Learning Opportunities

You may have heard of how peer learning can benefit older learners, but it can be very effective for younger learners too

On your own, it may not be practical to create a peer learning environment for every subject that your child is taking, but you can start small. For instance, if your child is struggling with composition writing, and so are your neighbour’s children, you can gather everyone for a holiday practice session, and give them a prompt to write a story introduction. You can then read out someone’s introduction, and ask the others to give feedback on what they liked about it, as well as what they might add to it. Remember to give everyone plenty of praise!

This collaborative exercise is not just about improving writing skills. As children engage with each other’s work, they’re cultivating critical thinking by analysing and providing feedback, as well as honing their communication skills. And since you’ll get various responses to the same writing prompt, this cements the understanding that there isn’t a single ‘right’ approach to writing. At the same time, learning together helps to foster a sense of mutual support, so that children can feel less alone in their learning journey.

Worried that your child may be struggling in school? Join the conversation on the KiasuParents forum, where parents discuss ways to help children with their learning challenges.

Mon 23/10/2023