‘It’s not JUST an exam’: Scores matter, but put them in context

Aug 25, 2016 07.00PM |

by Brenda Tan

IT’S that time of the year again. Parents will be working furiously to ensure their children work hard to ace their exams. The more anxious may even take leave from work, or up the number of tuition sessions for mock exam papers to be completed, marked, and corrected. The goal: to get their kids’ scores within the 90-mark zones.

But there’s something a little different this time round.

This exam season, there are more calls for parents to look beyond their children’s grades. There’s even a viral post that started from a school in Kolkata, that has been re-attributed to “a school principal in Singapore”, reminding anxious parents that while they want their children to do well, their children have talents and dreams that may not correlate to scoring well in a school subject that they show little interest in.

It reminds parents that “if your child does get top marks, that’s great! But, if he or she doesn’t, please don’t take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, it’s just an exam!” That “no matter what they score, you love them and will not judge them”, “One exam or a low mark won’t take away their dreams and talent.”

While I agree with the sentiments of the post in principle, I do not think simply telling our kids that their scores don’t matter is the right way to go.

Realistically, if the scores don’t matter, then how would we know that the child has mastered the subject? If the scores don’t matter, then how would we know where the issue is in learning, and where to improve? That the scores matter enough to decide which class, and in the case of the PSLE, which school to go to, it’s disingenuous to tell our children that their scores don’t matter.

That said, it’s important that we help our children to put their scores in context.

If we know our kids have been working hard and have been consistent in getting good grades in school, a one-time bad score would already cause our children distress — it’s not helpful to add our disappointment to theirs by focussing on the grade. How would getting angry with our kids help the situation?

Besides, this is the best opportunity for a lesson in resilience!


1. Help our children talk about how they feel about their result.

Helping our children identify and articulate their emotions is one step forward to helping them take control of their emotions and dealing with disappointments.

They may be feeling guilty in not doing well and disappointing us. They could be feeling angry that the paper was “tricky” and all their hard work was “wasted”. They could be feeling that they are simply stupid and that there’s no point in working hard since they cannot make the grade. Or they might be feeling fear that they’ve lost all hope to go to a “good” class or school.

On our part, we need to help our kids accept that what’s done is done, and while their emotions are natural when we don’t do as well as we expect, we can choose to accept the situation and do something more constructive instead.


2. Help our children review the situation.

What caused that bad grade? Was it a particularly tough question or two? Did he or she misunderstand the question? Was it a situation of bad time management?

Working through that exam paper calmly with our kids and helping them master the areas that they did not get right teaches them that resilience is a matter of review, correction, and being prepared to show mastery the next time they face that same issue.


3. Encourage our children to see where they have done well.

At the Parent-Teacher-Child meeting for my son in primary one last year, his teacher and I didn’t focus on his grades, but we celebrated with my son that he could finally write sentences that consistently had space breaks between words. This fed his confidence to feel that he was doing something right in English, and his attitude towards the subject remained positive.

What could be points of celebration for our children in spite of the poor score? Could it be that they have shown mastery in topics that frustrated them during revision, but they did well for in the exams? Could it be a particularly good phrase they used in their composition? Or for doing consistently well in their Spelling tests throughout the term?

Acknowledging their negative emotions; reviewing the situation and rectifying it; and taking stock of the positives in the bad situation are three steps that can help our kids to build up a lifelong habit in dealing with any failure or disappointment.

I’m reminded of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech this year (Aug 21), where he concluded that his wish for Singapore is to have a “divine discontent” – being not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better – and the “wisdom to count our blessings”.

I already see plenty of both “divine discontent” and “wisdom to count our blessings” in Singaporeans in our wish to better our lives, while counting our blessings.

We just need real opportunities to teach our next generation to follow suit.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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