If parents are already stressed out, what about the children?
On a Saturday morning, I greeted a neighbour, “Have a happy weekend!”
“It’s a sad weekend,” he replied unexpectedly before going on to explain,
“The children are having a grilling time preparing for examinations.”
My neighbour’s daughter was one of nearly forty thousand twelve-year-old children taking the national examination, Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in Singapore this year. His words reminded me that PSLE was around the corner at the third week of September.
PSLE is widely perceived as a one-time life-changing event that greatly affects children’s future. Parents with children taking PSLE do get jittery. Many parents will take leave from work and some even resign from work to support their children in preparing for the examination.
I overheard a mother complaining to a friend how stressed out she felt. Her complaint drew a blunt remark from her friend,
“Your child is the one taking the exam, not you. If parents are already stressed out, how are children going to take it?”
Is the stress real or imagined?
People who are unfamiliar with the Singapore education system probably cannot fully grasp what makes the PSLE so stressful. At one glance of the statistics, nearly every student passes and advances to secondary schools. With only a meagre 2% of the cohort failing, onlookers may be forgiven to think the fear for PSLE is more imagined than real.
The devil is in the details. Children are pigeon-holed into different academic streams according to their PSLE results, which directly affects their chances of gaining admission to the preferred national universities in the long run. And a difference of one point in the PSLE aggregate score may cost children to miss the cut-off point for admission to the premier schools they covet. A less-than-expected performance at PSLE inevitably brings big disappointment to parents who have done whatever they could to support their children. Most detrimentally, it is not a blow that every twelve year old student is ready to deal with.
A friend X told me, “My daughter was utterly shocked to receive her PSLE score four years ago. She cannot go to the same secondary schools with her better-performing friends. Overnight, the world she knew collapsed. My daughter felt she was not good enough compared to peers. Her self-esteem never quite recovered since. And it got worse over the years. At sixteen now, she starts questioning why she has to go to school since she is not cut for studies.”
By many measures, Singapore is highly regarded for having one of the best public education systems in the world for producing a large pool of academically excellent children. But the deafening voice of promoting meritocracy has drowned the voices of those whose self esteem has been scarred . It is only of late that it dawns upon the ministry of education to abolish, in five years’ time, the streaming of students.
What matters most is always the child!
Knowing that my friend X has another daughter taking PSLE this year, I wondered what I could do to assuage her anxiety. Immediately, I shared with her a thoughtful message written by a well-meaning teacher to her primary-six student,
“You are about to sit for your first major examination. I know you are getting the jitters so in the midst of all this, I want to tell you that this test does not assess all that makes you special and dear to heart.
The people who scored these tests do not know how creative you are. They have not seen how well you design or draw. They have not seen how great you are at coming up with games, improvising them to entertain and amuse your friends. They do not know how confident you are when speaking in a large group. They have no idea how you have always been a teacher’s trusted helper, handling every task assigned well.
The scores that you get in this examination will tell you of how you did that day but not everything about you. They will not tell you how you have improved on something that you felt was once difficult. Neither will they tell you of how you had shown resilience in this examination and pulled through.
Whatever it is, it will not make you any less than who you really are… ”
I was moved. The thing that matters most is never the results, but the child. And my friend X was also nearly brought to tears after reading this heartfelt message. She said, “This teacher is so thoughtful and wise. She makes me want to write a similar personal message to my daughter!”
I hope more parents and teachers would do the same!
Be prepared for the unexpected results
Last year, a few weeks after the PSLE examination, I thought there was a need to have a conversation with my then twelve year old son, Conan, about the impending release of the results.
“We all hope for the best. But we must also be prepared for the worst.” I prefaced the topic before asking Conan, “So, what’s your prediction?”
“Well, I hope to get a score of 260. I guess it will be alright if I get 250s.” Conan spoke carefully as he made his prediction. Then he mischievously changed his tone, “But if I get 240s, that is definitely a no-no! I don’t wish to get a lower PSLE score than you did.”
I laughed at his remark before correcting his view,
“Do you know that the PSLE score is computed by a formula that compares your marks against all other students in Singapore?” That means even if you have done well enough, but everyone else is doing better, you may still end up with a lower score than you expected.”
Conan frowned. I took a jibe at him,
“Well, it’s a possibility. You didn’t push yourself as hard as some of your classmates did. Did you not say so yourself?”
Conan disagreed with a cheeky smile, “Pushing hard is a bad idea. A balance of work and play is always important to do well in exams. ”
“Let’s hope you are right. My point is to be prepared for unexpected results.” I said before adding,
“At best, you will get to be happy for a few days. Or at worst, you go to a secondary school that you least expect. It’s not a big deal…”
Before my sentence could finish, my wife abruptly stopped me, “Oh please, stop saying things that may jinx my son’s good fortune!”
After the results were out, my wife gleefully called to tell me the good news. Clearly, my words did not bring my son any bad luck.
Examination stress may leave a lasting impact on a person
Even in adulthood, I have had occasional nightmares about making a frantic search for the correct examination hall. Those nightmares started from the time I took the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A -level in abbreviation) at eighteen years old. I am not sure how many children can handle exam stress well at a vulnerable age of twelve.
Examination stress may leave a lasting impact on a person. I think it’s still better to prepare our children for the unexpected results, don’t you agree?
Finally, I wish to say a big Thank You for spreading my messages. We hit more than 2300 views for the previous article! That was a big encouragement to me.
William W K Tan
4 October 2019, Friday
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