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WHAT TO SAY – AND NOT SAY – WHEN EXAM RESULTS ROLL IN BY JENNY ANDERSON

  • 20 June 2024

Exam season can be a lot to bear. Kids are stressed and tired, and we, as parents, feel frazzled. We worry about their stress and the results. How could we not? The world is competitive, and grades, or marks, matter. We want our kids to have as many options as possible.

But our own test is how we react to the results when they arrive. Whether we’re thrilled because they knocked it out of the park or despairing because they couldn’t get their act together to study, exams offer us a rare opportunity to show children they matter for who they are, not just how they perform.

It’s a test that our parents only sometimes pass.

Thomas Curran, an assistant professor of psychological and behavioural sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has documented the rise in perfectionism among young people. He finds it alarming because perfectionism is associated with many negative mental health outcomes. When he dug into the causes behind the increase, he found that rising parental expectations and criticism—having high standards kids feel they cannot meet—play a big role.

Curran doesn’t blame parents. He sees a system that demands a lot of kids, and kids and parents are striving to meet it. But when expectations outpace what kids feel they can do, parental stress makes it worse, not better.

Exams are an ideal time for parents to show that it’s a process and not just the outcome that matters. We have a chance to convey three things:

  • Kids are worth way more than just their grades.
  • Grades measure academic performance, an essential but narrow measure of what it means to be a good human.
  • Effort takes guts.”

Children only have little shoulders, and they carry this burden. Our job is not to add weight to that burden,” says Liam Cullinan, principal of Nord Anglia International School Abu Dhabi.

Here’s how best to handle good news and bad news.

The praise

Praise should come with more than just the A*s, 9s, high 40s, and 5s (all top GCSE, IB, and AP marks). It should also go to kids who put in the time and effort and those who improve.

“Effort takes courage,” says John Miller, head of school at Eton School Mexico. It’s being vulnerable as opposed to just discounting and ignoring the work.” Many kids don’t try because it’s better not to try and fail than to try, fail, and feel inadequate.

Exams are designed to test knowledge and measure progress. When kids make gains, celebrate them.

“I believe education is about reducing the gap between your current performance and your future potential,” Miller says.

Praise progress, not just exceptional outcomes.

Another benefit to focusing on effort more than outcomes is that kids have way more control over it.

Research shows that kids are praised for their efforts, for trying harder, and for persisting with tasks longer than those praised for being “smart.” The “effort” kids have a growth mindset marked by resilience and a thirst for mastery; the “smart” ones can have a fixed mindset, believing intelligence to be innate and not malleable. These kids often want to play it safe, shying away from potential failure.

The disappointment

Let’s say your child tried hard but fell short. They are devastated. Your job is to be there with them and wrap a blanket of love around them, says Cullinan from Nord Anglia Abu Dhabi.

Lisa Damour, a psychologist and best-selling author, discusses how to counsel kids who get bad news, to be there with them and stay calm. She suggests saying something like, “This did not go down the way you wanted it to go down, and because we love you and we want you to have what you want, we’re going to be disheartened on your behalf.” Just be disappointed alongside them.

The goal is not to fix the situation or fix your child. It’s to be there for a challenging moment and reassure them that they’ll get through it. Exams are not the measure of a human—they are the measure of an essential but narrow set of academic standards. This result will not ruin their future. It might alter it, but that’s life. The key is that you have their back and will help them get through it.

Cullinan recounted the story of a stressed Year Eight student who had just gotten a 64% on an exam. The student was visibly upset and said he needed to call his mom, who would be disappointed in him. Cullinan tried a different narrative: he focused on the areas for improvement rather than the result. He told the student: “Good! So, there’s only 36% left to win!” His choice of words and demeanour communicated that all was not lost; there was plenty of room for growth. “It’s all a dress rehearsal,” he says.

Cullinan holds up his hand and uses his three fingers to make his point. “Every kid’s got a talent, every kid’s got skill, every kid’s got a knowledge base. And for every child, in between the fingers, there’s a vulnerability, and our job as parents and as schools is to work together to celebrate the strengths and acknowledge where the vulnerability lies, and then support the child in growing.” Some of those will be academic, but there will also be other strengths to see and encourage.

 The teaching moment

Your kid wanted to study but kept finding many other fun things to do. Video games. Friends. Sports. Social media. They get poor marks, and you are chomping at the bit to:

  • Say, ‘I told you so.’
  • Demand they confess the error of their ways
  • Punish them

Do none of the above.

They will probably feel the sting of disappointment. Let them. Hug them or reassure them. “I can see you’re disappointed.” Leave it at that.

The teaching moment is not when the bad news rolls in. It is when their emotions (and yours) have settled, their defences are down, and there is space to have a conversation about study habits, planning, and what they might do differently next time.

“If there’s an area to improve, it’s a separate conversation for another day,” says Miller from Eton. “The action plan comes later.”

Remember, they are people very much in formation. How we react shapes how they are formed. Our job is to communicate potential.

You messed this up, but you can do better next time.

You should have put in the hours, but next time you can.

You misjudged how much you knew. This is a great data point for when you study for your next test and feel confident you’ve got it in the bag.

“Parents cannot allow a single exam or a set of exams to define the child,” says Miller.

We know they are more than a set of grades, and exam results time is the best time to show that.