Parents and teachers often appear to be as stressed and anxious during exam season, as the students appearing for the exams. And the source of anxiety in their case also boils down to the same point, that exam marks are considered to be an objective and uniform external benchmark of a person’s worth. It’s just that in their case they extend the marks to also be an external assessment of their parenting, or of their teaching. If their child does well in an exam parents take it to mean that they have been successful as parents. If their students do well in the exam, teachers take it to mean that they have been successful as teachers.
Yes, parents and teachers play a huge role in how a child performs during an exam. Children want to meet, and often exceed, expectations that are set by their teachers and parents. However, teachers and parents need to be watchful about how they convey these expectations so as to not be unduly pressurizing, thus becoming an added source of stress for the student. Being mindful about a few things when your children or students are preparing for exams may be helpful at this stage.
Firstly, this is not about you. The exams are not a judgment on your parenting. Neither are they a judgment about your teaching. And even if you consider them to be that, that is not the reason the child needs to perform well. The child needs to perform well because he wants to do well. Not because he wants you to feel that you are a good parent or a good teacher. So if you have anxieties around how your child’s performance will reflect on you as a parent or teacher, please deal with those anxieties in another space (maybe by talking to friends or counselors) and do not pass them on to the children. The children have enough of their own to take care of.
Secondly, this is not a final judgment on the child. It is just one of many milestones children have to cross in their life. Just as in a marathon. In a hundred meter sprint, children just have to make a dash and the ultimate goal is to win. There is no time to look left or right. There is no time to enjoy the view. There is no time to trip and stumble. But life is not like that. Life is a marathon and the goal is to complete it successfully, not necessarily to win it. The goal is to take stock of each milestone as it passes by, to enjoy the view, to overcome obstacles, to keep your spirits high and have the energy to complete the run, all the way to the end. We, as parents and teachers, must believe that ourselves first, and then be sure to pass on that message to those in our watch. If a child stumbles along the way, they will get a chance to recover and come back on track to complete the marathon run, provided we allow them to without killing his spirit and his confidence. What are a few small humps in the marathon run of life?
Thirdly, acknowledge effort, not performance. The only variable in the process of studying for an exam that the child can control is the amount of effort they put in. They can’t control what questions will come, or how their paper will get marked, or whether the person who is marking their paper is having a good day or a bad one; neither can they control how other children will do, or whether the paper will leak or the exam will get rescheduled. The only thing they can control is their effort and you want to ensure they do their best.
Keeping this in mind, what are things we should and should not say to our exam-taking children?
“I know you will do well” sets the bar right up there, not allowing for the child to not do well. A more helpful input may be, “Just put in your best effort, that’s all that matters to me.”
“I want you to get a 100% in your paper—I know you can do it.” This is often something teachers say to their well-performing students, as a motivator to encourage them. “Just put in your best and that is all you need to do” may be slightly less pressurizing.
“This exam is very important. Your life depends on it. This is the only chance you have. What will you do with yourself if you don’t do well in this exam.” This is a completely flawed line of reasoning because there is not only one right path in life, or one chance. Making mistakes and encountering failure result in its own learning and growth. It may be more helpful to say, “It is important to do your best and then see what paths open up for you. There is no one right path. You may have a preferred path, but if you can’t go on that path, there will be alternatives that you can explore. People can make a success even of a second-best or third-best choice, because what you make of any choice depends on you. There is nothing right or wrong about any path.”
“If you don’t do well what will your grandparents say,” or “If you don’t do well the Principal will be disappointed in you.” Like I said this is not about you, or others, or society at large. This is about your child being comfortable with their choices and not regretting them later in life. This is about your child believing that they did the best they could to reach their potential, whatever that potential is.
These should give you a general idea about what a helpful vs unhelpful response is. The bottom line is that as parents and teachers we need to acknowledge effort and not performance. We need to make sure our anxieties are not corrupting our line of thinking. And, we need to believe that there is more than one chance in life and more than one definition of success, because there is.