Oh, dear. You’ve supported your child as best you can through their exams. Now, after a couple of months of uncertainty (but during which time you all agreed there’s nothing any of you can do about it so you might as well try to relax) it’s time for the results.
Isn't it odd that the exams with the greatest impact are the ones we fret about the most? SATs, GCSEs and A-Levels - when it's our kids' time to take those, we're all about encouraging phrases and platitudes. We absolve them of their household chores so that they can devote their time to studying and exam prep. We may even hire a tutor to give our students a bit of an edge.
None of that is unusual or even bad; we're just giving them the support and nurturing they need.
It’s human nature to hope for – even fantasise about winning or just standing out from the crowd. Even the least talented students - those who have no inclination to study dream of getting good exam results. Not necessarily so that their future will be assured but simply because good marks are a testament to their worth as a person.
So what can you say when your child’s results are lower than expected, needed or, even worse, if they’ve failed completely?
Let your Superprof give you food for thought and a few talking points you might build your consolation speech around.
Why Kids Fail Exams
Blaming the Department for Education for having high standards, the exam for being too difficult, the examiners for being too rigid or your child for being a poor student are quick, easy ways to dismiss a snapshot of your kids' academic performance. Doing so cheats you and your student out of introspection and a chance for personal growth.
We don't learn about ourselves in moments of triumph; in failure, we discover who we are.
It's not mere happenstance that your child did poorly. Something - maybe several factors contributed to this poor showing; shouldn't we find out what they might be?
Surely, by the time your learner sits their GCSEs, you will know whether they have special educational needs, right? That's true in most cases but have you considered that s/he might also suffer from test anxiety?
This particular brand of performance anxiety may affect any student, from Early Years to PhD candidates. Its symptoms range from mild - that 'butterflies in the stomach' feeling to debilitating physical ills such as vomiting, migraines, accelerated heart rate and fainting.
Every student feels some level of nervousness before any major exam - especially ones as life-defining as GCSEs are but, if that anxiety causes your kids to lose sleep and their appetite, get headaches and and heart palpitations, you may want to talk with them about test anxiety.
Should you, indeed, feel that this psychological condition may afflict your child, you should talk with a mental health professional for strategies on how to deal with it well ahead of exam time.
Kids - teenagers, especially, tend to be blasé about their feelings; they may come off as large and in charge when, in fact, they're far less confident than they make themselves out to be.
You likely remember from your school days how intense and destabilising peer pressure and social competition can be. Today, with every teenager having their own social media account, being terrorised by your classmates can - and often does happen 24/7.
'Terrorised' might be a bit strong but, if you've ever been on the receiving end of a bully's ministrations, you're probably nodding your head in full agreement right now.
Unfortunately, you can't simply stick something in your child's ear to take their emotional temperature and find out where they're at. You have to be a bit of a sleuth; looking for subtle signs that all is not well with the way your children see themselves.
Hopefully, you have a good working relationship with their teacher, who might fill you in on behaviours that might indicate self-confidence issues.
Typically, GCSE students select at least 8 subjects for examination.
It would make sense for them to choose only those topics that s/he likes or does well in but that strategy is very short-sighted. Most employers want to see a good cross-section of academic subjects in job candidates' GCSE results: a few sciences, a few humanities, a few extra subjects... and that's on top of the compulsory Maths, English and Science exams.
Eight exams to prepare for, some of them in less-favoured subjects, is overwhelming.
First, the student might feel s/he can put off studying; after all, exams are months away, right? And then, the week before their scheduled test dates, it's cram, cram, cram... all night long!
This is a poor study strategy. The point of studying is to absorb and retain knowledge, not cram it into your fuzzy head until time to regurgitate it in the test centre.
Making a study schedule and sticking with it, using study tools such as mind maps, flashcards and past papers, and giving equal time and attention to each subject, no matter their level of interest are just a few study strategies you might develop before the next round of test-taking.
If you need a bit of help putting an effective strategy together, a Superprof academic coach will get you on the right track.
In the previous sub-header, we mentioned the illusion of time; how exams are so far into the future that, like the proverbial grasshopper, you student is left scrambling to get ready for them after months of whiling the days away.
Time management is a skill that far too many people lack. Perhaps we resent being hostage to a host of obligations and want to take free time when we can, even if we have to pay a price for it later. Unfortunately, it escapes most of us that, if we managed our time better, we would have more of it to do what we want.
If adults have trouble learning that lesson, how well do you think kids might internalise it?
In the months before the exams, you and your child might sit down together and hammer out a plan: review three subjects one evening, three the next and two on the third night. Repeat that cycle and take the seventh day off from studying. Even allowing for 50 minutes of study time and 10-minute breaks between subjects, the evening's work would be done by 9:00PM at the latest.
An hour on the computer or watching the telly, and it's off to bed by 10:00PM, for a good night's sleep!
Managing your time doesn't mean you are a slave to the clock. It's quite the opposite: you're devising your freedom from it. And the most beneficial side effect is the feeling of confidence as you take control of your circumstances.
Public education is supposed to be free - and, to be perfectly fair, it is.
What costs is everything that goes into making the most of one's shot at education: quality study materials, the resources to diversify one's learning experience - anything from extra classes and private tutoring to trips to museums, the library and computer applications that could expand students' learning opportunities.
When it comes to passing exams, a whole host of factors come into play, including household finances.
Some students live with food and housing insecurity. Others' parents have no money in their budget for enrichment activities - art workshops or music lessons; some do not have the resources to broaden their children's horizons by taking a trip to another country.
The household's financial position impacts students materially, emotionally and intellectually. Exam boards take into account students with special needs but make no distinction between the economically disadvantaged and those who are better positioned.
It's no wonder that, statistically, wealthier students perform better on assessments than their less-fortunate counterparts.
Other reasons why kids fail exams include:
- lack of interest - they simply have no desire to study and/or no passion for their subject matter
- procrastination - putting off studying falls under the time management umbrella
- perseverance - initially keen to learn, the long wait for assessment day weakens resolve
- overconfidence - "I don't need to study, I've got this in the bag!"
- distraction - phones, friends, food... always something more enticing than those musty books...
- poor/improper study materials: anything from illegible notes to the wrong exam board's marking schemes
The takeaway is that kids fail exams for a variety of reasons; sometimes because there are graver underlying issues that have to be dealt with. Rather than glossing over poor marks, try to find out why s/he earned them.
What Not to Do
The long wait is over; the results are in.
The whole game has changed now. You’ve shifted from the irritating parent who doesn’t understand to the supportive parent who is much-needed and who must provide comfort, solace and direction.
How you talk to your child will depend on the level of failure and the academic year they are in.
For example, you wouldn't talk to a child facing poor GSCE or lower-than-needed A Level results the same way you would address end-of-year exams for younger or higher-education students.
However, the general ethos is the same. Hopefully. these tips can help you through this difficult time.
Don’t Get Angry or Show Disappointment
Easier said than done, to be sure, but sorrow and disparagement will not help the situation. Besides, it's likely your learner is already mad enough and disappointed enough in him/herself; burdening them with your grief would be counterproductive. Take this tack, instead.
You can’t change what’s happened; you can only move forward with positive and constructive support.
If your child gets abusive or violent or angry, try to defuse the situation and help them realise that the past is in the past and it needs to ‘go on holiday’ while you consider the future.
You could introduce some well-known success stories into the discussion. Sir Richard Branson, arguably one of Britain’s greatest ever (and among the most down-to-earth) business success stories, is keen to help others realise that failure to achieve many things is inevitable if you’re ever going to achieve anything worthwhile.
“Every person”, he says, “and especially every entrepreneur, should embrace failure with open arms. It is only through failure that we learn. Many of the world’s finest minds have learned this the hard way…”
Richard cites one of his favourite ‘failure’ quotes as Henry Ford, who said: “One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again.”
These are wise words indeed – trying again, but more intelligently – from the founder of the Ford Motor Company and innovator of mass production on an assembly line.
You want fries with that?
This 'joke' is meant to describe one who is so inept, the only job s/he can hope to have is at McDonald's. It started in the US, where working at the Golden Arches is considered poor work. Surely, no one with a decent education would settle for asking customers "Do you want fries with that?" all day long, right?
Put-downs, even supposedly funny ones like this will deal a devastating blow to your child's ego. Instead, as we mentioned before, highlight influential figures - Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Carey Mulligan - all of whom failed at school but succeeded in life.
Experts advise that parents should not compare their child with any other – no-one in the class or friendship group and certainly not a sibling. A parent’s lot is to understand that every individual is different and everyone has different strengths.
Being compared is torture for us adults. It’s even worse for teenagers, whose hormones and emotions are all over the place.
What You Should Do and Say
Well, if snarky is off the table and sugarcoating isn't advised, what's left?
We’re past anger and defiance, what we have now are despair and disappointment. So what your child needs is your care and love and, above all, support. Don’t wrap it up in syrup and tell your child it doesn’t matter; talk with them about what happened and about their options.
As you did before the failing grade landed, watch out for any signs of distress (solitude, changed behaviours - including eating habits, angst). Should you see any such signs, encourage them away from their downward spiral by taking their mind off the exam results.
You might encourage physical activity or promote an outing they enjoy, such as a trip to the beach, the shopping centre, the park. You may treat them to a new game or gadget, if the funds allow.
Splashing the cash isn’t a long-term solution but it can help to snap a teenager out of the doldrums and make them sit up and think.
Trying again is always an option, through resits next year. You may not even have to wait that long, depending on the subject. Students may resit English and Maths GCSEs during the spring and autumn exam cycles.
Before jumping on the resit bandwagon, you should evaluate the situation.
How hard did your student try to pass this exam? Is that subject one they're good in? Would it be better to consider a different subject to test in or could s/he make a go of it by taking a different approach to revising?
Maybe it would be better to consider an apprenticeship or, in the case of A-Level students, entering the workforce but carrying on studying if they want to achieve higher education.
A lot of people do that! Some pass their A-Levels and enrol in university while working part-time and studying for their degree in the evenings.
Tips to Prevent Exam Failure
Whatever decisions you make together, it’s important to track how well your child fares.
Whether it’s resits or a change of course in a new and promising direction, you must watch over their mental and physical well-being, as well as their academic progress. For parents, it's their duty to help their child recover from failures in school or college examinations and prepare them to face difficult situations at different stages of their life.
If you and your child decide that trying again would be the best course of action, consider how you can do it differently.
Given the site you’re reading this article on, online tutoring is an obvious suggestion. Tuition online is often less expensive than face to face lessons and, if you engage a Superprof, you're likely to benefit from a few cost incentives.
Did you know that most Superprofs offer their first hour of lessons at no charge?
Tutoring can boost your child's confidence and make a massive difference to exam results. By bringing about a change of approach to studying, extra tuition sheds light on points which the student finds particularly hard.
Personal anecdote: My father engaged an accountancy tutor for me when I was studying for my degree in business studies. Without that tutor, I would have failed my entire degree.
That personal glimpse goes to show that, as a parent, you are more likely to understand what your child needs and make things happen for them, even if they don't recognise the need themselves.
Modern living can be competitive, particularly in the UK but also in the US, China and many other countries.
As a parent, you have to prepare your children for future competition on the jobs market by conditioning them for exam success and failure today. You also have to instil in them the basic values which will help them uphold their strength, courage and morals – through failure and success.
What do you think?