Fretting over big exams in a time of Covid-19

Parents worry about how well home-based learning is preparing their children for national examinations such as the PSLE, but experts say mental well-being is more important during this time

The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented academic changes, leaving parents worried about whether their children are sufficiently prepared for national examinations this year.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented academic changes, leaving parents worried about whether their children are sufficiently prepared for national examinations this year. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO
Ms Adele Leong took a six-month break from work in August last year to spend more time with her daughter Carolyn Puah Neo (both above), who is taking the Primary School Leaving Examination this year.
Ms Adele Leong took a six-month break from work in August last year to spend more time with her daughter Carolyn Puah Neo (both above), who is taking the Primary School Leaving Examination this year. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ADELE LEONG

When schools across Singapore put their students on full home-based learning (HBL) on April 8 as part of the circuit breaker measures, Ms Adele Leong remembers the wide-eyed look of hope in her daughter Carolyn's eyes.

"Are they going to be postponing the PSLE or cancelling it? How are we going to sit the exams now schools are closed?" she recalls her 11-year-old asking.

Ms Leong, 44, is one of many parents grappling with the unprecedented academic changes the coronavirus pandemic has brought.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) cancelled all mid-year examinations, but is still proceeding with national ones such as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), as well as the N, O and A levels, as it says these are "major milestones" and it does not want to disadvantage graduating students.

"Technically, it's not my first time doing the PSLE, but since the circumstances are so different, I might as well say it's my first time because it's hard to expect what's to come," says Ms Leong, managing director of South-east Asia for OnTheList, which offers weekly flash sales of luxury brands to its members. She also has a son in Secondary 2 and another daughter in Primary 2.

While scrapping mid-year examinations has lifted a weight off most families with school-going kids, it has "taken away a key marker for us to do a check for the PSLE", she says.

And with schools given the freedom to conduct HBL as they deem fit, some with more online learning that resembles actual school lessons, and others with more offline work, parents have been comparing notes.

Mr Ben Ong, 48, points out that with such different approaches to HBL, it is inevitable that "the understanding and the progress" of children in different schools will vary.

His daughter Natasha, 11, is hoping to get into an Integrated Programme (IP) school, using mathematics via direct school admission, but "she's worried she doesn't have the adequate understanding of her work to be able to do well", says the director of operations at Marina Bay Sands.

Ms Casuarina Peck, 53, whose kids are taking the A levels this year, has also noticed the differences.

Her daughter Rachel, 20, who studies at Millennia Institute, has more online lessons which include group discussions and short tasks, while her son Joshua, 17, who is in Hwa Chong Institution, has more paper-based work.

  • Eight ways to help your child

  • "We can't control the virus or how long this will last, but we can control our thoughts, actions and activities," says Dr Sanveen Kang, principal clinical psychologist at Psych Connect, a specialist psychology clinic.

    She and the experts at MindChamps, which runs enrichment programmes for children up to age 12, offer these tips for parents with children in critical examination years.

    1. Support your child in managing his or her expectations and developing realistic study schedules.

    2. Help your child adopt healthy lifestyle habits, such as eating a balanced diet and staying physically active, even while stuck indoors. Try working out together as a family - for example, hold regular family Zumba workouts.

    3. Ensure that your child has adequate sleep. A lack of shut-eye will leave him or her feeling tired and he or she may not recall information well.

    4. Manage your expectations of online learning platforms and consider developing a support group of parents from your children's classes. While these platforms are new to you, they have been widely used in the past and shown to be effective, for example, in distance-learning programmes.

    5. Recognise that you are learning new skills too. Be gentle and kind with yourself and your child. Focus on the skills your children are learning on this journey rather than the end result.

    6. Use the full home-based learning time to bond with your children, as a strong relationship is the foundation for school success.

    7. Focus on the positives. Children do their best when they have emotional support from their parents..

    8. Encourage your child to keep a daily journal. This will hone his or her writing skills and help him or her develop a more reflective mindset.

"The overall question in our minds is how can the teachers continue to monitor the kids? How are they going to prepare the kids sufficiently for the A levels, in my case?" says Ms Peck, who runs a corporate communications consultancy.

Home-based learning also presents a host of challenges, such as "maintaining good learning schedules, sharing spaces and being mindful of boundaries", notes Dr Sanveen Kang, principal clinical psychologist at Psych Connect, a specialist psychology clinic.

For example, an older child may need a quiet space to study while the younger sibling is playing loudly.

The experts at MindChamps, which offers enrichment programmes for children up to age 12, add: "At home, students will naturally feel more relaxed and comfortable, while at school, they are more geared towards learning, listening, absorbing information and active participation."

This is why parents should empower their children to take charge of their own learning, they say. This means encouraging the kids to take the initiative and contact their teachers to clarify doubts.

Some parents, like Ms Leong, find themselves relying more on tutors to fill the learning gaps during this period of HBL. Her daughter Carolyn has had home tuition in all four subjects since Primary 4, as she is a competitive dancer who spends six to seven hours a week on dance lessons and another 30 minutes to an hour daily on her own practice. She plans to apply to the School of the Arts.

"That's a good substitution now that she doesn't have much face-to-face with her school teachers," Ms Leong says of the one-to-one remote tuition done through Zoom. "The home tutors step in to play that role to make sure at least she's on track for her revision."

In a Facebook post last Tuesday when the circuit breaker was extended by another four weeks, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said: "HBL is a fallback when schools are suspended. It cannot be a prolonged substitute for school."

To give everyone "a break from this intense period", MOE has brought forward the June school holidays to May 5 and rescheduled the GCE-level mother tongue examinations from early June to later in the month. It will also remove common last topics from the national examinations to "further allay students' concerns and anxiety about catching up with the curriculum".

Mr Ong added in his post that graduating cohorts will be allowed back in school for "face-to-face consultation and coaching when the national situation improves".

While parents are fretting and kids are sweating over the national examinations, Dr Kang cautions: "The current situation is more challenging due to the toll it is taking mentally and emotionally."

Parents should look out for signs of heightened anxiety in children, she adds. These include being extra clingy or weepy, regressive behaviour, having tantrums or meltdowns, being irritable, having difficulty concentrating, and changes in sleeping or eating habits.

"Rather than focusing on the behaviour, I would encourage parents to focus on the emotions that underlie it," she says.

Building mental resilience, she says, helps children feel in control of the situation.

The experts at MindChamps echo this. "When parents focus on the positives, no matter how simple they may be (like remembering a mathematical formula they were not able to previously), it will help children feel assured that their parents are there for them as pillars of support."

There are also upsides to this current hunkering down worth appreciating.

Ms Peck, who is "not panicking yet" since the A-level papers are scheduled for the end of the year, appreciates the upside of working and studying at home as a family.

"It gives us more time to chit-chat, check on them, see if they're struggling. Sometimes, we wave at their friends online. That actually lightens the whole atmosphere, instead of it being too intense," she says.

Ms Leong, who took a six-month break from work in August last year to spend more time with her daughter, concurs.

"Her mental well-being takes precedence," she says. "So we still tell her, at the end of the day, it's the process. We want her to really go through the process of putting in the effort and learning about self-discipline and time management, and the result for us is secondary."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline 'Fretting over big exams in a time of Covid-19'. Subscribe