COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: PSLE survival guide for parents and kids during the pandemic

(Clockwise from top left) Mr Mohammad Taufiq, Ms Hurul-A'in, with their daughter Mawar hayyuna and their son Mujir hayyan.
(Clockwise from top left) Mr Mohammad Taufiq, Ms Hurul-A'in, with their daughter Mawar hayyuna and their son Mujir hayyan.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - Mujir Hayyan Mohammad Taufiq may be anxious about sitting the Primary School Leaving Examination this year, but his parents are even more stressed - it is their first experience with the PSLE as both were educated in madrasahs (religious schools).

"As much as we reassure ourselves that it is just like any other year-end exam Hayyan will be sitting, the pressure and stresses do exist," says his mother, Ms Hurul-A'in Mohd Yusoff, 36, principal of a childcare centre.

His father Mohammad Taufiq Mohamed Ismail, 40, manages a mosque. They also have a six-year-old daughter studying in a madrasah.

"However, we always remind ourselves that this is not our examination, it is Hayyan's," says Ms Hurul-A'in, stressing that her 11 1/2-year-old son's mental health is more important than his grades.

Her focus is not misplaced in a year that has seen educational systems across the world shattered by the pandemic, leaving families disoriented and dispirited.

Compared with many countries, Singapore's mainstream schools have been relatively unscathed. National examinations are proceeding, albeit with social distancing protocols and examinable topics trimmed to compensate for home-based learning (HBL) during the two-month-long circuit breaker in April and May.

About 41,000 candidates have registered to take the PSLE this year, says a Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board spokesman.

Some mums and dads are striving to support their 12-year-olds with gestures of encouragement and inspiration during this unusual school year. Experts also urge parents to ensure that their kids get enough rest and to remind them that they are more than their T-score.

A look at the calls to Tinkle Friend, a befriending service for primary school children run by the Singapore Children's Society charity, reveals the trajectory of PSLE concerns during the pandemic.

The number of PSLE-related calls and chats rose from 28 in April at the start of the circuit breaker to an average of 77 a month in June and July, before falling to 57 last month, says Ms Leela Narayana, assistant director of Student Service at the Children's Society.

In the earlier months, she says PSLE kids were worried that they would not be adequately prepared because of the many disruptions. Some felt less motivated to study during HBL and others were frustrated at being deprived of play time.

 
 

"Most children were also fearful that they would not be able to meet their parents', teachers' and personal expectations," she adds.

However, most students seem to have adapted to the new pandemic norms and the return to classroom learning, she says.

As such, the nature of more recent calls mirrored concerns from previous years, including study distractions, anxiety over poor grades, self-esteem and physical health issues, as well as tips on time and stress management.

The many educational disruptions this year have also left some parents and children worried about the chances of getting into their schools of choice, says Ms Tan Su-Lynn, a senior educational psychologist with Promises Healthcare.

These included the scrapping of mid-year examinations and changes to how schools pick students for the Direct School Admission, a scheme where talented children receive early admission into certain secondary schools and junior colleges.

She adds that parents are also uncertain about the safety of their children during the examinations, and some are fearful about their kids falling ill before their papers.

In addition, examination anxiety may make it difficult for some children to breathe while wearing masks or face shields, which adds to their stress levels.

SEEING THE POSITIVES

While transitioning to HBL was nerve-racking for many families, some parents say they are grateful for its positive aspects.

"We kind of enjoy the part where we can both sleep a bit later and me not having to rush her to eat and change for school," says stay-at-home mum Chew Swee Sien, 46, whose daughter Seah Ern Ting, 12, is sitting the national examination.

As this is her second time as a PSLE parent - she has a son in Secondary 3 - she is "very relaxed" about the process and makes sure that both her children enjoy outings and have time for play and hobbies.

When Ern Ting was nervous before her Chinese oral examination in the middle of last month, Ms Chew encouraged her by telling her to "just do whatever you can" if she was given an unfamiliar topic and acknowledging the girl's preparation efforts, sealing it with a big kiss.

Such acts of appreciation go a long way in inspiring revision-weary kids.

Xavier Chua, 12, was chuffed to receive a PSLE survival kit from his mother just before his oral examination last month.

Inside the brightly decorated box, he found his favourite snacks and a note of encouragement for his hard work over the last eight months. "I felt very touched because mummy took time and effort to make the kit for me. I thanked her and gave her a big squeeze," Xavier says.

His mother, stay-at-home mum and blogger Serene Seah, 38, says she learnt of the idea from a friend.

"It is not all about the final result. The need to recognise the efforts along the journey is equally important to fuel him emotionally to keep him going and put in his best performance," she explains.

Similarly, Hayyan's parents have engaged him in meaningful ways, including nature walks to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Upper Peirce Reservoir Park as he likes trekking.

Ms Hurul-A'in made his favourite dishes, such as sotong masak hitam (black-ink squid), even though the childcare centre she heads was still operating during the circuit breaker, while Mr Mohammad Taufiq gave him a jersey from his favourite football team, Manchester United.

"I was ecstatic," Hayyan says of the gift he received last week.

At the same time, he is mindful of the faith his parents have in his abilities. "I know that I need to do much better (than now) for my PSLE and I believe I can."

A lucky few children seem to have struck the perfect balance during the pandemic, enjoying their last year of childhood while keeping up with the demands of the PSLE timetable.

Damien Soon, 11 1/2, treasures his two hours of play a day, which he spends swimming, playing football or taking walks with his friends or family. The prolific young artist also had time to dabble in his passion daily during the circuit breaker, although this has been reduced to two to three times a week since school resumed in June.

Even with tuition in two subjects, he declares: "I'm not very stressed."

 
 

His stay-at-home mother Denise Gay, 46, thinks parents rather than schools determine the level of PSLE pressure their children experience. She has a younger son in Primary 3.

"Of course, we want him to go to his first choice of school, but it's about his attitude. (I tell him) if you want to go to School A, you know the cutoff point and you just have to work towards it," she says.

She adds that she does not believe in nagging him incessantly to study or doing anything special, as she feels that there is too much emphasis on the national examination.

"Once the paper is finished, we don't talk about it anymore. We move on."

Other parents like Ms Seah are consciously winding down their children's stress levels in the last lap before the written papers from Oct 1 to 7.

Cognisant of her son Xavier's mental health, she plans to give him a "cooling-off period" the week before.

Instead of assigning more assessment work, she will take him through incorrect questions done previously and allow him to continue attending his swim training sessions. She has also taught him brain mind relaxation techniques to de-stress.

Xavier is grateful that some topics from mathematics and science have been removed from the PSLE papers as it relieves some of the academic pressure he felt earlier this year.

"There are fewer topics to revise and it gave me more time to focus on others. The chances of such a situation happening would probably be one in a million," he says.

"But I wish Covid-19 would end soon so that I can spend time travelling with my family again."

PSLE EXAM PREP GUIDE FOR PARENTS

It has been a "trying and volatile year" for parents and children, says Ms Ann Hui Peng, group lead of the Children Development Group at the Singapore Children's Society charity.

Agreeing, says Ms Tan Su-Lynn, a senior educational psychologist with Promises Healthcare, notes that in addition to stress of taking the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), some kids may also be disappointed about "missing important experiences", including graduation celebrations, sporting competitions and drama productions.

Both experts suggest ways for families to cope in the final lap of the PSLE journey.

CELEBRATE GRIT

"Reframe the pandemic experience into an inspiring learning journey for yourself and your child," says Ms Ann. "Remind the children that they were able to adjust and adapt well to the pandemic challenges, and they, too, can show the same level of resilience and strength in overcoming exams stress."

AVOID LAST-MINUTE CRAMMING

Pushing extra classes and assessment books on your child are counterproductive. Involve your kid in drawing up a realistic timetable for revision and factor in time for adequate rest and play, Ms Ann says. "A child who is well-rested and content will be able to concentrate better and is less likely to get distracted."

SUPPORT THEM NO MATTER WHAT

The PSLE is a milestone in a Singaporean child's life, but it is not the end point, Ms Ann stresses. It is important that your kid knows you will be his or her rock no matter what the T-score.

"Your promise of support will help them manage their excessive inner fear of disappointing you," she says.

Ms Tan adds that parents must keep communication open. "Children pick up on the worries of their parents and of people around them, so they may be more moody or irritable which are common symptoms of stress."

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

"You can't pour from an empty cup," Ms Tan says. "As a parent, it is easy to forget about your own needs while trying to support your children. You will be in a better position and have more control to support them if you are well. Children also do learn from the adults around them on how to handle stress and how to engage in self-care."

Practise self-compassion and don't be too hard on yourself, make sure you are getting enough shut-eye, eating regular meals and moving your body, she adds.

She suggests modelling "healthy coping strategies" such as checking in on your emotions. Notice them without judging yourself and it will help you to determine if you can keep going, need a time out, or should seek professional help.