How to help your child bounce back from poor grades

Experts say drilling through assessment papers may be counterproductive as it is more important to examine the mistakes made and get concepts right. Investment company founder Eric Neo takes his children - Sean (above) and Chloe (right) - out individ
Experts say drilling through assessment papers may be counterproductive as it is more important to examine the mistakes made and get concepts right. PHOTO: ST FILE
Investment company founder Eric Neo takes his children - Sean (left) and Chloe (right) - out individually to bond over meals that the kids get to choose. PHOTOS: ERIC NEO

SINGAPORE - As schoolchildren bid farewell this week to an academic year like no other, relief will be tinged with disappointment for some, who may not have scored as well as they had hoped to.

Experts remind parents that a knee-jerk reaction to poorer than expected grades does more harm than good, especially given the academic disruptions during the pandemic.

It is common to find parents putting down their kids or withdrawing all privileges, such as mobile phones and outings with friends, and ramping up tuition during the year-end school holidays as a form of punishment, notes Ms Joselyn Loh, manager of Parenting Support Services at Care Corner Singapore, a non-profit social service agency.

It provides support to parents across 24 schools in Woodlands and Sembawang under a scheme by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

Instead of thinking that their kids did not try hard enough, it is important to delve into the real reason behind the challenges, says Dr Lim Lai Cheng, chairman of the Singapore Positive Education Network (Spen).

"Context, the personality of the child and his/her state of mind matter when we seek approaches to help them overcome setbacks or when we want to motivate them," says Dr Lim, who is also executive director of SMU Academy, the professional training arm of Singapore Management University (SMU), and a fellow in its School of Social Sciences.

She gives three scenarios:

1. The hardworking child

Your child is driven and independent, but unable to meet his or her desired grade, and you do not know why.

Mrs Chan Wai Leng, year head and school staff developer at Geylang Methodist School (Primary), explains that there could be extenuating factors at play. "Often, as parents, we deem low scores as a lack of effort put in by our child. Perhaps this could be a result of the child's learning method, poor time management, teacher's teaching method and external environment that may not lend themselves conducive to his or her deep learning."

In such cases, it is important to celebrate your child's commitment, says Mrs Chan, whose school holds a Parent-Child-Teacher Meet instead of the usual parent-teacher meetings as it believes in giving kids ownership of their learning experience.

Dr Lim of Spen suggests saying something like, "I have seen you put in a lot of effort and I am proud of that", followed by "let's find out where you could do better and we will work at it together".

She explains: "This will give the child a lot more assurance that help is at hand, and that effort is valued."

Ms Loh of Care Corner adds: "Recognise that this is an exceptional year. If the child typically did well pre-Covid-19, understand that it could just be due to the inability to cope with the changes during this period."

Reacting with tough love may backfire, says Ms Tan Su-Lynn, a senior educational psychologist with Promises Healthcare.

Negative attention from parents and teachers can demoralise a usually highly motivated child, which could lead to poor selfesteem and other social-emotional issues in the long term.

It is also important to help your child find something else about school life that he or she enjoys, such as a co-curricular activity or strong friendships, she adds.

2. The smart but playful child

If your child has high ability but low willingness, he or she needs to find meaning and purpose in academic studies, Dr Lim of Spen says.

"Getting down to what makes mathematics interesting or why Chinese is worth studying will help the child see the relevance of what he or she is learning and direct his or her energy to mastering the particular subject. Building fun around the subjects will help, too."

She suggests looking for spontaneous ways to apply what your kids have learnt in school to solve real-world problems.

For instance, at the playground, ask your child how many tiles of a certain size you would need to cover that area to engage him or her in maths. To make mother tongue more relevant, ask him or her to order food at a restaurant or food stall and pay the bill, all while using the language.

3. The undisciplined child

If your kid is not putting in effort and lacks discipline, you are not alone.

Ms Loh of Care Corner recalls having to deal with many desperate parents during the circuit breaker, who did not have routines for their kids and could not cope with home-based learning and working from home.

Dr Lim says children crave boundaries and structure, which builds character and responsibility.

Beyond just setting up a timetable of daily activities and a distraction-free study area, it is useful to break up big tasks into smaller targets - experts call this "scaffolding" - so that your child has frequent breaks and feels an "incremental sense of accomplishment", she adds.

Such extrinsic motivation (satisfaction at achieving a goal) may later turn into intrinsic motivation (studying because they want to do better).

Of course, parents should also look out for learning disabilities in seemingly undisciplined kids, so they can get specialised help early, she says.

Teenagers who lack focus may benefit from goal setting, says Mr Liu Kah Yang, year head of Bartley Secondary School.

He suggests that parents navigate the SkillsFuture portal together with their kids to find out about the professions available based on their children's personality, interests and expectations. This helps them relate their areas of interest to what they learn in school.

Learning from failure

Mr Eric Neo (right) with his wife Karen (left) and children Chloe and Sean. Mr Neo makes it a point to take his two kids out individually about once a month to bond with them. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ERIC NEO

What children need most from their parents during report card season is unconditional love and empathy so they feel empowered to keep going rather than give up, experts say.

Mr Liu of Bartley Secondary says: "The Covid-19 situation has made it a challenging year for everyone. It is thus all the more important for parents to maintain positive relationships with their children so that they continue to feel supported."

He urges parents not to compare their child's performance with others, which "promotes unhealthy competition, and may even result in resentment".

Ms Tan of Promises Healthcare says children also need a safe space to express their feelings about learning difficulties without being judged.

"Listen to them when they are ready to talk, and help them to integrate and connect back to calm themselves down."

Teenagers, in particular, need time and space to process their disappointment, says Ms Loh of Care Corner, so parents should not step in too quickly and should allow them more independence to make decisions.

A robust relationship with your child makes difficult conversations easier, she says, but adds that parents cannot expect results if they do not put in the hard work first.

"It is often said that quality time is more important than quantity. But in our experience of dealing with parent-child relationships, you cannot get quality time without quantity."

One way to build a stronger bond is to "date" your child, says Mr Eric Neo, 46, co-founder and group chief executive officer of investment company RF International Holdings, founder and chairman of finance and technology firm Neo & Partners Global, and director of RF Fund Management.

Besides family outings, he makes it a point to take daughter Chloe, 13, and son Sean, seven, out individually about once a month, where they bond over meals that the kids get to choose.

That "strong communication channel" allows him to have heart-to-heart talks with them, such as the one he had with Chloe when her grades dipped in Term 3 after the circuit breaker.

As she had done well in the first two terms, he told her she had it in her to excel, and that "everybody falls; the key thing is to pick yourself up".

"We don't reprimand. We try to understand and we let them know that we understand the situation, and encourage them to have the grit to improve," he says.

Holiday homework

No child wants to spend his or her school holidays studying, so get your child involved in planning his or her daily schedule, says Mrs Chan of Geylang Methodist School (Primary).

This helps kids learn about responsible decision-making and they will develop ownership of their learning journey, which keeps them motivated.

Drilling through assessment papers may also be counterproductive, she adds, as "it is more important to go through mistakes made, understand why that mistake was made and get the concept right. Doing more does not necessarily help".

Mr Liu of Bartley Secondary says older kids can work out their own learning action plans, while younger ones can choose from options drawn up in consultation with teachers.

"Based on the child's action plan, parents can ask guiding questions such as, 'What do you think you can learn from this and do better?', 'How will you go about doing it?' and 'Who can help you with this?'.

"Such questions promote a growth mindset and can help the child see what he or she can do/change to achieve his or her goals," he says.

Mrs Chan suggests making sure that there is plenty of time for courses or activities your child likes, space to dream and do nothing, as well as opportunities to reconnect as a family.

The long break is also a timely reminder for parents to focus less on marks and more on helping kids make their mark in the world.

As educational psychologist Ms Tan puts it: "Success in life is not just based on school or academic success, but rather on things like having a sense of self-worth, the willingness to ask for and to accept help, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity and to form healthy relationships - values and qualities that are not quantifiable like exam grades."

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