Monday, May 11, 2009

How to set targets without demoralising your child

For most primary school kids, last week and this week are exam weeks. Which means we have lots of stressed out kids and even more stressed out parents. When I was revising with Andre the day before his English exam, he wrote "John is worser than Jane" and for dictation, he wrote "the bright and groom..." and couldn't see why I was having a fit.

Anyway, this post is about targets. Many parents set targets for their kids for exams (or get the kids to set targets for themselves.) I believe this is a good practice as it gives your child something concrete to aim for, instead of an ambiguous "just try your best". But in setting targets, I've found that many parents completely miss the mark, ironically.

Targets communicate your expectations for results based on your child's ability and potential. They should therefore be achievable and reasonable. I've heard of parents who tell their kids they have to get 100% for every subject in their exams. This is just crazy. Even if it were achievable (yes, for some super kid, this might be!), it's just not reasonable. If that's not bad enough, there's sometimes a negative impetus attached to the target, ie if the child doesn't achieve this target, she will be punished for it.

This is akin to your boss telling you that you have to hit a 100% sales quota all the time, meaning that every potential client you approach, you have to win the contract. Anything less, your performance will be considered sub-par and your salary docked. How would you feel?

I have a cousin who when growing up, was constantly told by her mother that she had to be 1st in class or she needn't bother going home. She was so stressed by it that she even fantasised about killing her biggest rival in class. Till today, she's resentful about the anguish that her mother put her through.

There's a world of difference between aiming for a good result vs aiming NOT to get a bad result. One spurs achievement, the other builds a fear of failure. While both may elicit similar results in an exam, in the long term, the former is more likely to build self-motivation and drive while the latter is likely to erode self-esteem.

Naturally this doesn't mean the targets should be set so low that they don't challenge the child. Pitching the target at a level that will make the child work just that extra bit harder without demoralising him ("it's too hard! I can't do it!") is tricky but I believe most parents have a realistic idea of what their kids are capable of. What I feel is important is that the child should agree to these targets. This creates a sense of ownership and hence draws commitment from the child. Andre's form teacher negotiates targets for each subject with every child and gets the child to sign off on the "contract". I think that's great.

In setting targets, you have to be prepared for the possibility that your kid may not meet them. (Such is life!) Here's my personal viewpoint: following my reasoning above, I don't believe in punishing a failure to meet targets. If your child had gone through the due process of target setting with you, then chances are, he would be disappointed by his own result. Punishing him for it or withdrawing privileges only negatively reinforces the point that he is not allowed to fail and he has somehow done something bad. (I guess perhaps the only scenario that would justify punishment is if the child deliberately did badly, in which case you'll have to dig deeper into his psyche to find out the reason for this behaviour).

Instead, talk through the incident with him and find out what was the reason for the result - was it due to insufficient effort? carelessness? lack of understanding? difficult paper? Sure, you can express disappointment (we're still human afterall!) but after that, work out strategies with him for doing better the next time.

Conversely, if your child meets the targets, I encourage you to reward him. Shouldn't be lavish or expensive as it's a reward, not a bribe. It's just a gesture showing that his effort is appreciated and recognised. Common sense will tell you that will motivate him to keep trying. Ultimately, we should always remember to focus on the effort, NOT the result. At the risk of sounding repetitive, it's a marathon! Not a sprint! Since we can't escape exams in Singapore, we might as well use them as opportunities to rear confident children, not turn them into nervous wrecks.


Lilian said...

Parents should really heed the advice in this blog post or risk having their kids develop some kind of disorder. I've heard enough stories of bulimic kids, anorexic kids, kids with severe tics, to know there is a cause-and-effect when we place unreasonably lofty expectations on children.

The focus shouldn't be on what happens after the exams, but what happens before. Seriously, as long as I see my kid putting in solid, hard work prior to an important test, I'm already very happy. I may be a little disappointed if he falls short, but it's already done, we won't harp on it, just a short post-mortem on what could have gone wrong.

Re target, based on what my child shows he's capable of doing before the test, I'd give him a leeway of +/- 5 to 10 per cent; if he's on a good streak, and his brain is in tip-top working condition for that particular day, he'll do better than usual; if he's a little careless, or maybe testing conditions weren't ideal, then he'll do worse than usual. Anything above that range calls for a celebratory dance and anything below that calls for a longer post-mortem :)

Anyway, this is just based on a few competitions/tests he's taken. We haven't gone through years of tough Sg exams to really know how we'd really behave under those conditions.

Anonymous said...

The target we set before exam do not base on the totals marks, but on the number of careless mistake she made from the previous one. She has to try to reduce the number of careless mistake, and it only applies to her 3 main subjects, not for chinese.

For chinese, we do set a mark range, + & - 5 marks from the previous exam.


Anonymous said...

Currently I do not set targets for my child, she sets her own. So my role is to moderate her expectations, not mine. Perhaps a few years down the road, I have to sing a different tune when the going gets tough. :) Now is only reminders of "check, check, check the papers to ensure no pages missed out undone".....what to do when she shows me she is capable of doing that at home? *nervous laugh*


monlim said...

Lilian: I get so horrified when I hear those stories of kids with nervous behaviour or eating disorders due to excessive pressure. I think sometimes we parents can go overboard without realising it and it's good to have like-minded friends to keep our ambitions for our kids in check.

Chris and QX: Not everyone sets targets (or the same type of targets). I think you ladies are well-adjusted and know what works best for your kids, so don't worry, you're doing just fine!

justpassingby said...

We don't really set targets per se here either. For my two PriSch kids, we basically expect them to score more or less in the same range, and we usually look at the paper to react... meaning, I'd look at where they lost the marks and if the questions were tougher, then that's to be expected, and if it's carelessness, or dyslexia-inclined type of mistakes, then we work to overcome those later.

My motto has always been that as long as we stay on top of schoolwork and work through difficulties as they come, there is no need to do last minute mugging before exams. Just the odd SA/CA type paper for practice when they happen to have some time free. In fact, I brought them to the arcade yesterday (Monday - sch hol) to play after a morning of working hard... and they both have papers all this week!

My son's school has a wonderful program for encouraging the boys to improve on their marks - they call it the "Just 5 Marks" Award... and they actually acknowledge each child in each subject where he's improved by 5 or more marks over the last SA. It's brilliant! And 5 marks feels a whole lot more doable for them, so it's not so daunting. : )

Anonymous said...

The worst part is when they start comparing you with other individuals. The child might have been good then, but the comparison of marks, leaves the child either with a broken sense of confidence or with thoughts like, "I'll never be one of the Greats. So why try?", "Why bother? Even if I do well, there'll always be someone better than me.".

When the child is strong in a subject, for instance, English, the parents completely neglect their achievements in that area and go to lengths to say, "No. Your writing's not that decent. I've seen people who can write better than you. Do you think they study as little as you? Look at the Commonwealth award winners! Look at how they write! They spend months on an essay!"

But the children aren't the Commonwealth entry submitters. And for all one may know, the winner might have done it in a week, just with the encouragement and support of his/her parents.

And thus these are the less mentioned troubles that children have to face.

Just think about it for a minute.

Put yourself in their shoes.

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