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Children – so much more than just grades

Image of Children – so much more than just grades

Unless you have been staying away from the internet for the past 2 weeks, you would have heard of Helen and Ivan, and they are definitely not your child’s newest friends.

In school, passing or getting good grades seems to have become much more important than the journey of learning. Excellent grades are perceived as a necessity for success, and failure suggests a bleak future. The expectation and pressure of achieving good grades have affected the wellbeing of many children, both mentally and physically, and have perhaps altered the way they approach life.

How does focusing on grades affect children?

The immense pressure to perform well in school has negatively affected the mental health of our children:

  • A study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that Singaporean students were more anxious about tests and grades compared to their international peers.1

  • Research done in the United States found that 80% of students base their self-worth on their grades. The lower their grades, the lower their self-esteem.2

  • Mental health professionals have cited overwhelming academic pressures as a contributing factor to youth suicides.3

While some stress is expected for exams and grades, excessive worry and perceived pressure can inevitably lead to poor performance. Anxiety negatively affects students’ abilities to absorb, retain, and recall facts and information. Some students feel so pressured to study that they end up sacrificing sleep to do so. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is detrimental to self-regulation, affecting our ability to control emotions, cognitive functions and behaviour. It also affects concentration and even increases the likelihood of experiencing anxiety.2

Therefore, even though students put in significant effort in response to societal and self-expectations to perform well, these same pressures cause them to receive discouraging results, often leading to significant distress.

Focusing on grades affects our mental and physical health, and research has also shown that prioritising good grades limits learning. When all we care about is that ‘A’ at the end of the school semester, we teach students to value grades over mastery of knowledge. We undermine learning and creativity, encourage students to avoid challenging work, and even reward cheating behaviour.4

Dear parents, take a pause and consider: When you send your child to school, do you expect that they develop a passion for learning? Do you hope to see them exude the joy of making discoveries and acquiring new knowledge? Do you wish that they are built up instead of brought down? Perhaps it is time to reflect and ask ourselves: How much focus have we placed on grades and academic excellence?

What can parents do then?

Emphasise learning and pursuing interest and passion rather than grades. When students love to learn, they’re inherently motivated to engage with what they’re learning. They start to work hard, persist, commit to what they’re learning, and view setbacks as opportunities for further learning and growth. A love for learning lasts a lifetime and benefits our children as they continue into adulthood, far more than any test score.2

Parents can also help their children by moderating their expectations and focusing on their children’s efforts rather than their results. Have regular and open conversations with your child about school and academic stress, and be empathetic with their difficulties without being critical. Ensuring that our children get enough sleep, maintain a balanced diet and exercise regularly can also go a long way. If necessary, a school counsellor can provide extra support.2

The idea that academic achievement is a necessary ingredient to lifelong success is both unhealthy and untrue. Many of us are all familiar with the words of Albert Einstein:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Many students excel in non-academic areas, such as arts, sports, or music. Many are full of creative ideas and solutions. Many are compassionate souls who can sow deeply into the lives of others. 100 Voices highlights some stories of these individuals, who are just as impressive as those who excel academically.

In one mother’s journey as a parent, she shared her worry that her child was simply average – she was disappointed when he made only marginal improvements in his grades after sending him for tuition, and felt that he didn’t have any standout ability that would give him an edge when applying for schools. Upon reflection, she realised that being average does not make one a failure, just as sterling results don’t guarantee success. She learned from her child that being average helped her son remain grounded, develop a greater capacity for empathy, and have a positive outlook on life5. Aren’t these so much more valuable than a good grade?

Let us not put forward the idea that we are labelling our children’s future based on their grades. Let us focus on helping them find their purpose and significance in life, kindle their passion for learning, and grow as individuals. Our children are so much more than numbers, and indeed, grades do not define who they are or who they will become.

Written by: Helene Tan, Programme Executive, Fei Yue Community Services

Further reading


1Poh, B. (2021, January 30). Commentary: A hyper-competitive culture is breeding severe test anxiety among many students. Channel News Asia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/hyper-competitive-culture-breeding-severe-test-anxiety-among-799076

2Melbourne Child Psychology & School Psychology Services (n.d.). Remembering why perfect grades aren’t everything. Retrieved from https://www.melbournechildpsychology.com.au/blog/remembering-why-perfect-grades-arent-everything/

3Ang, H. M. (2019, August 5). MOE, MSF ‘very concerned’ about spike in youth suicides; experts say more support and awareness necessary. Channel News Asia. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/moe-msf-very-concerned-about-spike-youth-suicides-experts-say-more-support-and-awareness-necessary-862516

4Lahey, J. (2014, March 13). Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/03/letter-grades-deserve-an-f/284372/

5Tee, H. C. (2019, 24 October). The upside of being average. Schoolbag. Retrieved from https://www.schoolbag.edu.sg/story/the-upside-of-being-average