Teach, don't demand, success

The ST-Nexus Link survey has shown that there is an over- reliance on tuition. To address the abuses and unfairnesses tied to this, MOE must accept that tuition has a role in the education system, step in to regulate the sector and reduce the weightage of exams in assessing students.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

I was walking to my Primary 1 class when a pupil told me that a boy was crying.

I found out the boy had scored 98 out of 100 marks for his Chinese test, which was a fantastic score that he should have been proud of.

But no, he was afraid to go home as his mother would cane him for not achieving a perfect score. My heart went out to him.

I saw another boy, a Primary 4 pupil, crying quietly and blaming himself for his errors after scoring 83 marks for mathematics. He, too, was afraid to return home.

A year later when I left the school, he made a photo album as my farewell gift.

In it was a note that read: "Dear Mrs Yeo, do you remember the day that you consoled me for getting low marks? I would like to thank you for telling me to be strong, and that everybody makes mistakes."

He was able to overcome the setback because a figure of authority showed him that it was all right to fall down, that he will continue to do so and that he can benefit from it.

Our children constantly look up to us for approval and guidance.

Let's remember the huge impact these have on them. When they feel loved and supported after they tumble, they will be able to stand up, learn to avoid the pothole that made them trip and emerge better and stronger.

These incidents in my career as a teacher and principal altered my expectations of my own children's academic achievements.

I decided that I certainly did not want to create pressure and foster performance anxiety in my children. Just achieve your personal best, I told them.

Parental expectations can have a strong and positive effect on a child's academic success.

In a study by the Harvard Family Research Project, Professor William H. Jeynes of California State University in the United States found that parental expectations affected children's academic outcomes more than other types of parental involvement, including attendance of school events and the setting of clear rules.

Clear expectations, paired with loving and supportive attitudes, can help children to learn manners, social skills, study skills, and other tools that they will need to succeed in school and in society.

To establish healthy academic and behavioural expectations, parents should be aware of their children's unique needs, skills, strengths, and maturity levels.

Avoid comparing them with others, as every child develops at a different rate.

But this does not mean parents should set their sights too low. Low expectations can make it difficult for children to realise and achieve their full potential.

It is better to create small, manageable goals to ensure that children progress in their learning, while not feeling daunted.

I helped a Primary 1 pupil who was scoring zero out of 10 marks in her spelling tests, by encouraging her to learn just one word instead of 10 per test. She tried and managed to spell the word correctly.

I then increased the number of words to two, and then to three. Over time, she finally achieved a perfect score of 10 marks. She was not just learning how to spell words; she learnt that she could do it.

Moreover, she learnt to break things down into bite sizes when the task became too daunting.

This goes far beyond doing well in school. When she faces this type of situation at work or life, this skill will continue to serve her well. Unrealistically high expectations can set a child up for failure, anxiety, discouragement and low self-esteem when he cannot live up to his parents' goals. This can also lead to insubordinate behaviour.

A boy enrolled in a "branded" school was struggling to cope. I spoke to his parents about his challenges and frustration and suggested that they place him in an environment that nurtured his strengths. They were indignant at my recommendation and insisted that their son was just not trying hard enough.

The poor boy was unable to keep up with the academic requirements in school. He felt that he would never be able to meet his parents' expectations and became very angry.

He thought that since he would never be good enough, he might as well be really bad.

He hung out with bad company and became very rude to his parents, swearing at them whenever he interacted with them.

Fortunately, his parents realised that there are many paths to success and stopped insisting that he pursue this through academic means.

He eventually found his calling in cooking and is now at the helm of two successful cafes.

His mum and dad are very proud of his achievement and they now get along very well.

Establishing healthy expectations and communicating them to children are important keys to fostering success.


Jenny Yeo was a principal for 18 years in Kheng Cheng School, Radin Mas Primary School and South View Primary School.She is a lead associate focusing on partnerships and engagement in the engagement and research division of the Ministry of Education.

This article was first published on August 24, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.