Commentary: Is It Time to Right-Size Our Worries Over PSLE?

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Commentary: Is It Time to Right-Size Our Worries Over PSLE?

Keep the big picture in mind

By June Yong | 16 September 2021

PSLE is a four-letter word that carries with it an inordinate power to send shivers down one’s spine – whether you’re a parent or a 12-year-old.

It is my maiden journey as a PSLE parent this year. But you might be surprised to know that my stress stems more from my worry about whether my daughter can handle the stress, rather than whether she will be able to achieve the grades she wants.

In other words, I’m stressed about her stressing out.

Earlier this year, when the first (of many) exams for her began, my daughter started to voice out many negative thoughts. Sometimes when a particular test she was dreading drew near, she would break down due to overwhelm.

After seeking the advice of friends and family, I began to spend more time with her, especially just before going to bed. In those quiet moments, we talked about our fears of the future, the big decisions she’d have to make, as well as her own expectations.

I also shared with her my own views of major exams, and how I dealt with stress as a young teen.

I tried to reduce the size of her worry about PSLE by explaining that while it is an important check point, one which will affect her options for secondary school, it is also contained in the sense that it will not determine her future, her dreams, and her life.

She gradually understood that one single exam – no matter how huge it is in the eyes of society – cannot possibly measure the entire value of a young person. And she learnt to self-soothe whenever she felt the pressure rising.

As you can see, the level of parental worry is often dependent on the personality and makeup of the child.

If you ask another parent who has a child who’s perhaps not so worried about the PSLE, and who may be taking it in stride, you might get a different response.

They might want their child to be a little more motivated, and push them to achieve their potential.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to tackling major exams. We have to understand our child and his/her unique needs, and then tailor our response and gameplan accordingly.

Managing expectations

When fears and anxieties arise from your child directly – whether it’s triggered by expectations they place on themselves, or from other sources – the things we say and do should be targeted at questioning the validity of the statements the child is telling themselves.

For example, “If I don’t make it to School A (that all my friends are aiming for), I will be a failure. My friends will reject me.”

We can challenge such negative beliefs by asking:

  • Is this true? Will all your friends reject you because you end up in a different school, or with lower grades?
  • Could you name one friend who would stand by you?
  • Does getting lower than expected grades automatically mean you’re a failure?

More often than not, the anxieties surrounding PSLE can come from parents themselves.

Sometimes if we’re not careful, we can get caught up with negative thoughts as well:

  • My child has to make it into School A. If not, we would have failed to bring him up well.
  • If my child doesn’t do well, it will reflect badly on us.

Thus, in right-sizing our worries about major exams, one critical first step is to be aware of our own motivations and intent.

Is it our goals that are in the driver’s seat, or our child’s?

When our expectations far exceed our child’s ability to cope, it can result in dire consequences, such as loss of motivation, confidence, or even depression.

In the long run, these effects can have far worse repercussions than a below average score in PSLE.

When the child’s confidence and self-esteem take a beating, it can lead to a negative mindset towards learning, a fear of failure, and automatic thoughts that begin with, “I’m going to fail anyway…” or “I will never be able to…”

“Whether stress becomes unhealthy depends on two variables: the nature of the problem and the person upon whom the problem lands.”

So what is the right size of worry?

To be fair, we all experience worries and anxieties for a reason. We are born in-built with this intricate alarm system that helps to warn us of potential dangers, and propel us to take steps to minimise the threat.

In her book Under Pressure, Lisa Damour writes, “Healthy stress happens when we take on new challenges, such as giving a speech to a large audience, or doing things that feel psychologically threatening, such as finally confronting a hostile peer…Stress becomes unhealthy when it exceeds what a person can absorb or benefit from.”

“Whether stress becomes unhealthy depends on two variables: the nature of the problem and the person upon whom the problem lands.”

For a high stakes exam like PSLE, as stressful as it may be, the exam itself may not be the problem; rather it is the meaning and importance that we attach to it.

If a child believes that PSLE is an issue of life and death, or that not making it to a particular “good school” would spell the end, then it could be that his level of worry about this exam has taken on Goliath proportions.

But if we teach our young that no matter how badly they think they did, there is a chance of recovering from the setback and attaining future success – in other words right-sizing PSLE – it will help them have a healthier perspective on exams and a more positive mindset towards life and its other challenges.

It is our child’s job to be responsible for their studies, but it is our job to help them take a step back and see the big picture.

By removing unnecessary pressures and giving them our unconditional support, our children will gradually embrace the challenges of PSLE, while learning to put it in its rightful place. It is after all just one exam among many, and there is much more to life than this.

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.


Friends may have shared the inevitable negative pressures of exam and PSLE preparation on the relationship with their children. Instead of fearing what's ahead, we can equip ourselves to be positive and compassionate in stressful situations, protecting our relationship as our tweens head into adolescence and secondary school. Find out more at our interactive PSLE Special: Empowered to be a Parent-Coach webinar on 9 July 2022!

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