Commentary: Combating the culture of comparison with PSLE results

Commentary: Combating the culture of comparison with PSLE results

Everyone wants their child to do well in the PSLE but how can we deal with grades in a healthy way? June Yong says parents should let their kids know they are worth more than a three-digit score.

Students received their PSLE results. (Photo: Channel 8 News) 

SINGAPORE: Imagine a class of 30 or so students buzzing with anticipation and trepidation as they wait to hear their names called out. 

Their parents stand outside, peering in, wringing hands and clutching their phones.

This is reality for a lot of people today, when this year’s Primary 6 cohort receive their PSLE results. Once the results slips are handed over, elation, relief and disappointment will be on full display across primary schools in the country.

And so begin the questions from inquisitive relatives and kiasu colleagues.

Many 12-year-olds will be fearful of being asked about their three-digit scores. For them, these form a permanent mark on their lives – until the next major national examinations that is.

They will detest the comparisons. They will battle with feelings of pride, envy or inadequacy. Some may even shun family or social gatherings until the buzz dies down. With the festive season lying ahead, this could be a good long while.

Whatever your family’s culture and values may be, the PSLE score looks set to be the elephant in the room.


With the emphasis on the PSLE year and the stressful lead-up to it that often starts much earlier, one would be hard-pressed to believe it is not the be-all, end-all of a Singaporean student’s life.

Remember last year where Singaporeans shared their PSLE scores on social media to demonstrate how three digits have a tenuous link to their eventual success in life and encourage those who had received less than ideal results? One only hopes a resurgence occurs today.

My daughter is only in Primary 2 this year and already I've heard her mention that she's afraid of the PSLE. Seeing as I haven’t discussed these four letters with her before, where does she get it from?

Many students view this examination with an extreme sense of dread. 

But far from being the defining moment of their young lives, it only marks the beginning of a lifetime of learning.

How then can we instill a healthier perspective on learning in our young?

students kid hands classroom learning
How can we instill a healthy perspective on learning in our young, instead of motivating them with fear? (Photo: Pixabay/StockSnap)

Jasmine Koh, owner of MapleBear preschool at Hillview, whose eldest child sat for the PSLE this year, said she had open conversations with him to help him understand that it is just one exam and he just needed to work hard and try his best.

For Koh, building a strong work ethic and a positive learning attitude was far more important than which secondary school he ends up in.


As parents, we know we should celebrate our children’s achievements and share in their sorrows.

But more importantly, we must do so from the perspective of focusing on our children as individuals, and not proxies for one-upmanship. This makes it easier to resist the urge to ask other parents or relatives how their children did.

When we’re busy comparing our kids’ achievements to others’, we neglect being grateful for what we have. We may forget to appreciate how much our children have grown through the process.

A friend with a Primary 6 child shared that the stress of waiting for the release of results has been further exacerbated by the peer comparisons her son faces in his class.

She wishes that the results could be released in a more private and sensitive manner, perhaps via snail mail or online. This way, students will feel more at ease, receiving their results in the privacy of their homes.

classroom student
Could releasing the results in a more private manner cast less attention on the chase towards academic results? (Photo: Pixabay/weisanjiang)


If your child has excelled, by all means, celebrate. But refrain from saying “I always knew you were smart” and making it all about the grades.

Studies show that praising good grades and intelligence can do a child more harm than good. Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck has shown that such generalised praise creates learners with a “fixed mindset” – those afraid of making mistakes, and unwilling to put in extra effort or try something new.

Instead, offer specific praises, highlighting certain study strategies that your child employed, or affirming attitudes such as perseverance.

According to Michelle Choy, co-founder of The Little Executive and whose older four children have gone through the PSLE, the PSLE offers an important opportunity to have conversations about the process, instead of merely focusing on the end result. The PSLE may be once in a lifetime, but these lessons will always be relevant.

A child studying
The role parents play is critical in helping their children manage stress, embrace failure and accept disappointment. (Photo: Pixabay)


Another important lesson our children can take away is that of bouncing back from failure and disappointment.

Children today face greater pressure to achieve than ever before, and in more areas than just mere academics alone.

When they underperform, we should not be rubbing salt in their wounds. 

Rather, we should affirm that they are not defined by their PSLE score, nor any other test score, and assure them that a viable solution can be worked out together.

As Choy advises, “As parents, how we guide them to view failure and success is crucial. They need to know that one failure does not define them; if they build resilience and tenacity, they will go far in spite of early failures.”

Choy further urges parents to refrain from blaming the child and from talking about the PSLE until their child is ready to do so. Instead, she says parents should spend quality time with them to let them know you continue to believe in them regardless of their results.   

dad's day out (3)
The trifecta of being warm, sensitive and stimulating can help achieve the best parenting outcomes. (Photo: Nisha Karyn)


Parents should try to keep an open mind to the different options their children can take, regardless of PSLE score. There is no surefire route to success – which, by the way, should have different meanings for different people – and often the attitudes we carry toward life and learning are more important than the schools we attend.

For those who did well and didn’t alike, children need to know that if they learn from the mistakes made, apply better strategies, and put in more effort, they will have a good shot at their own brand of success.

For the coming days and weeks, endeavour to choose our reactions and words wisely, and be a pillar of support for our children.

As author Eloise Ristad once said, “When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” 

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl