Opinion: Heartfelt Notes on Recovering After Major Exams

By Maryam Kiyani from the Editor’s Desk

Certain examinations are regarded as the all-important milestone for students preparing to enter the next phase of their academic life. It can be incredibly challenging to balance one’s teaching style with the huge workload that such major exams demand. Due to the immense pressure that these exams put on an entire family, navigating them as the parent of a homeschooled child can be a challenge. Emotions may be liable to run high amidst the stress that comes with preparation, adding to the difficulties of balancing academics and maintaining one’s mental health.

Four mums from the Singapore homeschooling community share their unique experiences with the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) and the International A-Level Examinations. They provide an insight into the different approaches and techniques. This article explores the pitfalls of navigating exams and balancing their parent-child relationships with the workload of exam preparation.

Our first piece is from Nur Aisha Rahmat, a homeschooling mother who describes her approach of active listening when interacting with her children and the care she takes to make them feel heard.

Walking for Gratitude

When my son finished his last paper for the PSLEs, a wave of relief filled our hearts. What we did not expect was the onslaught of mental fatigue that came suddenly – and with a vengeance. We remembered mostly just lying down for the next three days. And then a question occurred to me: what would our path to recovery be?

A “nature-deficit disorder” ricocheted by a mad array of maladies began to amplify in both children and adults in our household. I thought that it was time to bridge this gap and strengthen my relationship with them. Exposure to nature helps us switch from voluntary attention, which draws on our reserves of focus and energy, to involuntary attention, which requires less focus and energy and this happens when I listen to my children more. 

I usually stay silent during walks and let my children do most of the talking. When grounded by nature, children become more authentic as they slowly peel back their layers and open up about the things most important to them. I have two sons: a toddler and a teenager. While the toddler marvels at every new sight, my teen marvels at the life around us. He speaks to me about an array of subjects – from his adventures with his friends to his rose plant. Rose plants are apparently very difficult to grow. I’m amazed how the rose plant has blossomed under my son’s care. He also speaks of climate change (both natural and political) and other topics that are sometimes beyond my ability to engage but I try to lend a supportive and encouraging voice to build up my children. The more I listen, the more my attention is free to meander and observe, giving me new ideas and strokes of insight, reflecting on our PSLE experience and the journey ahead.

For the last few months before the PSLE, we plodded down the path of doing as many preliminary Primary 6 exam papers as we could. Our achievements started out small but by encouraging efforts in perseverance and growth, we could be proud of our preparation. Growth teaches us to strive but to demand mastery is to be more concerned with marks than effort. Differentiating these two mindsets have changed the way we work. One cannot demand more than what is reasonable from one’s self.

Teens are often energetic, thoughtful, and idealistic, with a deep interest in what’s fair and right. So although adolescence can be a period of conflict between parent and child, the teen years are also a time to help your children grow into distinct individuals. They long for an appreciation of their ideas. As they go through this phase of learning to accept themselves and vis-a-vis society, they should be given guided space, not controlled by helicopter parenting, so as to let them find their own path in a supportive and loving environment. A fresh and new perspective is always refreshing and therein lies a hidden lesson.

As parents, we are the biggest guides of their lives in encouraging and building them up through their inclinations and interactions. The choice of friends will be an integral part for many years to come – teach them what makes a good friend, how to be one, and associate with other good friends. Find opportunities for them to flourish skilfully in their work and talents in a way that honours the Divine, the family and their values.

Even if I occasionally go against these guidelines, there is grace and forgiveness. I will keep on listening and talking to my teen because I am grateful for the opportunity to preserve the connection between us that I have been blessed with.

Daphne Pang has been through the PSLE experience with three of her children. Here, she reflects on the unique perspective that this repeated experience has given her on the aspects of the examinations that are important. She shares the different approaches that she has taken to helping each child through their PSLE journeys, and the advantages of each.

Oddly enough, celebrating the end of my PSLE journey with my third (and last) child this October wasn’t the over joyous event that I might have imagined many years ago. Instead, it ended with a tiny fizzle. Apart from a celebratory meal, I never wanted them to see it as a very big event. It’s a necessary milestone, certainly; I wanted them to do their very best, but I didn’t want to have it take over our lives.

I wasn’t this chill on my first tour, however. As many homeschooling parents probably feel, there was pressure to prove something to family members. With a small, cosy co-op of three other mothers and their students, we met weekly to revise exam techniques; but more importantly, those months of prepping helped us create lasting memories and connections. Nevertheless, it was hard work for both of us!

Once my second son’s turn came along a few years later, however, I discovered how different things could be. Firstly, I no longer had the same amount of energy for a co-op as before. Then, unlike his two siblings, he could not sit and work through one Math problem after another with me. This reduced him to tears. After some internal struggle, I realised that outsourcing wasn’t a bad idea and that it could protect our relationship. So, he went to another friend for Math and Science. That year of his first PSLE, far from fearing that he wouldn’t meet the benchmark, we were simply relieved that he didn’t fail, and we were thankful for that experience. My husband and I realized that all children are different (having the same genes, notwithstanding) and will bloom in their own time. It was more important that our son should know that he’s loved and supported regardless of his exam results, as well as to learn on his own time and take ownership of his education.

What I felt was helpful for him was to have spent the following year moving on to his high school curriculum despite having to retake the PSLE. While he spent some time covering the Chinese syllabus again with Lao Shi, as well as Math and Science with fellow homeschooling mother, Sukesy, the PSLE ceased to be on our minds. By his third tour, he had not touched any PSLE material except for Chinese for the entire year before walking into the exam hall.  

My third son has been the most motivated. He developed his own timetable and ensured that he would complete all his revision, worksheets and test papers on a weekly basis for me to mark. In fact, the completed papers would pile up before I could catch up with them. Unbelievably, I don’t think I even lost my temper with him over his PSLE preparations at all. Knowing that he has high expectations of himself, I have tried to help him manage his emotions in the event that his results would not meet his targets. Regardless, we’ve already moved on and begun his high school curriculum. All my three sons have done or are doing the Classical Conversations’ Challenge program for high school.

As I’d said earlier, my own attitude has undergone a world of change. My first son’s score was a great help in knowing we could “successfully” homeschool. That allowed me to relax with my subsequent sons, and to view this period for the opportunity to grow that it is.  

The PSLE is a necessary hurdle, and the important thing is for our children to pick themselves up as quickly as possible if they fall, and to keep on running. After all, our goal is well beyond this bar. There are and will be many more, and higher ones to surmount.

Sophia Ong shares the challenges she and her son faced in their journey towards the PSLE, as well as the heartwearming ocassion that demonstrated her son Kyle’s regard for his peers.

E, L, P, and S are but four letters of the English alphabet. Put together in a specific order, however, these four letters refer to a high stakes examination that the typical Singaporean child undertakes on the cusp of teenhood. The year before Kyle was to sit for the PSLE, concerned friends were already asking about the “all-important exams” coming up. In all honesty, this milestone examination meant little to us in our homeschool journey beyond the fact that clearing it would mean we would no longer have to submit yearly progress reports to the Ministry of Education.

Required to sit for the PSLE by law, we had always intended to give it our best shot, going at it with the same spirit of excellence that we approach everything with. We planned to complete the syllabus content across all four subjects as soon as we could in order to leave more time to work on specific examination skills. Examination technique was a whole subject of its own and we wanted a comfortable buffer of time to be able to prepare Kyle adequately. 

About six weeks before the oral exams, I was dismayed to realise that I had not been aware of the specific format for the Mother Tongue oral exam. In the less than six weeks leading up to the oral component of the exams, we began preparing for it in earnest. We covered oral passages and topics six days a week, alternating between the two languages every day. I am thankful that Kyle went into the exams feeling sufficiently prepared and emerged feeling reasonably confident.

For us, the highlight of the preliminary exams and PSLE proper had always been the idea of meeting the rest of that year’s homeschool cohort and their parents. But disappointingly, with Covid-19 restrictions in place, there were no group gatherings at which to meet new people or rekindle old friendships.

One particularly memorable episode of our PSLE experience was the afternoon after the Math paper. Social media had erupted with the furore of disgruntled parents who felt that the Math paper had been unnecessarily difficult. The descriptions of students’ responses of tears, anger, despair, etc. brought a heaviness to our hearts. Kyle asked if he could reach out and send a message of encouragement to the students affected. I thought about it and, not knowing any avenue through which to reach these students, brushed it off. “Those kids would probably wake up feeling better,” I reasoned, “It’s okay, let us just go to bed.” The mood that evening was sombre.

I recall him waking up the next morning. He greeted me without his usual exuberance and asked if more drama concerning the Math paper had played out overnight. He then expressed his desire again to reach out to his peers with a message of encouragement. He promised that he would still get his day’s revision done for the two upcoming papers. I took it as a sign from the Lord and told him to go ahead. I thought that he was going to type up some text and hence, was pleasantly surprised when more than an hour later, he sent me a video asking if I would help him share it on Facebook. He had created it using Canva and as I watched and re-watched what he had come up with, his tender words moved me to tears.

Emerging from the other side of PSLE, we cannot say with certainty what comes next for Kyle. We have researched various options for homeschooling and are open to the possibility of joining a mainstream secondary school. The biggest change in our homeschool is that we now spend our days sleeping in, playing games, enjoying family time, reading until midnight, going to the park, hitting the pool, sketching, watching movies, writing stories, and meeting with friends. In this household, it is going to be Christmas until Christmas is over for the year!

From the Editor

This last feature is dedicated to Maryam Kiyani as a surprise to welcome her as our intern at homeschoolsingapore.sg! I reached out to her mother, who is in Pakistan with the rest of the family, to share her reflections on Maryam’s homeschooling journey that primed her marvellously for her pre-university preparations. Read this inspiring piece by Shirin Feiruz, which she entitled, “Being Educated with Maryam.”

Being Educated with Maryam

Have you ever gone swimming at sea? It seems like a daunting prospect – you are but a small speck before vast, swirling waters. Still, the beautiful blue-green waves and the crisp salty breeze call out to you and you know you want to be a part of this magical world. So, you brace yourself, wade in and immerse yourself.

Life with children and homeschooling them is a lot like open sea swimming.
Image credit: Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

It is tough in the beginning. You need to find your bearings and get your rhythm right as you start moving out. Then, you need to breathe. You are so conscious of this fear of not being able to keep your head above water and not being able to breathe.

But it gets better and soon, you are filled with unbounded thrill. You are in the zone – you coast and there are times when you want to stop, look around you and just be. Sometimes, it gets rough and you need to find a safe place or turn back. You know that you have to respect the power of the ocean and you also need to know your limits.

Life with children and homeschooling them is a lot like open sea swimming. I knew that when I had my firstborn, Maryam, homeschooling called to me. Of course, I felt out of depth at times and made many mistakes. There were times when I threw her into the deep end of the water, but she has emerged swimmingly. *wink* Looking back, I think there were a few things that stand out in the making of my daughter.

A Mainstay in Books

Maryam was an old soul and we learnt this quite early on – she had a knowing expression about her and was never quite impressed with our efforts to make her laugh. Our antics often bombed but we found something she adored – books. She loved them and could sit for (literally) hours reading with me even as a baby. I often let the house go so that we could visit bookstores and read the days away.

Islamabad, where we are based, was a sleepy town with very few activities to do in her early years and being foreigners, we had few friends to meet. Our books and the second-hand bookstores were our lifelines. More than mere entertainment, the books helped expand our living (and mental) space. They kept us company and allowed us to visit worlds previously unknown and, most importantly, fostered in us compassion and humanity as we read about World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, First Nations people, the impact of colonial rule in Asia, the conflict in the Middle East and more.

Image credit: Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Maryam loves (most) animals and found kindred spirits in Marguerite Henry, Jack London, James Herriot and Colin Dann. We have a huge collection of books about political and ethnic issues. Much of our History lessons centred around literature like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Mildred D. Taylor’s Logan family series, Jean Craighead George’s Julie trilogy and so many more. I think that our library, her endless questions and questioning, as well as numerous conversations deepened her passion for History and Sociology – the subjects that she finally took up for her A-Levels.

Passion

That was my intended goal for homeschooling – passion. I had gone through the education system not particularly feeling particularly valued or challenged and so I had wanted Maryam to really feel for what she was pursuing.

Homeschooling in Pakistan meant that at times, you would have a lot of time on your hands but not as many resources. However, it did help to develop a sense of ingenuity and inventiveness. I have often called Maryam our “Renaissance woman” because she would spend a great deal of energy and time learning and teaching herself so many things. Once, she wanted an Avengers jacket to wear to the cinema the day the movie was released. Since we could not afford the shipping cost, she decided to paint her own. I was secretly worried that she was wasting a perfectly good jacket, but she did an amazing job and the end product turned more than a few heads! You might say, it’s just a jacket. You even might say that I am going too far in my sentimentality, but I felt SO happy that she had proven me wrong.

Maryam taught herself Urdu and surprised everyone when she was able to keep up her end of a conversation. She also learnt how to crochet and earned quite a bit of pocket money from making custom made toys and accessories. She had raised money for charity with her sister by making jewellery and had taken up art journaling and writing free verse.

While her later homeschooling years were jam-packed with exam preparations, I believe that these creative forays and the love she felt for her learning helped remind her of what was most important – being true to herself. When she took up Science subjects alongside History for her A-Levels, she believed that she was doing what was expected of her – that is, what would be best for a career eventually. However, upon realizing that her talent lay in the Humanities, she made the bold move to replace Science with Sociology and Psychology. Despite having only a year to prepare for these subjects, she did very well, for she had found her heart’s calling.

Vistas Ahead

Maryam is now twenty years old and has ventured out into the big wide world. I miss her terribly, but I am excited for her. In Singapore, she is helping her grandmother who is a dialysis patient, run the house, is an intern with homeschoolsingapore.sg and has also taken on work as a social media marketing intern with an ed-tech company. Next year, she hopes to further her studies at university.

I hope that as she navigates the vast oceans out there, she will find her zone. There will be tides and waves and there will be times when some days are hard. I hope that she will remember her younger days fondly. I pray that the lessons she learned will help her steer the course with resolve, aspiration and hope.