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Supporting children through exams and assessments.

As Kent Test results come out, the round of senior school entrance examinations and interviews begin and class chats are awash with tips about how to get your child into the school you want for the next steps in their journey, it’s enough to leave a parent or guardian who is yet to traverse this rocky landscape feeling apprehensive.  Dr Emma Margrett, Head of Radnor Prep, suggests some top tips for how to navigate the way forwards. 

1.       Include your child in the conversation, but make the decision yourself 

Pupils who fall into the primary, or Prep age group, are very keen to please their parents and families.  They want to take the course of action which they perceive will make the ones they love the happiest.  What their personal feelings are about options, are often very much influenced by what they think that their families want to hear.  Asking a child of 10 or 12 to take responsibility for their choice of school is a huge weight to place upon their shoulders.  Include them in the conversation and point them to aspects of a school which might suit them or appeal to them to help them to frame their response to what they are seeing, but ultimately explain that whilst you value their view, it is your role as their parent to make the best choice for them using the evidence you have at your disposal.  It is amazing how often children will tell their parent what they think that they want to hear, rather than what they are actually feeling. 


2. Praise for effort rather than achievement 

In our Instagram culture, although they are too young to have access to the apps yet themselves, children are very much aware of the pressure to look good and showcase their achievement of ‘life goals’ which others will be impressed by.  There is a great deal of research that suggests that high achievers may not push themselves out of their comfort zone if they are only praised for end results and achievements.  If your child is taking an examination or interview to get into their choice of school, or to achieve a scholarship at 11 or 13, acknowledge with them the fact that they may not be successful, and that this could be due to circumstances outside of their control – for example, other able children taking part in the examination which pushes the pass mark up and that a bad day in a test or interview doesn’t mean that they are a failure as a person.  The one aspect of an examination or interview that a child can control, is that they can work to the best of their ability to give them the best possible chance of success.  Researchers such as Elliott & Dweck (1988) suggest that able children who are praised for effort rather than outcome are far more likely to push themselves further and achieve higher than those who are praised simply for the end result.  For those children, the possibility of losing their ‘crown’ as a high achiever can make them unwilling to try – if you don’t push yourself, there is always a ready explanation as to why you weren’t successful.  Praise a child’s preparation and work along the way, and if you want to give them a present or a treat for their work, then do this before the examination or scholarship takes place to show them that you believe that they have done all that they can do, rather than after the outcome is announced.  Acknowledge that whilst an examination or interview can seem like the only important thing in the world at a given moment, that moment will pass, and if a child does not achieve the outcome they were hoping to, it is not the end of the world.  There are other options and other opportunities that will present themselves.   Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight in years to come, a moment which seemed like a huge personal failure can actually be the turning point towards an even greater success.  Acknowledge that Instagram and SnapChat only showcase the curated moments that people often spend many attempts trying to hone, rather than the various failed attempts which are still on the camera roll of their smartphone! 


3. Talk to your child’s class teacher 

Another key source of information when making decisions about how to guide your child, is your child’s class teacher or subject specialist teacher.  They will be a wealth of knowledge about your child’s current level of attainment in academic subjects and their wider talents in areas such as sport, drama, music and art.  They will know how your child sits within the cohort and whether their underlying ability scores suggest that they will be successful in highly competitive examination and selection processes.  Whilst they will not be able to control events on the day itself, they will be able to help you to understand whether your favoured course of action is likely to have a successful outcome for your child.  They are also likely to be able to advise on the potential impact of being unsuccessful on your particular child too.  For some, it will be the end of the world, and it will prevent them from putting themselves ‘out there’ in the future, but for others, news of an unsuccessful outcome will be received like ‘water off a duck’s back’! 


4. Know your non-negotiables 

An important point to consider is that not all schools are the same, so be very clear about what you want for your child.  If you value a holistic approach to education, then a highly selective school focusing on academic achievement only may stunt the wider development of your child’s personality, whereas for another, the idea of having to leave their local sports team to play fixtures for school on a Saturday might be a deal breaker.  Before you look at schools, try to consider what the most important aspects of an educational experience are for your child, and make sure that you ask questions about those when going on school visits and tours.  Knowing your non-negotiables can mean that you may come to the decision to reject a choice of school that is favoured by the parents in your child’s friendship group; however, you are the one that knows your child best, so try to listen to your inner voice.  If you know that your child does not perform their best in high pressure situations, another option is to consider an all through school such as Radnor House.  This takes away the pressure to sit an assessment at 11 or 13, due to the fact that we aim for all children to progress seamlessly from the Prep School into the Senior School.   Although this won’t completely alleviate the pressure in relation to scholarship assessments, however, knowing that your child is being assessed by staff who already know them well, offers a comfort that it may be a less daunting process.  


5. Let your child make mistakes 

Finally, the most important piece of advice that I would offer to parents, is not to be frightened to allow your child to make mistakes from a young age and grow from them.  We all feel under pressure to be the best parent we can, and to perhaps even resolve our child’s issues or take responsibility for them rather than allowing a child to learn from them.  I lose track of the times that a parent will apologise to me for forgetting their child’s coat or sports kit.  However, young children are able to take shared responsibility for these items and providing them with a laminated list of what they need each day for school can help them to take responsibility for their own organisation.  Seeing that the world doesn’t end when something goes wrong taking responsibility for it, allows children to make a mental note to try not to repeat a mistake, and learn valuable skills of negotiation.  The same goes for over preparing a child for an interview.  Whilst it is important that a child has considered how they might answer the questions that they will face, it is always better to hear a child’s authentic voice when talking to them about the book they are reading or their hobbies and interests.  It is very clear when they are reciting a prepared adult response rather than speaking from the heart. 

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