This time of year cues an abrupt wake-up for students, coming out of summer holidays, back to the realities of school. With that, comes results from the previous year for students across New Zealand.
No matter how relaxed your child is, this can be a rough time if exams didn’t go quite in their favour. In cases like this, students can be scared to discuss their results, especially if they feel that they didn’t meet their expectations.
Despite what your child says, they usually care a lot about their results, and also about how you feel about it. We recommend discussing grades gently with your child, and allowing them to express their feelings about their efforts before hard grades. Finals can have a huge impact on teenagers’ mental health, and this is something we should bear in mind.
Everyone’s mental health is incredibly important in allowing us to improve, reflect, and push forward. It should be one of our top priorities, much more so than a grade. Grades provide a timestamp of how much your child knew at a given point of time, but the mentalities they carry as a result can influence every aspect of their lives.
Knowing how to best support your child can feel like a bit of a minefield. Especially when they don’t seem to want to discuss results. We’ll be breaking down some of the main things our brains do in the face of failure, and responses we humans typically take. Further, we’ll go into how you can help reframe your child’s mindset about results, as well as the coming year.
Self-efficacy seems a very jargon-intensive term, but what it refers to is someone’s belief in their ability to execute necessary behaviors (e.g. getting a piece of work handed in on time). This is less concerned with how well they can write a plan, but how much they believe they could make a plan that works effectively.
Just like any skill, self-efficacy can be improved (or diminish if left to simmer).
It can be thought of as a spiral that perpetuates itself, especially for students: A bad grade or failure gives them a bad impression of themselves (lowering self-belief) which makes them not want to try as much, which leads to more failure because less effort is being put in.
It’s a tricky place to be in, where your child can feel as though no matter what they do, they can’t achieve what they want. All hope is not lost though! We can break this nasty downward spiral and help your child regain belief in their abilities.
One way of doing this is the “not yet” method. Basically, it is a reframing technique to help your brain speak to you a bit kinder. Rather than thinking “I haven’t succeeded,” it’s much better to say “I haven’t succeeded yet.” Because this gives someone the option of being better in the future.
There can be deadlines for certain things, but your child’s educational journey and the amount of information they understand is not one of them. It is a continuous process, and just because something didn’t work out now doesn’t mean it never will.
Using something like the “not yet” strategy can break the negative self-efficacy spiral because failure is not something that demotivates, but pushes us to keep going instead.
A students’ beliefs in their ability can make or break a year. Going into it with the belief that they can succeed is always going to go better for them than believing that they can’t improve from the knowledge of a high-schooler (because they can, and will).
Misattribution is another fancy term in psychological literature that basically means that we incorrectly attribute (or apply) reasons to our failures. We blame inherent (internal, fixed) qualities and our character over strategy, or blame outside forces for what happened when it really may have been our own doing.
Think of it this way: If someone has a cold and it is misdiagnosed, the treatment they’re going to receive is unlikely to help the core of the issue, and they’re still going to have a cold. The treatment may even make it worse (been there, done that).
Instead, you want to really get down to the raw reasons with your child, even if it risks hurting ego. We have to encourage our children to be transparent with themselves, but also readily practice self-forgiveness. What would your child get out of beating themselves up for not having studied harder about 3 months ago? Apart from sadness, not a lot. Both you and your child will get a lot more out of figuring out how to mitigate the things that they think are contributing to failure.
What is useful to your child? Knowing their options going forward. There is always another path. Everything can be solved. Nothing is permanent. We should be honest with ourselves, but in the most constructive way possible. In this, your child may rely on you to help with this, whether that be to help them find options going forward, or just to help them through a rough patch.
Lastly, we should focus on the process more than the outcome. Every little bit counts, but when your child only has a big goal in mind it can be difficult for them to see exactly how their small actions contribute to the overall picture.
When students only think about the endpoint, it’s harder for them to see the small details and actions needed to get there. It’s all well and good for them to say they want to get an endorsement, but what processes are needed to get there? What actions do they have to take, and when?
Thinking about the process, rather than the outcome is the way to ensure that your child is constantly working towards something. It will also help them in staying accountable on a day-to-day basis.
We’ll finish this point with a quote Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, neurobiologist, and Holocaust survivor, from his book You Choose What Happens Next.
“Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.“
Next on our list is cognitive distortions. Arguably one of the biggest set-up’s our brain can produce, cognitive distortions are things that our brain has us convinced is true when it is not true in reality.
Common examples of cognitive distortions in students are:
- Catastrophizing (going to the worst-case scenario when it isn’t)
- Black and white thinking (“I either passed or failed”)
- Overgeneralization or fortune-telling (I failed once so I’ll always fail)
- Discounting the positive (failure makes them more upset than succeeding makes them happy)
Cognitive distortions can be really harmful because they can stop students before they even start, and make them feel failure much more acutely than success. The important thing to remember and communicate with your child is that they are not true. That’s why it’s a distortion.
For example, if your child overgeneralises and takes one bad experience to frame everything from that point on, they’re going to have a bad time. Failing one maths paper doesn’t mean they’ll fail every maths paper they take from there on. Especially when they’ve (probably) passed a lot more in their life than failed.
However, if your child believes this, it’s super easy for them to disengage because they think they’re going to fail no matter what.
So, how do we tackle these? The first thing is to identify the cognitive distortion, not an easy task when they’re usually pretty ingrained and hard to spot in your child. Think of some of their initial reactions and comments to their results though, was there anything they said that concerned you?
The next thing is to rationally examine the evidence for the cognitive distortion with your child, like you’re a judge presiding over a trial. This means to remove your and your child’s personal judgements and just look at the facts.
For example, if your child didn’t do as well as they’d hoped on a paper, you could ask them a few things:
- How did they find that exam?
- Were they as prepared as they felt they needed to be?
- Did anything special happen that day?
- Was there anything they did better in than they thought they would?
We’re quick to hone in on the negative things, but it’s likely that there’s a lot to celebrate that your child may not be putting enough weight into. There are a couple of methods we can employ to help shed some kinder light on a situation. The first of which is the “advice to a friend” method.
Essentially, you help them assess their situation as though they’re giving advice to a friend.
Our mental voice can be a super nasty creature sometimes, especially teenagers when self-evaluating. However, when we talk to our friends we only want to build them up and make them feel better because they’re our friend. Additionally, teenagers typically see a lot more positives in their friends than they would about themselves.
Another way to think about cognitive distortions is the “what if I’m wrong?” method. The thing about cognitive distortions is that our brain has already accepted it as fact and so we don’t consciously question how true it may be in reality.
Asking your child “what if I’m wrong?” Is like putting their distortion on trial and arguing both sides. Present the facts, draw a conclusion, but don’t let their brain feed them lies about their ability to do anything.
Cognitive distortions are tricky, they can be hard to spot, and harder to change. However, breaking them down and being more aware of the way your child is speaking to themselves is super important in ensuring they’re their biggest fan, not biggest critic.
It’s okay to feel not okay
There are very few phrases less useful than “don’t be sad.” No one likes being sad, but often it is an essential step in moving forward. If we push things down because we don’t feel like we have the time to stop and process, we’ll probably we worse off for it in the longer-term.
In aid of this sentiment, a recent study in the Journal of Behavioural Decision-Making found that emotional responses to failure are much more motivating than cognitive ones. We’ll break this down a bit more for you:
All people in the experiment were exposed to an experience of failure. Half of them were asked to consider how they felt about failing an experimental task (i.e. lousy). This half engaged in self-improving behaviour, meaning they spent more effort and time on later tasks and were more likely to improve.
The others were instructed to consider their “objective thoughts” about failing. They tended to produce “self-protective cognitions”, meaning that they tended to think up reasons why they weren’t really to blame for falling short (sounds a bit like misattribution, right?) Since they didn’t take responsibility, they did nothing to improve their performance.
What this tells us is that the medicine doesn’t just happen to be bitter. The bitterness is the medicine. It’s feeling bad about failure that motivates people to dig up the sources of their shortcomings and put in the effort to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
We benefit most from failure by harnessing the motivating power of negative emotions rather than rationalising those feelings away. As soon as we can excuse failure to something other than ourselves, we automatically fob off the blame, protect our ego, but never improve.
Encouraging your child to processes their emotional responses and use it as a motivator (rather than a condemnation) is really important in keeping them looking forward at what they can do now, rather than what happened before.
Failure is good
We have been taught and trained to avoid failure at all possible points in our lives. But, we didn’t know how to walk without falling, speak without stuttering, or learn without error. Ultimately, failure is impossible to avoid if anyone wants to improve.
In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell of a ceramics teacher who announced on the opening day of class that he was dividing the students into two groups. Half were told that they would be graded on the quantity of ceramics they produced by weight.
The other half would be graded on quality. They just had to bring along their one, pristine, perfectly designed pot.
The results were clear – the works of highest quality, the most beautiful and creative designs, were all produced by the group graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland put it:
“It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
We underestimate the value of producing without fear of failure, to just create, write, research, or think without worrying about what kind of judgement a stranger will attach to it. It’s the best way to learn, because no matter how many times your child thinks about what could happen, it won’t be as worthwhile as actually seeing for themselves.
We encourage you to ask your child: what’s the hidden upside from your failure? What new insights have you gained? They may not have it perfectly cracked, but they do have a better idea of what doesn’t work.
The real truth about life is that your child is going to have a % of years in there that are like this. If life for the average person is around 80 years, statistically they’ll have some amazing years, and some years, well, will feel like this year has felt for them.
When anyone has years like the one most students have had, they often feel like their whole life is closing in around them and there’s literally no hope. They’re going to feel like it’s just not worth trying or caring anymore. It’s totally normal to feel like that – their life and their reality is like this right now.
However, the stunning and beautiful thing about life is that things are never permanent, and although this year might be terrible, life won’t be terrible forever.
When your child is in this state, the key thing is to think about what they can control. They can make up those extra credits through enrolling in Te Kura summer school, for example.
They are so close to getting UE in a year that might have flattened a lot of people and ruined them. Encourage your child to keep going and don’t give up!
Although hardship is awful to experience, we see it as an opportunity to gain determination, empathy, and courage. It gives us an opportunity to look for hope in ourselves and others when perhaps other people wouldn’t. We’re not sure if you find that helpful or just cringe, but we challenge you to think of your child’s situation like this.
They can’t control their hardship, but they can control what they do next.
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