As parents, one of our most important responsibilities is to educate our children and prepare them to face the world. In principle, this process should be a wonderful journey for the child, one that's about exploring curiosities, making discoveries, developing new skills, and realising talents, while we watch on with joy, pride, and satisfaction. In reality, however, many children do not enjoy school or studies, and for most parents their child’s education can be a matter of stress, doubt, and guilt. While anxiety is inevitable, is there a better way to manage it?
A research study on Chinese parents’ experience when it comes to their children’s education, identifies three types of ‘Parent Education Anxiety’ (PEA). The first is “oppressive anxiety” originating from excessive and competitive desire for academic performance; the second is “dazed anxiety” emanating from range of difficult and confusing choices a parent has to deal with, and the third is “imaginative anxiety” arising from an almost blind belief that a possible failure in education will adversely affect every major life-event or miletsone — job, marriage, fate, future. These anxiety types are somewhat true for parents in India too, and there may be other types as well.
One way of managing this anxiety is to engage better with your child’s school. Our children spend up to almost half their waking time in and around schools. While schools may have their limitations, schools and teachers are often a trove of information about your child's interests and development. This information, even if not readily visible or available, must be sought out.
Many parents spend a lot of time securing admissions for their children, but after that, they routinize their engagement or even disengage. As one school principal said to me “it’s like posting a letter in kindergarten and collecting the package after Class 12.”
Where does my child stand?
It is essential to have a realistic and factual view of where one’s child stands academically, and their developmental readiness. While teachers may not be super articulate or accessible, and you may have to speak to more than one, they do know many little things about your child. Seeking specifics by subject, topics, behaviours in class, exceptional observations, positive or otherwise, will be most helpful. It may also give you a better sense of your child’s latent gifts and talents. The root cause of parent education anxiety is an excessive ‘expectation gap’ between the child’s actual performance and parents’ arbitrary expectation of achievement. It can lead to unrealistic increase inputs (e.g., multiple tuitions), curtailing play time, increasing stress, and thereby causing boredom, fear, and a dislike of learning — essentially, this will mean the exact opposite effect of what is intended by the parent. Optimizing the expectation gap can help commence a journey of constructive action
What actions would be most helpful?
Specific knowledge of the challenge or opportunity your child faces can help take more appropriate action. The issue may be subject-, behaviour-, or context-specific. We tend to talk within the family, with friends, or other parents. Including the schoolteachers in these conversations may increase the chances of taking the right call. For instance, if your child is falling behind in mathematics, it does not necessarily mean “let’s get Math tuitions”. Is it just a matter of discipline and more practice that you could supervise? Is the challenge more conceptual for which some online or offline resources could help? If it is about personalised attention, then perhaps a tutor in a smaller group, or individually, may be the route to take. In other cases, the child may have specific needs or challenges, that may need specific expert or medical diagnosis. This obviously is outside the remit of teachers’ capability, but spotting pattens early is something they can help in. Finally, there may issues specific to your child’s social- or home-context, and sometimes these can be issues that even a caring parent may be blind to. This includes inadequate sleep, unhealthy snacking diet, bullying or harassment, poor habits, or influences, or even your own behaviours as a parent. If you solicit feedback and give them room to share candidly, you will likely find out more and take decisive corrective action.
How are the teachers improving and bettering themselves?
The third question is not about your child, but about the school and teachers themselves. If children must become thinking, curious, confident learners who are ready for an increasingly demanding world, then outdated practices need to be rapidly updated. Combining an inspiring teaching methodology along with a focus on rigour or excellence is not easy. Many schools err on one side or the other: either staying with lecture-rote-copy-test ‘zombie’ methods; or swaying the other extreme of marketing themselves as ‘new-age’ schools and emphasising projects-activity-exposure but missing conceptual rigour and excellence. As parents you ought to know what kind of training the school has recently made their teachers undertake, and if there has been any change in their methods in the last five years. Asking the school management about their education philosophy, recruiting practices, and teacher development approach, also helps. These questions are not about the infrastructure, hardware, or credentials of the school; they are about the teaching and learning – their bread and butter. And as parents, if you don’t ask these questions, then who will?
My work as an educator has led me to thousands of schools and teachers over the years. I have learnt to value of the knowledge that resides there, as well as the many opportunities for betterment. Being able to draw on this ecosystem – its challenges notwithstanding – can help us as parents help our children better. In the process reduce our own stress and channel it more productively.
Ashish Rajpal is the Founder & Chairman of Singapore headquartered XSEED Education.