WHAT TO SAY—AND NOT SAY—WHEN EXAM RESULTS ROLL IN

Written by Jenny Anderson originally published for Nord Anglia’s INSIGHTS Magazine.

Exam season can be a lot to bear. Kids are stressed and tired and, as parents, we feel frazzled too. We worry about their stress but also about the results. How could we not? The world is competitive and grades, or marks, matter. We want our kids to have as many options as possible.

But how we react to the results when they arrive is our own test. Whether we’re thrilled because they knocked it out of the park, or despairing because they couldn’t get their act together to study, exams offer us a rare opportunity to show children they matter for who they are, not just how they perform.

It’s a test we parents don’t always pass.

Thomas Curran, an assistant professor of psychological and behavioural sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has documented the rise in perfectionism among young people. He finds it alarming, because perfectionism is associated with a lot of negative mental health outcomes. When he dug into the causes behind the increase, he found that rising parental expectations and criticism—having high standards kids feel they cannot meet—play a big role.

Curran doesn’t blame parents. He sees a system that demands a lot of kids, and kids and parents striving to meet it. But when expectations outpace what kids feel they can do parental stress makes it worse, not better.

Exams are an ideal time for parents to show that it’s the process and not just the outcome that matters. We have a chance to convey three things: kids are worth way more than just their grades; grades measure academic performance, which is an important but narrow measure of what it means to be a good human; and effort takes guts.

“Children only have little shoulders and they carry this burden, and our job is not to add weight to that burden,” says Liam Cullinan, principal of Nord Anglia International School Abu Dhabi.

Here’s how best to handle good news and bad news.

The praise

Praise should not come just with the A*s, 9s, high 40s, and 5s (all top GCSE, IB, and AP marks). It should also go to kids who put in the time and effort and to kids who improve.

“Effort takes courage,” says John Miller, head of school at Eton School Mexico. “It’s being vulnerable as opposed to just discounting and ignoring the work.” Many kids don’t try because it’s better to not try and fail than to try, fail, and feel inadequate.

The goal of exams is to test knowledge. It’s also to see progress. When kids clock some gains, celebrate that.

“I believe education is about reducing the gap between your current performance and your future potential,” Miller says.

Praise progress, not just exceptional outcomes.

There’s another benefit to focusing on effort more than outcomes: kids have way more control over it.

Reams of research show kids who are praised for their efforts try harder and persist with tasks longer than those who are praised for being “smart.” The “effort” kids have a growth mindset marked by resilience and a thirst for mastery; the “smart” ones can have a fixed mindset, believing intelligence to be innate and not malleable. These kids often want to play it safe, shying away from potential failure.

Break image - when exam results roll in

The disappointment

Let’s say your child tried hard but fell short. They are devastated. Your job is to be there with them and wrap a blanket of love around them, says Cullinan from Nord Anglia Abu Dhabi.

Lisa Damour, a psychologist and best-selling author, talks about how to counsel a kid who gets bad news. Be there with them and stay calm. She suggests saying something like, “This did not go down the way you wanted it to go down and because we love you and we want you to have what you want, we’re going to be disheartened on your behalf.” Just be disappointed alongside them.

The goal is not to fix the situation or fix your child. It’s to be there for a hard moment and reassure them that they’ll get through it. Exams are not the measure of a human—they are the measure of an important but narrow set of academic standards. This result will not ruin their future. It might alter it, but that’s life. The key is that you have their back, and you will help them get through it.

Cullinan recounted the story of a stressed Year Eight student who had just gotten a 64% on an exam. The student was visibly upset and said he needed to call his mom, who would be really disappointed in him. Cullinan tried a different narrative: he focused on the areas for improvement rather than the result in hand. He told the student: “Good! So, there’s only 36% left to win!” His choice of words and demeanour communicated that all was not lost; there was plenty of room for growth. “It’s all a dress rehearsal,” he says.

Cullinan holds up his hand and uses his three fingers to make his point. “Every kid’s got a talent, every kid’s got skill, every kid’s got a knowledge base. And for every child, in between the fingers, there’s a vulnerability and our job as parents and as schools is to work together to celebrate the strengths and acknowledge where the vulnerability lies, and then support the child to grow.” Some of those will be academic but there will also be other strengths to see and encourage.

The teaching moment

Your kid wanted to study, but just kept finding so many other fun things to do. Video games. Friends. Sports. Social media. They get poor marks and you are chomping at the bit to:

  • Say ‘I told you so’
  • Demand they confess the error of their ways
  • Punish them

Do none of the above.

They will probably feel the sting of disappointment. Let them. Hug them or reassure them. “I can see you’re disappointed.” Leave it at that.

The teaching moment is not when the bad news rolls in. The teaching moment is when their emotions (and yours) have settled, their defences are down, and there is space to have a conversation about study habits, planning, and what they might do differently next time.

“If there’s an area to improve, it’s a separate conversation for another day,” says Miller from Eton. “The action plan comes later.”

Remember, they are people very much in formation. How we react shapes how they are formed. Our job is to communicate potential.

You messed this up, but you can do better next time.

You didn’t put in the hours, but next time you can.

You misjudged how much you knew. A great data point for when you study for your next test and feel confident you’ve got it in the bag.

“Parents cannot allow a single exam or a set of exams to define the child,” says Miller.

We know they are more than a set of grades. Exam results time is the best time to show that.

About Jenny Anderson

I am an award-winning journalist and author with 20-years of experience on staff at places including the New York Times and Quartz. I currently focus on the learning: what humans need to know, how they get information and how it’s changing. I’ve written one book on behavioural economics and marriage (Random House) and am writing a second one about how parents can support teens’ learning (Crown, 2025).

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