The results are in and the news is not good – Keep your focus on the big picture

As hundreds of thousands of matrics enter the period of limbo between finishing their final exams and hearing their results, it is time to face the fact that many of them will soon hear the disappointing news that they didn’t do as well as they had hoped. But it is necessary to keep a sense of perspective and realise that “Matric does not define me”.  Adults have to ensure that they provide effective and efficient support, says a leading educational expert.

“Most 18-year olds have developed the ability to reason at an adult level, but only in situations where there is time to do so,” says Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of the Independent Institute of Education.

“By their late teens, many young people still struggle with resisting peer pressure, controlling their impulses and assessing how risky a situation actually is. However, given enough space and support, most are able to make rational decisions at the same level as adults. In this reality – caught between adolescence and adulthood – lies the key for managing any disappointment that may come with matric results.”

Coughlan says that the first reaction will, understandably, be an emotional one, even though the way it manifests from person to person may differ. Some will show it, others will hide it, but the first reaction is unlikely to be a rational one.

“If you, or the young person who wrote matric, are disappointed by the outcome of the results and have to deal with the immediate knowledge that doors may unexpectedly be closing, it is important to remember that the first reaction is not one driven by the adult part of the young person. Remember too that your own fear, anger or disappointment will feed the reaction of the younger person,” she says.

“As the adult, manage what you say and what shows in your eyes until the young person has had time to process their own emotions – yours cannot be an additional burden they need to bear. Immediately after the matriculant is informed of his or her results, particularly if they are disappointing, is not the time to get into the practical consequences.”

Instead, says Coughlan, this should be a time for support, listening and reflection in a non-judgmental manner. ‘I can see this is tough for you’ is far more helpful than ‘what else did you expect with the effort you put in?’ – even if the latter might be entirely true.

“Allow the matriculant to experience the feelings. If you suspect there is a real risk of a sustained negative reaction, perhaps even a self-destructive action – it is necessary to keep a close watch. But don’t tell them not to feel what they are feeling, as the last thing you need to do right now is shut down their willingness to let you see the stress,” says Coughlan.

After allowing reality to sink in for a day or two, the adult should begin to find ways of talking about the new possibilities – some young people may want to do this straight away but I don’t advise you to encourage making new decisions until the emotions have been processed a bit.

“Talk through the options and share the information, in a way that is consonant with how a young person works. That may mean over a meal with one person or walking the dog with another. The point is that you must offer your insights in a calm manner, and then leave the youngster to use the adult faculty which they are in the process of developing to think through these. Don’t ask for immediate assessments or decisions, allow them time to figure it out and to take back some of the power and esteem that the disappointment dented.  Keep talking and asking questions but don’t nag – it won’t give you the outcome you want.”

In a 2009 article published in the American Psychologist, Dr Laurence Steinberg, a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University, said that in late adolescence, young people can – and do – make considered decisions even about very emotional matters if given the time and space to do so. However “in the moment decisions” under pressure were far less emotionally mature.

In work done with adolescents in the Eastern Cape in the late 1990s, Coughlan found the same thing: When given time in a supportive environment such as a Life Centre, even highly marginalised young people could and did make solid decisions.

“With the right support, they were able to make solid decisions they were able to act on. And with the rights support, poor matric results need not be viewed as the end of the road. In fact, they could turn out to be a positive catalyst to start making better, and more mature decisions, which can set the young person firmly on a road to a fulfilled and productive life,” Coughlan says.

– The Independent Institute of Education