Early Years “examination” stress in Hong Kong

Long Read | 10 mins

“Can you help my child prepare for their examination?”

I have been a tutor in Hong Kong for the past 5 years working with early years children. This is a line I get all the time before every new school year, but now I get it regularly and randomly.

Just about everyone knows Hong Kong kids and typically Asian kids in general are ruthlessly examined on their schooling. But not many outsiders know also the child’s extracurricular activities are ALSO examined. Activities like music, sport, art, drama – all activities that should be enjoyment based, are still used as credit points for school promotion.

With all this examining going on, how does this excessive scrutiny and pressure affect a child’s overall development?

I want to dive into some history and facts before pulling apart my thoughts on this situation.

Before I get into expanding topics and sharing real-life examples. I must share the over arching standard global view on examining students.

Examination’s expectations over history

Modern traditional Examinations are about:
“Asking students to demonstrate their understanding of a subject matter, which is critical to the learning process; it is essential to evaluate whether the educational goals and standards of the lessons are being met.” (July 15, 2008: Edutopia)

To attain a broader understanding we need to look at the history of examining students, especially in the region of Hong Kong/China where my current concern is.

Examinations in regard to western schooling culture have been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the early 1700’s. These examinations were the key to higher academic learning, and in turn social influence. However in older Chinese culture, exams go back thousands of years as rites of entry into the Imperial Civil Service.
“If one could impress one’s teachers for a few years, one might be invited to audition for right to be granted a degree.” (October 5, 2016: Alex Usher)

It doesn’t sound too different from today’s examinations. Using exam results as means to impress school boards to gain access to higher learning and in turn, social status.
Exams have usually been the end step in tertiary education as the final testing for entry into particular Universities and courses.

So what does this look like in the Hong Kong schooling system?

Hong Kong’s Examining Pressure

(Sourced: Apple Daily)

Hong Kong is all about academic “impressing”. The competition is fierce and top university spots are few. The pressure is on to be the best, and to get selected.
A major part of this pressure is due to Hong Kong’s population density (17,311 people per square mile (6,659 people per square kilometer). So many students are being forced through a narrow door of acceptance.

From my own observation, the pressure of this ruthless examination system trickles down through the age groups from High School to Primary to beginning Kindergarten.

It leaves me with some burning questions around the affect this has on children in the early years.

What does this excess pressure/stress do to emotionally vulnerable young children?

(Wealan Pollard / OJO Images / Getty Images)

Stress in Early Years Development

The easiest signs of stress are seen in the physical, before we realise the changes in the psychological.
“While it’s not always easy to recognize when kids are stressed out, short-term behavioral changes — such as:
mood swings,
acting out,
changes in sleep patterns, or bedwetting — can be indications.
Some kids have physical effects, including stomachaches and headaches. Others have trouble concentrating or completing schoolwork. Still others become withdrawn or spend a lot of time alone.

Younger children may pick up new habits like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking; older kids may begin to liebully, or defy authority. A child who is stressed also may overreact to minor problems, have nightmares, become clingy, or have drastic changes in academic performance.” 3.

Signs of stress I have witnessed in young Children

Some early years children have displayed teeth grinding, scribbling with anger, crossed arms, unwillingness to participate, glazed eye look of disconnection. There are many variables that could contribute to these tendencies. For young kids stress is typically a form of suppressed energy trying to find its way out.

From my own knowledge, when expectations to perform (preparing for examinations/interviews) are placed on kids, they tend to lose a part of themselves to adapt to these external requests from parents, teachers, educators, schools.

The spark from their eyes is gone and the smile becomes forced to “keep face.” From my own observations, the higher the pressure, the less time children have to discover more about themselves and form their own identity and values.

Examinations and intrinsic values

“Assessments and Examinations distract from observing deeper intrinsic values.” 

– James Nottingham

When gathering information on children’s health and how examinations affect development, I came across the work of James Nottingham (world renowned author, speaker and Child Development Specialist) He shared his views below:

“The problem with assessment is that there are just a narrow band of things that we are able to assess. So I could assess reading ability, writing progress, speaking and listening progress, I could probably assess those. But there are many things I can’t assess, such as, determination, curiosity, open-mindedness, resilience, self-belief. Those are many things that would be very, very difficult to assess…

And so the danger is, when we focus on assessments, particularly in early years, we start to narrow the field, narrow what we value.

Of course I want children to be literate and numerate. I also want many other things. I want them to be confident. I want them to be joyful. I want them to be playful.”  
— James Nottingham 

Play is life

When doing my studies into Early Year’s Education I had to save this part of James Nottingham’s conversation. It was exactly what I had on my mind, when I think about Hong Kong’s current education system.
Exams aren’t the only thing stressing young kids in Hong Kong, but academic performance (including results from exams) surely is a major factor as academic performance is typically measured from these examination results. Just check out the table below of Hong Kong parent’s view of their child’s stress distribution.

Academic performance is weighted on so heavily in Hong Kong society and pushed to the extreme.

To say examinations and academic pressure have shaped the whole culture wouldn’t be a complete statement, however the percentage of contribution for “reasons to worry” is quite dominating.

For the everyday family that is raising kids in this society, how can they find their way through this education pressure cooker of examinations? Is this pressure avoidable, are there other options?

Are there ways around these examinations?

A lot of the times these exams and interviews are unavoidable, especially to progress or to be accepted in most Hong Kong schools. The stakes are high and the choices are limited. Parents feel the need to push their kids as much as possible to get them into that upper percentile that are selected. Hence the renowned title, ‘Tiger Mom’ which originates from this culture.

As the majority of Hong Kong schools follow traditional means of testing and examining through all age levels, there is no place to hide. Local school to international schools. Exams cannot be avoided.

Some schools may portray an environment that seems less stressful, but behind the scenes the pressure remains. The requirements of children performing is still there. The pride of school’s academic system is still there.

My experience

As a tutor I frequently get asked by parents to go over material their school provides; much to the child’s dismay. Another thing I get asked regularly is to help children with interview skills or exam preparation. Which pretty much means to regurgitate information on the spot with no genuine conversational interest. Kid’s hate it and it’s super awkward.

It’s a predicament I am in, as I see the need to provide a safe place children can express, yet still encourage them in English and cover points that they can use in their school life and beyond.

Many times I have chatted with destrought parents, at the end of their tether dealing with the pressure of their child’s school curriculum.

Small snippet of a HK mother’s sharing.

The unfortunate thing is children become the beneficiaries of stress passed down from desperate parents, which get the pressure from the teachers, which get it from the school curriculum, which get it from the school board, which must get it from the Education Bureau. Where else can it come from?

What can we do to ease the stress?

Until the Hong Kong education system catches up with children’s mental and physical health, this cycle of examining will never stop. So, how do we deal with it for now at least

There’s a few points we must understand about our kids:

– We must get a clear understanding of our child’s personal needs. Physically, Emotionally, Mentally and Spiritually. If we want our kids to become fully developed individuals certain needs must be met first. Stress must be mitigated well to attain wellbeing.

Credit: http://www.simplypsychology.com

– We need to know their learning styles to best support them! Not every child learns the same! To often activities that appeal to the written form of learning get relied too heavily upon in HK schooling.

See the file below and try it with your kids!

– We need to figure out ways together to help them manage and also express their stress levels. Us teachers and parents need to be a safe place to express to.

Credit: Children’s Health

We, as parents and teachers need to start looking at our children and students as future adults in society.

We need to start leading them with intrinsic values as priority, with grading and testing coming secondary.

We start to observe the full spectrum of their personality, not merely  percentages on an exam report.

Happiness beyond examinations

I will finish with this little story that happened a few months ago with one of my students.

This particular student started out with alot of pressure from her school. She focused alot on her grades, and the stress was visible on her face. Over a few years we have worked together and quite a few times I have brought to her attention not to focus on the scores, but to enjoy the art of learning, to challenge yourself at times, but most of all- be yourself.

Last month she came up to me excitedly with her report card from school. And she showed me her grades, and she pointed to a result with her finger and said, “I know it’s a B-, but I am happy with that. I don’t mind about the score, it doesn’t mean much to me. I love doing art now.”

We have to look beyond the examining, and instill the values that takes a person through life. Perfectionism doesn’t equal happiness.

Knowing that results don’t dictate this student’s happiness and passion, is greatly satisfying.

If we want children that are happy and balanced individuals, that resonate confidence and shine their own light in society, it starts with us.

If there are any points you wish to expand on with me, I am open to new knowledge and learning. Please contact me.

– Mr Jamie


  1. https://www.edutopia.org/assessment-guide-importance
  2. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/stress.html
  3. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/stress.html


Published by eduuplay

Eduuplay Founder Head Teacher at English with Mr Jamie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: