December 05th, 2017

How emotional intelligence helps exam prep.

As we head toward the Christmas school holidays many parents and children begin final preparations for the 11+ exams next term. You will probably have done lots of preparations already: your child may have done revision and past test papers, you may have purchased a clear pencil case, checked arrival times and made travel plans, made arrangements for siblings, planned a nutritious breakfast and early night ….. 

Even with all your preparations, your child will probably still get anxious. This is the real thing; they have not done it before, they know it matters and they may well have picked up that you are nervous. They probably also know that getting too nervous won’t help them. In fact some nerves are healthy as it makes use of adrenaline to spur on performance. But too much anxiety produces cortisol, the stress chemical, which can impede performance, especially memory. Some kids are temperamentally more anxious than others. Some kids you wish would show some sign that this is important….! 

You might take your child aside for a quiet word….. “There’s no need to be nervous, everything is going to be fine, and you just need to breathe and stay calm so you can do your best”

These well intentioned words might not hit the mark though. Hearing that you need to manage your nerves is not the same as being able to manage your nerves. Managing anxiety is a really important life-skill.  We can use the remaining weeks (and beyond) to prepare our children, not academically, but emotionally. 

We need to directly discuss our children’s anxiety about the approaching exams. It may not feel natural, it may even feel the wrong thing to do. But in fact it will help them if we say things like “I imagine as the exam gets nearer you may well be getting nervous; perhaps it is rumbling away and you’re not sure what to do about it” or “Maybe you’re scared about feeling scared about the exam, even though you have worked so hard on all those tests.” 

The truth is anxiety is already present in our homes – so we’re not going to introduce it or make it worse by talking about it.  In fact, when we NAME IT we have a chance to TAME IT. 

Let’s give our children a chance to recognise and acknowledge their nerves, by identifying them and then supporting them to work their way through their feelings. We may still give the advice about breathing, but we approach it in a different way. 

Talking about feelings generally at home helps children develop emotional intelligence. This helps them developing exactly the kind of skills that will help children in their composition and comprehension papers. Researchers have found strong links between emotional intelligence and creative and critical thinking skills. 

In these last few weeks you can really boost your child’s emotional intelligence by:

  • Really paying attention to whatever they are feeling, whether its excitement, contentment, pride or anxiety, frustration, or feeling not good enough. Describe those feelings to them. 
  • Tell, or read, your child a story and then talk about it afterwards. Get them to describe to you what happened and explain how it made them feel. Ask them how the characters in the story felt and how they know. What are the characters likely to do next, given how they feel? 
  • You can do the same with film. 

We can also teach children to manage anxiety in a few ways. 

  • Help your child to feel competent. Use praise which is specific and focused on strategies they use rather than outcomes. “It seems to work for you to walk up and down the corridor while memorising your tables”. 
  • We can model our own approach to nervesverbalise how you feel when you’re doing something new or difficult or important, and show them how you handle this. (“I am so excited about driving Dad’s new car, and I am also worried. I think I need to get to know where everything is before I turn the engine on, and then maybe I should do a practice run around the block before I drive too far.” 
  • Be open about the benefits of anxiety. Any performer will tell you that those tingling and jangling adrenaline-fuelled nerves are what can propel you further, keep you going and take to you to new heights – if you welcome and harness them. No nerves? That’s just not true. 
  • Discuss how nervousness feels – can we visualise or describe nerves?

When I asked my sons, I was astonished how clearly they could express their fear! One son said he feels cold and wants to stay very still; he described it as feeling blue and fragile, like glass. My other son described his anxiety as red and bubbling and it makes him want to run. 

  • And what are the early warning signals that things are building inside you? I realise now that I’m concerned about something when my fingers start twitching and I can’t settle to one task. Ask where in their body do they feel the nerves? Tummy, head, arms or legs? 
  • We can refer to other people – it’s not just them. How does Tom Daley feel standing on tip toes at the end of a 10m diving board? They may look completely calm and relaxed – how do we think they manage it? 
  • Talk about various calming techniques that may work for them. They may need a different one to those that work for us. Some well-known options are breathing, visualizing a serene and happy place, or a balloon floating into the distance, or maybe they need to sing or talk to themselves, or have a mad dance around the house to release tension? Whichever one catches their imagination, give it a go and practice it, often. 

Obviously doing mad dances or tapping fingers or feet in the exam hall isn’t going to be an option, so it’s likely they will need some alternative calming techniques. (Juliet’s son takes blu-tak into exams, he squishes it between his fingers in his pocket. ) 

The trick is to use these techniques early enough – hence the need to spot early warning signs. 

So, just as with revision preparations, emotional preparations will help your child deal with exam nerves but also develop emotional intelligence generally. And don’t forget about sleep and exercise….

Posted in: Emotion Coaching , Exam , Schooling





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