May 07th, 2018

Summer is coming...and so are those exams

While many of us are enjoying some warmer weather at last, many families will be trying to combine having some outdoor time with preparing for exams. What can we do to support our children in the lead-up to these important days, without adding to their stress? 

Hopefully your child is moving into the countdown to the exam period with some preparation under his belt. Maybe not as much as you’d like. There’s no doubt more to be done but we need to encourage our children rather than lecture, nag or (whisper the word) bribe. This may not be one of those times where you’re prepared to let your child experience the natural consequence of his actions, or inactions. Our attempts to motivate them so easily slip into bribes which will feel manipulative. When children feel controlled they often rebel or they can become so withdrawn that they lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. Not great if we’re trying to encourage problem-solving. It’s also possible that they may seek to control things in turn and become very demanding and negotiate about everything. 

So what can we say and do that will encourage our children to persevere, feel confident they can do what is required and manage anxiety?  Giving lots of encouragement through Descriptive Praise will be very important but below are three other ideas that will help.

 LET them do it their way

Your child may not be able to say no to revision but he can revise his way. Don’t insist he does it your (better) way. Many children find it very hard to sit still and in fact being forced to be still may impede their learning. Many learn better by moving, maybe hitting or bouncing a ball, or simply walking around the room. Others are more visual and need pictures – get drawing with shapes and flow-diagrams on a white board, or blank postcards. Other children are more auditory and they may find background music helpful, not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – all the better if these are weird and wacky. They need to be memorable to your child.   

Brainstorm with children for solutions to problemsdon’t just tell them what to do. This fosters creative thinking and problem solving abilities and helps them feel capable. When your child is stick on a problem, before jumping in with your ideas ask her what her suggestions are, descriptively praise her for using her brain/thinking creatively/problem-solving and then ask questions to help her evaluate her solutions. 

EMPATHISE –give their big feelings a name to control them

This is probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some anxiety, and maybe poor behaviour. In fact exam nerves can be beneficial as they push us to perform at a higher level. Studies comparing amateur competitors with professionals show that both experience anxiety before an event but the professionals viewed it as a positive force, whereas amateurs thought it was detrimental to their performance. The same ‘reframing’ works for children taking exams. Teach them to harness the adrenaline to improve their performance. 

Most parents want to take away worries and try to push them through to feeling better about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be fine soon, it will all work out” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset,  you need to get your head down and stop wasting time; getting cross doesn’t help any of us….”

Instead we need to really listen to how they feel and then help them work their way towards a solution. “I sense this is really getting you down right now. I wonder if it feels like this is all you get to do, and maybe you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.….”

This won’t make them feel worse, or put ideas into their heads, but it does make them feel connected and understood, which in itself is calming.

And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics don’t make children perform better. 

LOOK BEHIND words or behaviour

Children want to do well – it’s in their nature. And they do care about the result and their future (to the extent that they can imagine their future), and they really don’t want to disappoint us.

If they start to believe they can’t succeed or that we are not happy with them, they may pull back from trying. Some children will bluster and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put in much effort. After all failing when you’ve held something in reserve is better than bombing when you’ve given it your all, isn’t it?

Our best approach is to face this head on. “I wonder if you’re worried about trying hard, and still not getting a good mark. It’s scary to push yourself to the full. What happens if it doesn’t work out? It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows more when you make it struggle with things.”  

They can’t really answer direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment that they are wrong to be worried etc.  

Empathise also with the fact that they’d just rather be playing and that other children (and adults) don’t have to be revising. Make sure they do have some down time.

Remember that this stressful time will pass and think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to handle the stress that they will inevitably encounter in life. Encourage them to employ some anti-stress measures such as physical play and having a good laugh –maybe get them a joke book. Make sure you look after your own stress levels too…. 2 joke books.

We hope whichever exams your child is facing go really well and that they learn something about coping with stress in the process. Do let us know if you come up with any great ways of counteracting stress in your family. Good luck!

Posted in: Exam , Schooling





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