Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

Talking to parents: How to help your kids through school exams

What are you going to say when one of the people you love most in the world comes to you for consolation when their exam grades fall short?

Sharjah has been chosen as Unesco World Book Capital 2019, giving you the perfect excuse to get your head into a book. Getty Images
Sharjah has been chosen as Unesco World Book Capital 2019, giving you the perfect excuse to get your head into a book. Getty Images

There are few sights more likely to strike fear into students (and their parents) than a sheet of white A4 paper, pinned up in a school corridor, bearing the words: “Quiet, please. Exam in progress.” Whether it’s testing general progress or the more formal SATs, IGCSEs or the IB Diploma, there are more and more opportunities for school kids of all ages to worry about examinations.

My eldest daughter was only eight when she first declared “I hate exams”, even though to my knowledge, she’d never even sat one. Just being in close proximity to older students in a state of meltdown was enough to convince her that exams were bad news, apparently. Hearing this, my heart sank: only a decade of school-age exams to endure, then the university years. With parental sanity in mind as exam season kicks off, here’s a survival guide.

Gauging pressure

It’s blindingly obvious but worth stating again (and again): no two children are the same. One child might cruise through exams, barely picking up a textbook while a sibling painstakingly works through a neatly planned revision timetable, putting in five hours of desk time a day. Both might be feeling the pressure, however; just shouldering it in different ways. Talk to your child’s form tutor before revision craziness kicks off to get a sense of the way they normally work at school – are they successful crammers or slow ’n’ steady Eddies? It’s also important to gauge how stressed your child appears to be by the prospect of exams to know how much emotional support is needed at home.

How well can you handle it?

Exams are a big deal. Whether your nine-year-old comes home from school, crying because she earned 10 marks less than her friend in a maths test, or your 18-year-old is winding up to take their A-levels, the emotional toll for parents is considerable. You know you mustn’t nag, patrol their revision time, or hide their mobile phone or PlayStation, but it’s all too tempting. What’s really important is to play down the importance of exam success. One Stanford University study, co-written by well-known psychology professor Carol Dweck, found that children are very sensitive to how their parents view failure. Dweck, who is known for her study of the fixed and growth mindset, concluded that parents who view failure as a setback, are more likely to have children who believe their intelligence, and therefore their potential for success, is fixed. Not surprisingly, this lessens a kid’s motivation to do well.

Fall back on the easy stuff

When in doubt, let your child take care of the study, while you take care of them. Instead of monitoring revision planning, try to make sure that they get eight to 11 hours of sleep a night, depending on their age, particularly the night before an exam. Set the kitchen table aside for revision, and keep bedrooms exam-free, relaxing spaces. Help them to avoid sugary snacks, which encourage mood highs and lows, and fill the fridge with plenty of fresh fruit and low-sugar treats instead. It goes without saying that meals should max the fresh vegetables, with healthy fats, carbohydrate and protein to boot. Finally, make sure they get some fresh air, exercise and a change of perspective every day.

What exam technique?

For children who are used to following a lessons timetable with homework thrown in to guide their learning, having to organise their own revision is a daunting task. There are many ways to learn from short, 25-minute spells of learning, interspersed with napping to help the brain memorise information, to regularly testing yourself to improve memory retention. It’s worth reviewing the science and encouraging your kids to try different techniques until they find one that suits. For example, spacing – or learning in short bursts – was found to be up to 30 per cent more effective than cramming, in one US study (published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2013), which tested 10 learning techniques. Finally, help kids to set realistic goals about what they might achieve with their time – it’s generally a skill honed with experience, and office rather than school life.

Prepare for results day

What are you going to say when one of the people you love most in the world comes to you for consolation when their exam grades fall short? Hopefully, they already know that it isn’t the end of the world, but your reaction will still be remembered far longer than the result itself, so have more than a platitude prepared. Quick quiz: what could you do better next time? It’s a team effort, after all.

Updated: April 15, 2019 03:57 PM

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