Exams frighten almost everyone and today’s students have to face more of them than any previous generation, so it’s not surprising that stress and anxiety can begin to overwhelm even the most able. We all know that feelings of nervousness quickly lead to a lack of motivation to study and forgetfulness, followed by an inability to concentrate and think clearly. This leads to under performance and even failure, regardless of academic potential and ability.
As parents we have an instinctive urge to keep our children safe and out of harm’s way. Watching them struggle and cope with one of life’s biggest challenges independently can be very frustrating. Some parents have overwhelming desires to ’do something’ to help, but remember, a gentle prod can be helpful but a shove rarely is. It’s time to play a more supportive role. Of course, there’s no substitute for real knowledge acquired throughout the academic year but when you reach the final hurdle, it’s the little things that count; the difference that could make all the difference.
‘Junk food, junk mind’: Children should be eating well at this time. If you want your mind and body to be working at its best, you need to think about the fuel that is being put into it. I remember receiving some exam advice from one of my children’s schools and the advice was that children should eat what they like: if burgers and junk food are their favourite then there’s nothing wrong with this throughout the exam period. I disagree completely with this. The exam period could last six weeks or more and eating nutritionally deficient foods for that length of time will not help them to pass. Remember, you’re looking for ways to pick up extra marks here and there – the ones that your child usually misses out on. If your child’s most difficult maths paper happens to be right at the end of the six week period, then having gorged on sugary snacks and sweets all that time is not going to help them to feel calm and concentrate easily.
Get moving: If your child shows clear signs of feeling grumpy or fed up with revision, encourage them to shake it out! Tell them to hop around on one leg and shake their hands in the air. Shuffling your circulation and energy flow around like this makes it harder for the body to hang onto negative feelings. Make sure they take regular exercise breaks from simple walks around the block to a couple of longer activities during the week. Studies show that children who do aerobic exercise such as cycling, swimming, playing football or running, achieve higher exam results.
Sleep: Ensure your child gets plenty of this and sticks to their usual waking and sleeping hours. Don’t allow them to slip into holiday mode during study leave for it makes getting up for exam that much harder. This is especially important if they have an afternoon exam – they need to get up at their usual morning waking time in order to be in the best frame of mind.
Be aware of what works best: Everyone is different, so help your child figure out what does and does not work well for them. If they tell you they had a particularly good revision session, make a note of the details such as the time of day, the location, whether it was totally quiet or with background noise. Note whether they’d just eaten and notice the particular book or system that they were using. If it worked well on one occasion, the chances are it will work well again.
Work with your child to help them begin noticing how different revision styles suit different people. They may get on better:
• Recording their voice onto a tape recorder • Using a whiteboard and coloured pens to group information • Creating flash cards • Using rhymes, mnemonics or mind maps • Having someone to test them
Looking at two year’s worth of Geography files can feel slightly daunting for anyone. Chunking it down into smaller sections and categories will make it easier to remember.
Choose revision surroundings carefully as the more these match the exam room environment, the better. Lying on a bed, or sitting in the garden under a tree may seem like a nice idea to make those hours of studying easier, but sitting at a table will help your child’s body associate this position with their studies. Recalling the information in exam conditions will be a lot easier when they adopt a similar pose.
Tolerance levels for untidy bedrooms, loud music and grumpy moods need to be at their highest right now. Your priority is to keep everyone happy, so ease off and let things slip a little until the exam period is over.
Draw up a timetable of exams and study periods. Use a large piece of paper for this and remember to include the weekends and leisure activities too. It will feel less daunting to be able to see a few days of exams followed by a weekend, rather than a month’s exams en masse. Stick it where your child will see it. They will be arriving and leaving school at random times now and it will be easy to get thrown by this.
Make time to sit and listen. As boring as it may be to listen to your child recite his French oral for the fifth time, grit your teeth and remind yourself it only happens once. Since you are taking an active involvement, it will be easier to encourage breaks from study with activities such as a meal out with the family. This will help break up the stress and relieve some pressure.
Keep your child happy and motivated – do everything in your power to keep things calm and positive – even if it means tolerating their choice of music playing at full blast in the car as you make your way to the exam! If they arrive in a happy motivated state this will serve them well.
Avoid rewards: Psychological studies have proven that offering rewards actually reduces the level of interest your child will have in their studies. They’ll also send out the message that exams are negative experiences that need compensating for and you’ll inadvertently exaggerate the unpleasantness of the whole situation. The worst outcome would be that your child’s attention and focus is taken off the task in hand and is placed onto the reward. In order to be successful, your child needs to have a clear picture of his goal and want it badly. Offering money in return for good results places your child’s desire in the wrong place and make no mistake, your child will figure out how to obtain maximum reward for minimum effort.
Dealing with last minute stress: At crucial moments, say in the last few hours before an exam, the stress may just get too much for your child. One of the most useful things to teach your children is how to deal with feelings of anxiety.
If your child feels panicky just as they’re entering the exam room there’s an easy solution. Show them how to place their hands over their mouth and imagine they’re blowing up a balloon, blowing out slowly for as long as they can. This should be repeated three times. Explain to them that these panicky feelings are created by chemicals in our bodies and by doing this exercise they will have blown them right away.
To add to the calming effect they could repeat the following affirmation to themself:
“I’m starting to feel calm and relaxed, becoming more calm and relaxed with each moment…”
Their body will automatically follow the direction of their mind.
WORDS THAT WORK
• It’s not about being the best, it’s about being better than you were yesterday.
• I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.
• I can see that you put a lot of effort into that
• I know that you’re doing your best
• Since last week, I’ve noticed a real improvement
• Look at the progress you’ve made, in spite of..
• You can start to feel proud of yourself..
• I can see that you’re starting to feel more confident about…
• Each day you’re becoming a little more…
• It’s good that you’re starting to realise…
• It’s only natural that…
Alicia Eaton is a Behavioural & Emotional Wellbeing Specialist based in London’s Harley Street. She is also the author of: “Words that Work: How to get Kids to do Almost Anything”; “Fix Your Life with NLP” and “Stop Bedwetting in 7 Days”.