How to prepare your child for the exam period

Coeducation is education for life. Naturally

Exams. A word that can strike fear and traumatic flashbacks into the heart of even the most confident of people! We all remember them. The doubts, the fears, the hopes and the nervous anticipation that went along with them. All Saints’ College Senior School Psychologist, Ainsley Harmsen, offers advice for parents on how to work with your child to make this period as smooth as possible for all concerned.

How to help children with exam stress

Parents and Guardians, the fact is that exams are here to stay. For now, anyway.

So as your teen heads into his or her final exams, it is important to consider how you can best support them to practise some more positive ways of viewing, preparing for, and engaging with them. After all, WACE exams will be the most stressful experience of academic assessment for your teen so far.

Whether we like it or not, much of the pressure that culminates in our teens feeling stressed and anxious around final exam time has been systemically implicit, often beginning as early as Kindergarten. The good news, however, is that by communicating effectively with your child around this very significant few weeks in their life, you can make a huge difference in a really positive way.

Sometimes, parents and teens can get caught up in the notion that the final few weeks of a student’s school life, which incorporate their WACE exams and is reduced to a single number, can define who they are as a person and where they are going to end up in life. When you put it in those terms, it begs the question, “What on earth was every other part of their educational experience worth?” Perhaps we need to take a step back and create some perspective.

Mounting evidence suggests that in the fast-paced and rapidly changing world in which we live, more and more employers are looking not only for sound academic accomplishment but also what is increasingly identified as equally important – ‘soft skills’. This refers to a group of character traits that assist a person to work collaboratively in a team, demonstrate problem-solving capabilities as well as highly developed interpersonal skills, good time management, grit, optimism and self-regulation. Skills such as these are not necessarily obvious from a single ATAR score.

That’s why it is important to keep that single ATAR score in perspective. It is part of a much bigger picture, and there truly is life after exams.

Instilling a ‘growth mindset’

When it comes to exams and, in fact, life in general, mindset has a huge part to play. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, is a world-renowned researcher in the area of fixed versus growth mindset. She states that:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe anyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

When we nurture our children, one of the greatest gifts we can bestow upon them is a growth mindset. Encouraging them to have a go and continue, even when things get tough. Congratulating them for achieving something because they worked hard and didn’t give up, rather than because they are ‘smart’. The former attribution gives them a sense of control over their circumstances; the latter, an attribution more to a fixed concept and thus one they have less control over.

So what can you do as a parent to support your child to navigate these uncharted and challenging waters of WACE exams?

Stress and exams for young people

Ways to support your child

Ease off on expectations for usual household duties – allowing extra space for your teen to study is important. However, if bedrooms that are not normally tidy are suddenly spotless, you may need to check in on your teen to make sure they are not procrastinating with their study. Talk with them about goal setting and how to prioritise these goals within a realistic timeframe. Focus on short-term goals rather than the final result (eg “In the next hour I want to have finished making notes on chapter 4”). By having these conversations with your teen, you are helping them to focus on process rather than end result, and in turn helping to encourage a growth rather than fixed mindset.  You are also supporting the development of their time-management and self-regulation skills, those ‘soft skills’ mentioned earlier.

Do not offer cash rewards for good marks or grades.

You want to nurture your child’s intrinsic motivation by finding out why it is important to them to achieve. Your time and interest, not your money, are what they need for long-term success.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard!

Remember that the pen is mightier than the keyboard! Research regarding note-taking on laptops in comparison to hand written notes has often focused on the impact of multi-tasking on learning and the distraction of checking social media whilst studying. However, psychologists Pam Meuller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that even when laptops were used solely for note-taking, without the distraction of other factors, it resulted in shallower processing of information in comparison to those who took notes long hand. They found that students who took notes via laptop performed worse on conceptual assessment questions than those who had taken hand-written notes. Given that your child will be sitting his or her exams with a pen, it makes sense that they should be encouraged to take hand-written notes when revising – not least to develop muscle stamina in their fingers!

Nerves are normal

Talk about exam nerves. Let your child know that this is a normal part of the exam experience and that a few nerves actually prepare them to perform at their best! If the nerves are way too strong, however, and interrupt their ability to focus, it might be time to consider some quick and simple relaxation exercises (deep breathing is always a good starting point) that they can complete during the exam itself to help them regroup and continue. Students who experience exam anxiety often find it helpful to take a few moments to breathe deeply and regroup immediately after the reading time, as that is when anxiety levels tend to be at their peak. Taking a few minutes out from the exam time to calm themselves can often be a far better approach than trying to attack the paper in a state of distress for the first half an hour or so before their nerves settle.

Ensure that your child is taking time out to exercise during study periods. Exercise releases endorphins which act as a natural ‘mood-lifter’, allowing your teen the opportunity to clear their head in a healthy way amid all of the exam pressure. Parents can play a very helpful role in supporting this exercise, either by walking with their teen, or providing transport to places where they can exercise, such as the gym, a skate park or basketball court.

You can also play an important role as a parent by ensuring your teen maintains a healthy diet and snacking regime throughout the exam period. Provide healthy meals and an abundance of healthy snack options, such as foods high in omega 3 that will enhance concentration and cognitive function.  Fresh fruit, especially berries which are high in antioxidants, can also help with concentration. Ripe bananas, green tea, trail mix and dark chocolate are all good choices too. You can ensure that, when your child comes looking for snacks during their study periods, there is a range of healthy foods to choose from that are not full of sugar and only going to provide a temporary high.

It is also important to discourage your teen from relying on energy drinks as a source of continued alertness and concentration during the preparation process and exam period itself.  An energy drink can be identified by two main ingredients – caffeine and sugar.  Whilst this may provide a short-term boost to concentration (research suggests the sugar crash begins one hour after consumption), the overall long term effects on the body may not be quite so positive.  In a study conducted by Dr Emily Fletcher, Deputy Pharmacy Flight Commander from Travis Airforce Base in California, researchers found that drinking a 32-ounce can of a commercially produced energy drink resulted in more significant changes on the heart’s electrical activity and blood pressure in comparison to drinking the same amount of caffeine in a controlled drink.  It is also important to remember that tolerance can develop reasonably quickly.  Research has shown that it only takes 7 – 12 days for your body to become tolerant to the regular level of caffeine it is consuming and thus, for the dosage to become less effective.  Focusing on sleep hygiene is a much better way to ensure long term positive effects to concentration, memory and level or alertness

Try to ensure your teen maintains a regular and predictable evening wind-down and sleep routine. This can be challenging to preserve in the midst of the exam period and you may sometimes have to step in and enforce the ‘lights out’ rule, as sleep is a crucial factor in overall emotional wellbeing, memory and concentration.

Asking the right questions

Maintain open communication with your teen. Be curious about how they are coping. Choose your timing wisely and get straight to the point. Ask open-ended questions such as, “I know this is a really busy time for you and I’m just wondering how you are managing everything?” Continue to be curious, even if the answers are short. For example, “What are you finding is working well with your revision?”; or, “What has been most challenging for you in your preparation?” Try to listen to their responses without judgement before problem solving together. Don’t try to offer suggestions, first ask, “What do you think you could try that’s different?”; or, “Who could you ask about that?” Finally, after exhausting their list of ideas and things they have tried, you can ask if they would like to hear some of your ideas. Asking for permission first is a good way to avoid a defensive response. From here, you can help your child come up with a plan of action so that they continue to take ownership of their study and exam preparation, and feel supported in the process.

Encourage and support your child to identify and utilise a quiet space for study. There is an increasing amount of research confirming the difficulties of multi-tasking when you are trying to take in information for study and revision. Encourage your teen to plan ahead by developing a study schedule, and then support them by putting their phone in a safe place while they study so they won’t be distracted. Researchers at UWA suggest that attention and memory both begin to become less reliable after about 20 minutes of dedicated study, so encourage your child to have an ‘active’ break after this period of time.

An ‘active’ break means walking around, getting a snack, having a chat, playing with a family pet or listening to music. Discourage computer-based gaming or YouTube and social media check-ins, as these invariably take longer than five minutes. Communicate clearly with your child and well in advance about expectations and boundaries of technology use during exam preparation and the exam period itself.

Whilst low motivation levels, lack of preparation and planning, unrealistically high expectations from self or others, and comparing self to peers in a negative way can all contribute to stress, it is important to be able to recognise when to seek outside support for you child.

If you notice your child is experiencing significant difficulty getting to sleep or waking in the morning, has unexplained aches and pains, is more forgetful than usual, complains of migraines or headaches, demonstrates a loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy, becomes increasingly disconnected from their social group, shows marked changes in diet and or weight, or is increasingly irritable (demonstrated either through increased teariness or physical aggression), it may be time to seek help. The College Psychologist is always a good starting point to discuss your concerns in a confidential manner.

Finally, try to stay as well and stress-free as you can, too. After all, your health and wellbeing are just as important as your child’s.

Your child is moving forward and this is another significant step in their life, but try to keep things in perspective for all involved and, as I said before, there is definitely life after exams!!