Last week, I suggested that you planned in a chat about exams with your child. I hope it went well…
It can be so reassuring for a teenager just to have the chance to talk things over, and perhaps share things they have been thinking or worrying about. Doing this when things are calm, rather than bolting it on to a difficult conversation is vital!
If it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, don’t give up! More on that later!
The teenage brain is undergoing a process of reconstruction, which means that it can be hard for the teenager to separate worries out. They can experience a feeling of ‘everything being wrong’, but when they talk things over with you, they soon realise that things are not as bad as they seem, or that there are only a couple of things that aren’t as they would like rather than ‘everything’. It can be especially reassuring if you can start getting a plan together to deal with any of the worries they have, but If you haven’t come up with solutions yet, your listening will still be so valuable to them.
Exam time is stressful for teenagers. Even the ones who say they don’t care about exams, who tell you they’re not bothered if they fail are usually stressed! It’s very hard to find a young person who wants to fail. When they say they don’t care, they may be preparing an excuse for if and when they do fail (“I wasn’t bothered so I didn’t do any work”). It’s far safer to say ‘I failed because I didn’t try, rather than I tried hard, but it wasn’t good enough’.
For Year 11 students, this is the first time when their performance in exams has a direct impact on their next steps, and no one else is responsible for or can ‘fix’ those outcomes. For students wanting to go to further or higher education, the stakes are also high. This is a burden, and different teenagers will cope in different ways. These concerns are particularly difficult if you are also living with low self esteem, which is common in the teen years. One of the keys to success is knowing that exams can be stressful, but preparing well so that you feel ready for the challenge, rather than threatened by the fear of failure.
We could all do with remembering that stress itself isn’t ‘bad’. It’s ‘bad’ for us if we feel that we can’t cope. The threat of not feeling we can cope turns stress (a challenge) into anxiety. It is anxiety that creates worry, feelings of helplessness, not thinking straight, feeling sick… The list goes on!
Kelly McGonigal offers a great insight to ‘Making stress your friend’ that I’d recommend:
It is our thoughts that create anxiety, so getting our thinking straight is a really important part of feeling that we can cope.
Imagine two teenagers standing outside the same exam. They have done exactly the same amount of preparation for the exam, but they think differently…
|Student A||Student B|
I’m going to fail
I’m not ready
Everyone here knows more than me
What if they ask stuff I don’t know
I’m going to let myself down
My family won’t be proud of me
|I’ve done some preparation for today – I feel ready
I’ve practiced past questions so I know what to expect
There will probably be some questions on the paper that I won’t be sure about
I can afford to make some mistakes and still do well
I don’t need to score 100%
I have been taught well
I’ll be able to write part answers where I can’t answer full ones
I’m an intelligent young man/woman and I can use what I know to guess sensibly if I need to
Student A is making the exam immeasurably more difficult than student B! Just by thinking negatively, student A releases the stress hormone cortisol, which has a dramatic effect on concentration and memory (you may recognise this when you are feeling really anxious- we can’t ‘think straight’ or remember basic information!)
The student then enters the exam, and when the first question is tricky, they can really downward spiral.
On the other hand, student B has given themselves permission to be less than perfect! If they find a question difficult, they will be calm enough to leave it, and move on to something easier. Often, whilst they are writing the next answer they’ll remember something to write for the difficult question. Positive thinking wakens a hormone called serotonin in the brain. This helps recall, leads to new ideas and the connection between ideas- all very helpful in an exam! We can see this in all sorts of performance contexts; the athlete who feels they are ‘in the zone’, the author who can’t get the words down quickly enough, the singer who performs with such confidence that they forget there’s an audience watching!
So our challenge this week is to start building the skill of thinking positively. It is a skill which means it improves with good practice! With 12 weeks to go until the exams, your child has plenty of time to become very good!
This reconstruction of the brain means that the ’emotional centre’ of the brain is particularly active. This helps to explain a response that seems very emotional (and often irrational). When this is the case, it’s important as a parent to try and stay calm (easy for me to say!).
A strategy that works for me is to acknowledge that they are upset/angry/tearful, so you are going to give them some time to deal with that. Suggest that you’ll give them a shout in 20/30/60 minutes (remember you know your child best, so you’ll have an idea of how long they may need to get things under control!). At that time, we’ll come back and talk things over. Teenagers can take their emotional state out on us parents, and whilst we know we need to absorb some of that, there’s no need for you to accept any behaviour that is uncomfortable for you.
I try and remind them that I know they don’t wish to be hurtful or disrespectful, so when we come back together there’s an expectation that the conversation will be better. When we use language that is positive, caring and assertive, there are clear boundaries. Teenagers really need boundaries (even though they like to tell us that they don’t!). The obvious and important thing here is that you do go back and pick up the conversation!! You may also pose some simple and important questions for your teenager to consider whilst they calm down. Ones that I like are:
“What would need to be different for you to feel better?”
“What is the most important thing for you to solve at the moment?”
“If we could get one things more sorted, how would you feel about everything else?”
Positive thinking doesn’t come naturally to many teenagers, and it’s especially difficult when they are worried, or feeling the pressure. Having plan to deal with the preparation for exams is half the battle! We all know the preparation can’t be done in one day, so having a plan to tackle the workload is reassuring.
This week, I met a parent who said their child doesn’t care about exams, and doesn’t see the point of doing any revision.
I suspect what they may feel is that they are overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, and they don’t know where to begin. If this is where you are, a helpful starting point would be to concentrate on one or two subjects in the short term. If your child is in year 11, it makes sense for these to be Maths and English. By law a student who does not pass these must resit them until a pass is achieved.
Remember, stress becomes ‘bad’ when we don’t think we can cope, and the volume of work can look overwhelming, so breaking it down into priorities is a good start. So if your chat last week didn’t go to plan, you could try again, and this time try and find out what the concerns are, and then be able to break things down into more manageable chunks.
If you are really struggling, get your child to think about an area of their life they feel good about. They are more than capable of making a success of that! Starting our thinking from a positive place, feeling confident about something else can get us ‘kick started’.
So this week:
Schedule in another chat!
Remind your child that they don’t need to be perfect to perform well.
Acknowledge that there is lots to do, but that because we are starting in plenty of time, each small step will get them to the point where they are ‘exam ready’
It may help to talk about stress as a normal and often positive thing, but it becomes uncomfortable when we don’t believe we can face the challenge. A major part of the toolkit to being ready for exams is knowing how to think positively.
Ask your child to tell you what is going well at the moment. As they talk , make a list of what they say, and then use this to show them that there are positives – you can even suggest they put it up somewhere to look at every day so that they can see what is going well!
Finally, If your child’s school offer lunchtime or after school support for exams, make sure your child goes along – it really helps in getting them into the mindset of preparation. Teachers work really hard to prepare students for exams, and students need to be present to gain the benefits of these sessions!
Next time we will explore how to get a good revision plan together