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  • Writer's pictureLloyd Ripley-Evans

Coping with your child's exams

Updated: May 19, 2020

Your role as a parent

As we approach the mid-year examinations, we need to take a moment to reflect on the year so far, and the role we are playing in our child/children’s lives. We consider what our role really is in relation to our children. I am certain that all of us can agree that in some way, we all want to help our children be the very best that they can be, to reach their potential, to achieve in some aspect of their schooling career, or something along those lines. As we reflect upon this, we need to seriously consider whether what we are helping our children achieve is the best for them, or the best for US. What are the expectations that we have for our children, as often these can be unrealistic or even misaligned from what a child is willing or able to achieve. These unrealistic expectations can place a significant amount of pressure on a child, adding to the already stressful and turbulent challenges which they face. As we reflect on this we can then begin to consider whether the support and guidance that we offer (whether unsolicited or not) is helping or hindering our children’s performance as we seem to face the same fights an challenges every year around exam time.

Multiple Roles

Sometimes as parents we need to be able to fulfill multiple roles in order to support and guide our children when they need it, however, it is necessary to remember that we do not need to feature as the following for our children as they have enough of these in their lives already:

  • Teacher

  • Critic

  • Policeman

  • PA

  • Study-buddy

  • Drill sergeant

Yes, at times our role as a parent may reflect some similar characteristics, but the frequency and intensity of the characteristics from the list above should be low. Rather let the individuals who are trained, experienced or employed for the various roles take on the tasks on a regular basis. This means that you will have more time for the important role of being a parent.

You are their parent, which means that throughout your day you will need to juggle between two crucial ‘hats’, one of “parent” and the other of “mom” or “dad”.

That first hat of “parent” refers to the critical role of disciplinarian that needs to play a key role daily. This role requires you to enforce the rules, implement consequences and be strict and firm with your child when needed. This is a relatively unemotional role due to the fact that our emotions complicate our actions and decisions, and most often our children know how to exploit our emotions. This hat should be put on for short periods, and only when necessary, to address negative behavior and enforce the structures, rules and consequences that have been agreed upon and implemented within your home.

The second hat of “mom” or “dad” is the emotional, loving and caring role that plays such a vital role in supporting, guiding and building up your child. It reinforces their characteristics and views about people and the world and ultimately helps shape them into the individuals that they will become. This role allows us to connect, build deep and meaningful relationships and teach those valuable lessons.

Considering these ‘hats’ we need to juggle, it makes sense that we should be the following for our children:

  • Role model

  • Supporter

  • Guide

  • Mirror

  • “Google”

  • Parent

Whose exams are they anyway?

The exams coming up are your children’s examinations, NOT yours. You have completed yours a while ago (not too long ago I am sure), and as such it is absolutely critical that it is your own children who do all the learning, studying and preparation of the exams as they are the ones who will be sitting in the exam room writing, not you. It is critical that you adopt this understanding early on so that your children learn to take responsibility for their learning, and the results of their efforts. If they don’t, who is more disappointed when the results are released, you or them? In preparing for examinations, we want to assist by helping to equip our children with the necessary skills required to learn, study, manage stress and achieve their goals.

What to do

As a parent, you need to remain involved in your child’s studies and exam preparation, however, the level of involvement will vary depending on the variables present. Each family is different, and even within families, there will be critical areas of difference, such as age, personality, temperament, motivation etc. You need to consider all these factors and work with them, not against them. Try to not force your children to work and study the way you want or need them to. Rather engage with them as an individual and encourage them to draw on their own strengths. The level of your involvement will decrease as your child’s grade increases. By High School you should be relatively uninvolved in your child’s actual studying, note taking, study timetabling etc. If you assume the role of “policeman” and you chase after your children, ensuring that they are working, and checking up on them, what are they learning from this experience. For a child, and especially a teenager, they realize that they don't need to take charge and be responsible because mom or dad is going to follow up. “Mom or dad will make sure I have a study timetable. Mom or dad will make sure I have my notes, and will sit with me and make my notes for me, so why do I have to do it for myself?” Provide the framework, boundaries and expectations, but do not do the work for your child. If this means that they fail an exam or two, or even a term, it is ok (discuss this with their teachers so that they are aware and can support). Letting your child fail at something is one of the best things that you can do for them as a parent. This is then followed up with support, encouragement and guidance, NOT punishment and lecturing.

Stress and the brain

Stress affects all of us daily, and as a parent we often take on a great deal of our children’s stress. We need to consider whether this actually helps the situation or just complicates it more. We need to understand how stress affects the brain in order to gain greater control over ourselves to be as productive and effective as possible.

Very simply, we can view the brain as having three critical components:

  1. The “Primitive” or “Reptilian” Brain - This part of our brain manages all of our automatic systems that keeps us alive on a daily basis. These things happen without us having to think about them,

such as breathing. In extremely stressful situations our “reptilian brain” kicks in and we can find ourselves reacting to situations with a fight, flight or freeze response. Most often we cannot really control this response and it happens with very little thought. This is our brain’s reaction to highly stressful situations where it’s primary concerns is survival. Imagine this part of the brain has characteristics like a crocodile - still and calm, unless provoked when it then becomes very dangerous and reactive.

We want to try to remain ‘out’ of this brain as there is very little thinking that happens here. We need to keep the “crocodile” calm and happy to carry doing what it does best, keeping us alive.

  1. The second part of the brain is the “Emotional Brain”. This part of the brain is controlled by our emotions and is characterized like an elephant - strong, powerful and quite incredible, unless agitated when it then becomes dangerous and unpredictable. Our emotions can be such an incredible tool for us, if we are able to control them, but when they start to control us, we are constantly on edge just trying to deal with situations. Too much agitation in this area can begin to ‘activate’ our ‘Reptilian Brain’. If this happens, we have no chance of remaining in control of a situation, let alone being able to think clearly, recall information or learn anything.

Learning to tame and control your “elephant” will be one of the greatest skills you can learn as this means you will be able to (mostly) remain in control of your emotions which opens us so many possibilities for enhanced communication, relationships and learning.

  1. The third part of our brain is the part that essentially allows us to think, learn, engage critically, solve problems and the like. This is our higher order brain, the boss of our critical brian, “The CEO”.

This part of the brain is responsible for all the learning, recalling information, application of understanding. The “CEO” is quite particular about the working (thinking) conditions and refuses to work if the “Elephant” is making to much noise and seems agitated. The CEO requires the “Elephant” to be calm in order for productive and effective learning and work to take place. If the “Reptilian Brain” is active, there is no chance that this thinking brain will function well, if at all.

With the above in mind, it becomes clear as to why it is so important for us to ensure we manage our emotions, to self -regulate so that we can remain in control of our thoughts and be as productive and effective as possible. As a parent, we cannot just teach and expect our children to adopt strategies to manage their stress, they HAVE TO see you doing it. Children will learn best through modeling, and so the responsibility is on your shoulders to ensure that you demonstrate the necessary skills to manage your own emotions.

Nutrition and the brain

Our nutrition intake will impact how our brains function. Our bodies are like cars, and require specific fuel in order to function. Just like with our cars, we can put cheap alternatives in and get from A to B, but sooner or later we will be faced with a ‘breakdown’ of some description. Our bodies and brains are the same. If we do not get the necessary nutritional intake, that helps us function at our best, we are going to slowly see a decrease in performance. Our brains need to the correct nutrients, hydration and appropriate stimulation to allow it to function optimally. “Underperforming” brains will demonstrate the long-term impact if not addressed early.

For example, a child who eats unhealthy foods, drinks lots of sugary drinks, watches lots of TV and plays far too much iPad can be equated to a car that is fueled on cheap alternative fuels which cause deposit build ups, malfunctions and requires a great deal of maintenance. The iPad and TV can be equated to driving recklessly and dangerously - too much is going to cause damage to the various parts of the car, the engine, the wheels, the body etc which will then impact the performance and quality of the drive over a long period of time. However, fueling the car with the correct fuel, teaching a person how to drive well and what the car can actually do and how to use it to benefit them the most will lead to a many comfortable drives. Allowing your children to eat heathy, exercise regularly and teaching them how to “drive” their brains will help develop strong thinkers who are able to manage themselves.

Sleep and Learning

“Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.” Running on empty may feel normal for most of us as we live in a high-intensity society and pressured working environments, but this is not healthy for us.

We need to bear in mind that tiredness is interpreted by our brains as a form of stress and it will respond accordingly. Being tired = being stressed = reduced brian functioning = reduced learning = underperformance. Teenagers need an increased amount of sleep too (approximately 9 hours - unfortunately this is science), so we need to help create the time and space for them to rest and sleep enough to help them to function optimally. This will certainly be very challenging as there is a great deal on the go constantly, but we can help teach them healthy habits that can encourage good time-management, prioritizing and effective working and learning strategies.

Healthy Balance

With the above in mind, it becomes understandable why a balanced life is important. Maintaining balance is not easy, but as long as we constantly are aware an strive towards some essence of balance, then we are non the right track. Again, as a parent we need to demonstrate what living a balanced life looks like. Being mindful of the physical, emotional, social, spiritual, financial, career, relationship and intimate components of our lives, and actively engaging with these aspects will help us live a more balanced life as we teach our children to do the same.

A great resource to assist in this area is the “7 Habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey. There are a number of books that all revolve around the same 7 habits, but are written towards different audiences, whether kids, teens, families and so on.

Strategies to Help

You want the best for your child, you want them to achieve their best and be happy with their efforts and achievements. Here are some strategies that could assist you in assisting your child:

  1. Purpose - keep in mind what the purpose of examinations and assessments is. The purpose is to determine how much, or how well a person understands and is able to apply their learning. The resulting marks are ONLY an indication of this and should NOT be the focus of the studying and preparation process.

  2. Theory & Application - Examinations and assessments are a time to assess a child's understanding of the various concepts and theories learned in class as well as the application of these concepts and theories. In the Prep school there is generally a greater focus on the theory and concept learning, and less focus on the application. This will begin to change as your child progresses through the grades. If your child has been able to get through Prep school with little effort, they probably have good memory and understanding go the concepts and theories. Entering High school we start to see a much greater emphasis on the application of the work, which can be quite a shock to both the children and the parents. Application is also not possible without a good understanding of the theory, and so it is important to begin with a good comprehension of the concepts in each subject, and then the application of the these concepts.

  3. Questions - Making use of some simple questions can assist in determine whether your child understands the various concepts before trying to apply them. What, Why, When, Who, How and Where are so simple, but can provide great insight into how well we understand something. For example: “what are exponents?” If your child is unable to confidently answer this question, how can they be expected to apply the rules and theory in practice?

  4. SMART Goals - Encourage your child to set SMART goals for each subject, for these exams, for each test, for each term etc. Setting goals helps provide the direction needed to reach an expected outcome.

Keep in Mind

In summary, here are some important points to remember:

  • Each child will learn differently - that’s ok.

  • Encourage your child to find what works for them

  • Set boundaries

  • Set incentives

  • Give them space to figure things out for themselves

  • Failure is not always a bad thing - implement the consequences that have been previously agreed upon and the failure turns into a great learning experience (Cause and Effect)

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