Supporting Your Children Through Exams

When did you last write an exam or test? Many parents will tell you that their last time was as recently as the last exam written by their child or teenager! Truly the stress, planning and focus that are required to assist your children to get through their exams is often equivalent to that which you would experience were you to sit the exam yourself – and sometimes even higher.
Crucial to assisting families to weather the exam storm and come out smiling at the other end, are some practices that parents can put into place at exam time, and all through the year, to develop good skills that will assist their children into their work future.
The following are some of the things parents can do to make exam time easier and more successful for their children:
Make home life as calm and pleasant as possible. The period leading up to, and during, exams is not the time to institute great change or excitement into the family. Keep distractions to a minimum in order to allow a restful and focused environment.
Develop a balanced routine. This is essential to the effectiveness and happiness of all of us, and the best time to instil this is during childhood. If you are able to cultivate balance into the lives of your family all through the year, it will be far easier for them to follow this during exam time. Assisting your child to live a balanced life, leads to better stress relief, concentration, memory retention, clarity of thought and will provide some enjoyment and fun which will alleviate some pressure. Make sure that time is built into their routine for exercise, healthy eating, sleep and time with friends and family.
Create a suitable environment for studying and working. Although this is an important consideration to assist your child with homework all through the year, not every family has the luxury of being able to provide the ideal space for each child to work in isolation and peace. During exam time, each family may need to make a few sacrifices to the set-up of space in order to assist exam-writers in the best way. This may include sharing rooms, moving the kitchen table or removing the television from shared spaces. The best environments are quiet with limited distractions; a desk or table that is big enough for books and writing utensils and is not crowded with other objects to create clutter; and a comfortable chair that limits backache. If possible, purchase new stationery – and include coloured pens and highlighters that will assist them to include colour in their timetable and study notes which assists memory recall.
Help your child to look after themselves well during exams. Taking care of their minds requires taking care of their bodies. Help your children to eat healthily and regularly (and provide nuts, fruit and protein for snacks). Make sure they get some exercise – even if it is a walk around the block. Assist them to remember to drink water throughout the day as a lack of water creates fatigue and limits their ability to focus and concentrate. Encourage them to take short breaks during their study time and get them to move, drink water and have a snack in this time. Make sure they are sleeping enough! The recommended amount of sleeping time for optimal functioning is 9-11 hours for children of 6-13 years, and 8-10 hours for teenagers of 14-17 years old. Remove televisions, tablets and phones from their rooms if necessary, as exposure to technology drastically limits the ability to fall asleep and reduces the quality of sleep that does occur.
Assist your child to create a study plan. Well before exams are due to start, sit down with your child and talk through their exam timetable and what they need to do to prepare. Help them to create a study plan in which they break down the work in each subject into manageable chunks, and also factor in adequate sleep, rest, enjoyment and include existing commitments they have. Working on a plan with your child will be instrumental in setting them up to develop essential planning and project managing skills that they will require throughout their lives as adults.
Show interest and encouragement. Let them know you believe in them and are there to assist. Time them as they write mock papers, test them orally where appropriate, ask them how they are feeling and what they need from you. Where they are battling – e.g. they have fallen behind on their study plan – don’t berate, rather think through solutions with them and let them know you are there to assist with whatever they decide to do to remedy the situation.
Your attitude to exams is crucial! Be as calm and supportive as possible. Don’t transfer additional anxiety and pressure of marks onto your child. Support, but don’t police them. Observe how they deal with stress and listen actively to them. Keep perspective – exams aren’t the be all and end all.
Bribes, treats or rewards? Bribing your child does far more harm than good in the long run. Offering a bribe implies that it is only extrinsic things that matter (usually money) and demonstrates that you don’t trust your child to work hard or make good choices. Negative messages like these destroy self-worth in a child. Rather offer small treats or rewards – and encourage them to reward themselves. Opportunities to choose what is for dinner, the option to watch 15 extra minutes of TV or to have a family games night if all studying is done, are options that create something to look forward to without linking achievement to monetary rewards. It is also important to celebrate after the completion of exams – regardless of how well the child did. Celebrate what they did do and what they did try, instead of focusing on the negative aspects.
Helping with homework? The approach you take to homework throughout the year will be mirrored in their approach to exams! Don’t do their homework for them. It teaches them to cheat; limits their opportunity to practise and develop skills; and implies that they are not good enough to do the work themselves. Talk through the importance of homework and let them understand the need for it. Teach them the habit of getting their homework done first, before playing or seeing friends… These are the habits and approaches they will need when preparing for exams.
Remember that it’s not about you! Exam time is about letting your child learn to live with the consequences of their choices – not yours. Talk to them lots. Help them understand their stress and nervousness, and support where you can. Be positive and assist them to be pro-active and to start studying as soon as they can. Where failure or difficulties occur, see this as a great opportunity to assist them to take responsibility and problem solve.

By Leigh Johnson: Learning and Leadership Practitioner, and Parenting Coach at TFCC. www.leighjohnson.co.za

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