Emotions are running high in the UK and it’s not just the after effects of the general election last week. We’re in exam season. I say season but, to anyone involved in the business of education – be they student, teacher or parent – formal assessment is now a year round constant, reaching its zenith in May and June.
As a parent I have plenty to say about the wrongs of how a perceived need to drive up standards, offer choice and make teachers accountable are impacting negatively on the young people upon whom so much now seems to depend – school performance in league tables, parental views of which school is best for their child (and the consequences of not being offered a place there), teachers’ performance related pay and the student’s own feelings of self worth. All this is determined by the scores they achieve in their exams. But that’s for another post.
Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of children sitting exams, they are here to stay and parents are in the business of having to support, encourage, engage and enthuse a generation who live their first quarter century constantly under the rain clouds of testing. I may shake my fist at the creator of the clouds but my real role as a parent and a teacher is part providing umberellas and part showing them how to dance in the rain.
Exams can be especially stressful for children in primary school. Only yesterday there were newspaper reports of ten year olds worrying so much about the SATS that they were either not eating at all or bingeing on sugary junk food and not able to sleep. A few had smoked cigarettes to cope with the pressure they felt under and there was a widespread feeling from parents that the behavior of their children was poorer during exam time. This is the stuff of tabloid newspapers but there is some truth in it.
The scientific explanation is that stress blocks communication from the upper cognitive brain. The brain’s lower core, which is more emotionally reactive is dominant during periods of stress. This means that just when children need it most, they have limited access to the areas of the brain which help self-control, and where the memories they need to perform well in SATS exams are stored. Put simply, when they are under pressure, students can become emotional, behave poorly and find it hard to remember vital information. Let’s not forget that most children are coping well with SATS. Some even enjoy the whole process! All have someone who cares about how they’ll cope. So here, in brief are my recommended strategies for parents who want to help children shelter from the storm of exam week and even encourage them to dance in the rain. It’s not all bad news.
- Get the SATS in perspective. They will NOT determine the rest of your child’s life. It is a necessary step. Thinking of it as a “life or death” situation will put them in survival mode and prevent them from thinking clearly. Remember this! Teachers may well feel that their salaries and school league table performance depend on it. (they do!) but most do not transfer this pressure to their students. This letter from some primary school teachers is fairly typical of the attitude I have come across in schools. All children should hear this message. Celebrate the work ethic and personal qualities of your children and they will feel better about themselves. Self confident children who are pleased that they’ve worked hard are well placed to do their best in the exams.
- Food is important. I have always thought so. It is vital both in terms of nourishing the body and bringing communities together. Schools (and families) would be well advised to make more of this. A SATS breakfast club is a perfect opportunity to make sure that all pupils have eaten well before the exams and is also a chance to settle nerves and provide an opportunity to relax and have fun with a group of people who have worked hard together and are facing the same challenge. If your child’s school runs one, encourage them to go. If your school can’t offer this, then groups of parents can get together in their homes to do it. It’s fun for everyone. That’s why business breakfast clubs are thriving and memorable and successful training events are the ones where the food is tip top. An army of children marches to exam success on its stomach. Make as much effort as possible to eat good food and to sit down as a family during exam periods.
- Nobody can work hard all the time. Everybody needs time to relax. Obviously a good night’s sleep is something to strive for, as is quality downtime. Yoga, sport, gardening, running, hitting a ball against a wall, reading a book, dancing, swimming, playing computer games – we all have preferred ways to have downtime. Help your child build in downtime and teach them the practicalities of coping with nerves. Feeling a little nervous is good but when your nerves overwhelm you and breathing becomes short and shallow, you feel awful. Take long, deep breaths in and exhale slowly. Do this for a minute if you are feeling overwhelmed. It will mentally prepare you to focus while also relaxing you. My daughter and I danced around the kitchen to Simply Red this morning and then told terrible jokes on the way to school. Highly recommended.
- Remember that how your child thinks determines how they feel and act. Notice possible negative and anxious thinking like “What if I do badly?” It’s important to acknowledge that these feelings are valid and chat through the consequences of having a bad day (which are usually not as bad as they imagine). Then encourage them to focus on what they have already achieved and will achieve in the future. Here’s another science bit. Visualising a successful performance activates the memory circuits that will be called upon to answer the questions in the test, like visualising a soccer kick activates the critical motor brain networks which enables a footballer to scare a penalty. If only I’d known this at age 14, I’d have been better at cross country. Not world class, but better!
- Live in the present Remember that all our worries exist in the future. Focus on the present. It’s called mindfulness and is highly popular at the moment. Some schools run sessions in mindfulness but listen! Just because it has a fancy name and a practitioner to run it, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use the strategies yourself at home.
Focus on the good things around you – flowers grown in the garden, the smell of your favourite food, a cuddle from your mum or dad, stroking your pet….
Suggest that in the exam they focus on one question at a time. When their mind wanders to a future possibility, tell them to shake their head and get back to the question at hand. Appreciate what they have completed not how much they still have to do. Teachers will have given them strategies to spend the right amount of time on each exam question.
6. Reinforce what your child has been told at school. Teachers are first class at training children in exam strategy. Things like:-
- You don’t need to answer every question.
- If you are struggling with a question, even one you think you should know, move on to the next one.
- You can save the harder ones for later if you have time.
- It is better to answer as many as you can, rather than spend too much time on one question.
However good (or not so good) your child is at the business of exams, having a strategy will make them more successful.
7. Set an example You can minimize your child’s stress by managing your own worries. Remember that managing your own fear will help your child to manage his or her worries and actually increase their chances of a positive performance. Tests and exams are part of life. Show your children that you have concerns when you go for an interview, are appraised at work, run in a race or audition for a part in a play. Show them that these concerns are normal but you have strategies for coping. Tell them some anecdotes from your own school exam days. Model success, parents! If you’ve come through it, so will they.
8. Don’t reward their achievements with money or things. Reward their hard work with time and experiences. A picnic and a game of football down the park next Saturday or a fish and chip supper and board games on Friday will reap more rewards in the future than a £10 note if they achieve their target grades. Trust me on this one.
This advice is just as relevant for older students doing A levels and GCSEs too.
What advice would you give to parents of students sitting exams this week? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.