Q: I don’t want my son to make the same mistakes I did. How can I get him to understand?
A: Exam time can be a very stressful period for parents. It’s easy to put yourself in your teenager’s shoes and imagine yourself sitting at a desk, nervously waiting for the examiner to tell you to turn over your papers and begin. However, it is important to remember that these are your son’s exams. While it may seem helpful to try and motivate him by sharing your past experiences, this may add to his stress levels if he feels that he has to somehow make up for what you didn’t achieve at school. Instead, try to motivate him by discussing his own aspirations, and the grades and qualifications he needs to pursue them.

Negotiating a reward for extra effort may help too. After all his hard work at school, you want your son to do the best he can, but he needs to set his own pace and make his own decisions. Learning with the benefit of hindsight can only happen once he has something to look back on. If he doesn’t make the grades he needs first time, that is not the end of the road. He is likely to be able to retake his exams, or he could look at other options for further study or work.

Q: My daughter’s approach to studying seems very laid back. What can I do?
A: Just because your daughter is not spending every spare minute with her head buried in a text book does not mean that she is failing to study. Knowledge and understanding of how people learn has changed significantly over the last 20 years, so the study skills she is using may be somewhat unfamiliar. Some teenagers learn best in a quiet room with no distractions, while others may find silence deafening and want their music cranked up. The space your daughter uses for studying is also important. If her bedroom resembles somewhere you wouldn’t normally enter without suitable protective clothing, resist the temptation to sweep in (literally) and clear everything away as she may find this organized chaos helpful. Rather than challenging your daughter on her approach to studying, show an interest in the strategies she is using and ask if there is anything you can help with. Encourage her to organize her time effectively by drawing up a study schedule, and offer support as and when she needs it. Your daughter has spent years developing her skills: Try to trust her to do her best.
Q: How can I help my son? He is worried about what he will do if he fails, so is working long hours.
A: Your son may feel that his hopes and dreams are on the line with every final exam. It’s no wonder he is feeling anxious and putting in plenty of study time! Of course, the grades he gets are important, but they are not the only factor that will determine his future. As well as worrying that he may let himself, you, and others down, he may also be anxious about being left behind by his friends. Talk about his concerns and make sure his expectations are realistic, bearing in mind his achievements to date. Anxiety and tiredness can be paralyzing, so help your son focus on the practical things he can do to improve his chances and manage his stress rather than worrying about the “What if… ?” factor. If he does not achieve the grades he needs, be sensitive to how he will be feeling and try not to look too disappointed. There may be opportunities for him to retake his exams so that he can keep up with his friends and stay on track with his plans. However, this could also be an opportunity to rethink where he is going and to look at options he may not have considered otherwise.
Q: I’m eager to help my child prepare for her exams in any way I can. Do you have any tips?
A: During this potentially stressful time, there are many things that you can do to help your teenager stay calm, study hard, and do her best on exam days. However, there are many equally unhelpful but well-meaning acts that will serve to aggravate your daughter, cause arguments, and give her plenty of ammunition to retaliate with.

Discuss and agree the rules around study and leisure time in advance, particularly with regard to the time allowed on major distractions such as TV and video games. Focus on achieving a healthy balance; placing too many restrictions on your teenager’s social life may lead to feelings of resentment, and is unlikely to make her study harder. Discuss with your child what kind of support and help she would like from you (if any) with her work. Trust her judgment on this—not everyone finds it helpful to be quizzed by their parents the night before an exam.

Research shows that exam stress can lead to loss of appetite, so try to feed her meals that she likes to eat (and which are healthy, if possible). Increasing her quota of favorite foods will show that you are thinking about her and make it more likely that she will eat. When she is stuck in study mode, keep the snacks and drinks coming regularly too. Relax the rules on household chores or maybe relieve her of these responsibilities completely until exam time is over. This will free up more time for studying, and shows that you are doing what you can to take some of the pressure off. Pick your battles and try to avoid arguments—things are far more likely to escalate during this time. Finally, offer plenty of heartfelt, genuine praise for all of your teenager’s efforts.

Q: My daughter is behind with her research projects, but it doesn’t bother her. What can I do?
A: There is a commonly held view that having coursework to complete is somehow less stressful than sitting for a final exam. Some might even see this as a “soft option.” The reality is that coursework is often equally, if not more, stressful than sitting tests and exams. Your daughter may be working as part of a group (which can be difficult in itself) and is probably involved in a range of tasks such as reviewing the literature on a particular topic, collecting data, and presenting her findings—while juggling several deadlines, her other schoolwork, and exam prep!

If you challenge her on why she has not submitted her work you will probably get an angry and defensive reaction, that will leave you none the wiser as to what is going on. Instead, try asking her what needs to happen in order for her to finish her projects. If there are extenuating circumstances, your daughter may be able to apply for an extension to her deadline. However, it may be that she is dragging her heels because she has little or no intention of completing her work—despite your best attempts to motivate and reward her efforts. If this is the case and she understands the consequences, there is little you can do. Being independent means taking responsibility for her actions—whether you agree with them or not.

Q: My son is not doing well in his review sessions. Now he says it’s not worth trying in his exams.
A: Your son is bound to be feeling down after having his confidence knocked, and he needs time to reflect on what happened. However, don’t let him wallow in self-pity for too long. Your son’s reaction shows that he genuinely cares about his performance at school, so be sensitive to how he is feeling but try to problem solve what happened, put it into perspective, and gently help him move on. Discuss his study habits, preparation, and approach to the review sessions themselves. Ask what he thought he did well in, were there any areas where he did better than expected, what could he do differently this time, and what support and help does he want from you.

Achieving less than glowing practice-exam results often serves as a timely wake-up call for teenagers who might not have been giving schoolwork their full attention. Having tasted failure once, your son may now be spurred on to achieve the results he is capable of.

Q: I’m worried that my child’s choices of easy subjects will affect what she can study at college.
A: Certain subjects may be perceived as easy choices because they don’t lend themselves to a traditional assessment by written exam. However, your daughter’s knowledge and skills will be thoroughly assessed in whichever subjects she chooses. In fact, she may find that some forms of assessment require as much preparation as written exams, and can be more anxiety provoking, for example, preparing a portfolio, oral exams, and group presentations. With regard to the possible impact of your daughter’s choices on her future studies, discuss which subjects she would like to pursue and check with the college of her choice that her curriculum will adequately prepare her. As long as she is covering the minimum prerequisites for her preferred course of study, you should be able to reach a compromise and allow her some freedom and flexibility in her other choices. Your daughter may be genuinely interested in exploring other subjects, and she may even discover a hidden talent. However, if she is motivated more by the idea of easy assessment, rather than interest in the subject itself, she may find some of her options far more challenging than she expects. There is no such thing as an easy qualification, but this is something she needs to find out for herself.


Anxiety can be paralyzing, so help your son to focus on the practical things he can do to improve his chances

Myths and misconceptions Is it true that…

Q: A certain amount of stress can help you perform better?
A: Yes and no. A small degree of stress can motivate careful attention. However, excessive stress interferes with organization and concentration, and evidence suggests that it is associated with poorer exam performance on the whole. The exact effects of stress differ for different people.
Q: Drinking coffee keeps you awake and alert?
A: It may. Many people turn to coffee to help them stay up working late into the night. The active ingredient—caffeine (also found in many energy drinks)—is indeed a stimulant, but its effects are relatively short lived, so you need to drink more to sustain energy. Too much caffeine can result in headaches, loss of concentration, and feelings of irritability, which all make it hard to stay focused and work effectively.
Q: Memorizing important facts and figures the night before makes it easier to remember them?
A: No. Last-minute cramming for tests and exams means more stress and less sleep—both of which can lead to poorer performance on the day. It takes time for the brain to process and consolidate new information, so although some facts and figures are bound to stick, there is no substitute for a sensible study timetable.
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