Here’s how to help your kids make it through their exams

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Parents can help their kids through the stress of exams.
Parents can help their kids through the stress of exams.
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It’s been quite a year for students – lockdowns, online learning or, in some cases, no learning at all, and isolation from friends and teachers.

But, like it or not, exams are about to kick off and somehow kids need to get past the last academic post of 2020.

This time is also stressful for parents, who are trying to find ways to help their children who may be lacking motivation, feeling overwhelmed or simply distracted.

We ask experts about the most common issues parents face at exam time and offer tips on how to deal with them.

No motivation

Don’t get mad – get practical, says Cape Town-based psychologist Debbie Lopes. It’s possible your child just doesn’t know where to start.

“Try to help them find practical solutions rather than get angry,” she advises.

Read more | I'm as stressed as my studying teen - Tips for managing exam stress for pupils and their parents

Help them draw up a timetable.

“This is an especially good idea if kids have a tendency to procrastinate,” she says. “If you have a timetable showing all the work to be covered over a number of days before the exams begin, then suddenly the exams aren’t so far off and perhaps there’ll be a greater sense of urgency to start working.”

You should also ask your child if they need help so you can understand what it is they’re struggling with, says Cape Town-based educational psychologist Simona Maraschin.

“If they’re struggling to find ways to study effectively, investigate various study methods or look for study skills courses in your area.”

Nagging is a no-no.

“This is often a result of the parent’s anxiety but it’s not helpful to the child,” says Cape Town-based social worker Talya Ressel. “It only puts more pressure on them or makes them more resistant. Once you’ve given them the support they need, you should take a step back and let them fly.”

Too stressed

For some kids the pressure to perform can leave them feeling overwhelmed and anxious. They might even avoid studying because of it.

What you need to do is help your child manage their stress and anxiety.

“You’ll be helping them master important coping tools for life, and that’s far more valuable than any mathematics equation or history date,” Ressel says. “When kids are anxious, it’s easy for them to get stuck in a negative pattern of thinking, such as ‘I’ll never pass this exam’ or ‘I haven’t studied enough’.”

It’s not helpful to dismiss their concerns by saying everything will be fine – simply listen to them and acknowledge how difficult things might feel at that moment.

“Then remind them it won’t always feel like this and you’re there for them no matter what,” she says.

"Remember your child’s life isn’t solely defined by these exams."
Social worker Talya Ressel

“It can also help reduce your anxiety to remember your child’s life isn’t solely defined by these exams. Exams are important, but they’re not the be-all and end-all and your child’s results aren’t the only reflection of their abilities,” she adds.

“Let them know you love them no matter what their results are and that you can see they’re doing their best,” Maraschin says.

For those anxious about achieving top marks, ask them what’s the worst that could happen if they don’t get that mark, Lopes says. “Try to reduce the fear. Ask them what mark they’d be satisfied with – this makes it more real than a vague ‘top’ mark.”

Remind them to take breaks and, if you can, take breaks with them.

“Go for a walk with them or take them to do something active or fun,” Maraschin says. “And don’t allow them to study late into the night. They need to get enough sleep.”

Don’t overreact if your child doesn’t know their work, Lopes adds. Stress and anxiety can affect memory and retention.

“Calmly encourage them to keep going and help them with concepts they don’t understand.”

A simple hug can go a long way to reassure them.

Read more | Don't calm down! Exam stress may not be fun but it can help you get better marks

Easily distracted

Some kids are simply more easily distracted than others, but where your child studies and what’s around them is of vital importance.

Cellphones, tablets, TV and computers are all distractions that should be discouraged.

“Some kids find they’re more distracted at home because of the TV or games there and prefer to work in a library,” Maraschin says.

“It’s important that wherever your child chooses to study, it’s a place that’s comfortable but also one that allows for maximum focus and attention,” Lopes says.

Kids shouldn’t study on their bed as it can make them sleepy. A desk is always a good option.

“Sitting at a desk keeps their core muscles engaged and this helps keep them awake,” Maraschin says.

Some children work well with background music or white noise but these forms of additional stimuli should be used only by children who aren’t easily distracted.

“As a parent you need to monitor how your child studies,” she adds. “Some might spend hours in a quiet room but do very little, and others might play music and take frequent breaks but accomplish more.”

Study dates

When it comes to kids studying together, experts agree that it all depends on the child and on having the right study partner.

“Some kids are motivated when working with a study buddy,” says educational psychologist Debbie Lopes. “They set goals together about what they want to cover, test each other, explain concepts and share ideas. But for others it can be a distraction if it’s more about the social aspect than the studying.”

Whether study dates work is very much about your child’s personality, level of motivation, and how well they can work with the friend in question.

When your child has a study date, ensure they set goals together, such as how much work they want to cover, how often study breaks will be taken and what these will entail.

“They also need to be able to help each other,” Lopes says. “It doesn’t work if one child is always tutoring the other. They both need to be challenged.”

This type of studying might work best with auditory learners – those who take in and retain information best when it’s presented through sound and speech – as they “can have a discussion about the work as opposed to just writing notes”, adds educational psychologist Simona Maraschin.

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