Exam Stress And Emotional Upholstery

05/06/2017 16:00

We won't have been the first or the only school to have wrestled with the idea of school exams. In the end, we decided that the experience of preparing for and sitting exams, and of dealing with the results, and our parents' and friends' reactions, is part and parcel of acquiring the admirably sanguine and realistic approach which characterises our oldest pupils. I recently greeted a lively group of Year 13 examinees who'd just dealt with an assessed science practical and asked them what they would pass on by way of advice to their younger peers who are tackling school exams.

According to these hardened exam veterans, parents matter, but not in the ways parents think. Being a presence, taking an unobtrusive and advice-free interest in what we're doing helps, as do offers of food and drinks, and other unexpected pamperings - a truce on exhortation to clean one's room or to load the dishwasher, perhaps, or top-ups of attractive stationery in the revision period. Imagine you're trying to be a comfy sofa and you'll probably get it right:

Don't procrastinate: just get on with the revision and enjoy guilt-free time off.

Don't over-revise what you know really well: you don't need perfect, colour-coded index cards for things you already get.

Remember: school exams tell you what you don't yet know and are helpful pointers for what you need to do better. They don't matter nearly as much as you or your parents seem to think (that's not a reason not to try hard or they won't tell you anything at all.)

Do past papers: it's a useful check on what you'll do when you don't know something well.

As an impromptu list of dos and don'ts, it struck me as a pretty serviceable guide to exam preparation and spoke volumes for the resolutely sensible, pragmatic approach of those whose expertise and resilience have been honed over many a season of internal assessments and tests.

But what do we do when our children tell us that they're stressed? A useful first step is to check on our shared lexicon and be sure that what we understand by stress is the same as teenagers. Our children may well be describing being busy, or having less discretion over how they spend their time or facing a greater concentration of learning tasks: nothing that keeps them from eating well or getting to and staying asleep, or from being happy to come to school. They may well moan or enjoy radiating the gloom (and unfairness!) of being a teenager having to do exams, but they may not mean that they feel disabled from normal activity through fear or over work. If they are, then we need to seek help and to be sure of getting it, but most teenagers use the term loosely and we're unwise to medicalise it or become anxious ourselves as a result.

That's not the same as ignoring what they say, of course. Back to the comfy sofa: listening to the moans, letting them articulate their 'what if I really blow [subject] and [friend's name] thinks I'm an idiot?', and, as is often the case, internally acknowledging our inability to disprove their teenage logic, and we will have been the emotional upholstery which will help them remember that we love them for who they are; that we love them with boundless disregard for any marks they may get or blunders they may make. Rare is the child who will actually say that it's made them feel better, but it will. Musings from the Head won't always do the trick alone, so this week we're holding our conference for educationalists, 'The Developing Teenager', part of the Highgate project to help make adolescence as navigable as possible.

The mastery of tough ideas does wonders to arm a child's natural goodness with intellectual muscle. What we can do is to live out the truth we all know, and that is that what makes us a good employee or a brilliant entrepreneur or a loving partner won't be entirely revealed by how we fare in tests.

As parents facing yawning uncertainty over the future employment prospects for our young ones, it's really difficult to steer entirely clear of our shrill anxiety over test results or our withering scepticism over relevance of contemporary schooling, but we should: a little balance, a big smile, a well-bitten tongue (when it comes to inter-parental or inter-pupil gossip over exams) and a great deal of unconditional love will see our children through the ups and downs of exams and ensure that they embrace these and so much more of school to grow and grow and grow. Emotional upholstery: I wonder if I can get that into the conference programme?

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