The sun may be shining and the joys of summer seem tantalisingly close, but for some this can be the hardest time of the year. As I write, in halls across the country young people, are trooping nervously into row upon row of desks, each spaced the obligatory 1.25 metres apart. Exams do tend to take the shine out of summer. While we as teachers do all we can to prepare our students, once they enter the exam, all we can do is wait. For parents too, this can be an anxious time. Again all we can do is hope we have prepared our children well, giving them the tools to cope with challenge. Key to this is the development of a "growth mindset", a concept most strongly advocated by the developmental psychologist Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University in the USA, whose research highlights the intellectually liberating idea that intelligence is not fixed. For Dweck success comes to those who recognise this idea, who make the greatest effort and who have the resilience to see their mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Dweck also argues that it is also essential to consider how we use praise.
The role of praise
It is very easy to use words such as "clever", "pretty" and "talented" in order to boost our children's self esteem. However, there may be a hidden cost. A child who has been labelled as "clever", associates success with natural ability and not the effort they have made. Therefore, if they meet with a subject they struggle with, their self esteem will be under threat. As a result, they may actively avoid challenges and miss opportunities to grow intellectually. Instead, give specific compliments about a child's perseverance, the way they have approached a problem, the time and effort that they have put in and remind them of the achievements that they have already made.
Avoid saying "I'm rubbish at..."
In order to change your child's attitude and mindset, it's important to lead by example. We're all guilty of saying that we are rubbish at something, which leads our children to accept that there are some areas that they will never be good at and therefore it is pointless to try. There is a risk that young people can also see the adults around them as being born in their advanced state of knowledge and understanding. It seems self evident that the Maths teacher was born good at algebra. Of course, this is not the case, and every adult has a story of the hard slog it took to get where they are. As a result, talk about your own experiences and describe a time that you overcame a challenge to achieve something you never believed you could. This could be a physical, academic or professional challenge such as completing a charity run, when you hated P.E. at school. By opening up the discussion, you are inviting them to share where they feel they are struggling and help them to devise strategies.
In the short term
Ideally, the process of developing a "growth mindset" needs to start long before the high stakes of examinations remove the option of learning from mistakes. That said, there are still some things that can be done even as the exams approach.
When revising, there is a temptation for students to focus initially on the things they find easy. This makes sense, as they are telling themselves that they need the self-esteem boost before they come to the difficult content. Instead encourage your child to start with the challenging ideas. They may struggle at first, but even if they cannot master the material straight away, when they return to it, their brains will have been processing things behind the scenes. We can all relate to how a problem can seem easier once we have left it alone for a bit. Engaging with challenge in this manner also teaches resilience and the mental toughness that examinations demand.
In addition, help them understand that true effort requires focus and determination. This is a real challenge for any of us. A student might do an hour of revision after breakfast (possibly after 10:00) and then congratulate themselves enormously for making a start. They may feel a break is then in order, which will then overrun, leaving it only a short time till lunch, so they might as well wait, and then after lunch their phone rings.... Effective revision, like any form of practice, needs the student to be a tough taskmaster. The Pomodoro Technique of 25 mins of revision, followed by 5 minutes break works well for some. Some students prefer 45 minutes, followed by 15 minutes break. This gives time to get a drink and do some of that vital mental processing.
While our children's futures will still be decided by exam grades, it is important that parents, students and teachers see the process in the context of long-term character development. Factors such as how the student sees themselves as a learner and whether they can develop the resilience to engage with challenge and learn from their mistakes, have a big part to play in deciding success. By supporting a change in mindset, we can enable our children to be more relaxed and confident, not only in the exam hall but also in all future endeavours.
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