"You can only do your best darling."
This instruction combined with the exam season favourite, "You may now begin..?" still takes me back to the cold exam halls and rows of nervous youthful faces. Surely we all remember enough from our school days to know that 'doing your best' in an exam is something that always remains slightly out of reach. This is especially the case for the very brightest of today's children. I am yet to meet a high-achieving child who has ever felt that he/she 'did their best' in an exam- they usually say that they could have recalled, written, or considered more in response to the questions. I am not sure if it was just me but if urging for me to 'do my best' did anything it was that it made me angry and confused; if it did motivate me, it was in a way that I could not really comprehend as a teenager. However, even in the muddle of last minute revision and annoyance, I understood that my parents said this because in their anxiety they did not really know what else to say. Sadly it is only now that I see how hard it was for them and how hard it is the silently-suffering majority of parents who sit at work or home or even in cars, drumming fingers, biting nails, doing anything to keep their mind from their child's efforts in the day's exams.
As this year's GCSEs and IB/ AI exams roll round, the following approaches might help parents:
Before the revision sets in too heavily try to discuss with your child a space, free of electrical and personal invasion, that they can use for revision. It's important that this place remains theirs during the exams and that they feel they have chosen it.
Have faith in your child's personal pride- it may not be obvious to you but I am yet to meet a young person who does not want to do well. Boys especially are competitive. These two common traits will motivate them far more than anything you say.
Believe that they won't want to let you down, not if they are honest with themselves. Even the most apparently carefree pupil will be anxious.
Recognise that they may well be scared and often those who are not revising as much as you would like are frightened that effort will not equal reward. As we all know it is easier to say you did not try when you perform badly. Every year I say to my students that I am yet to see someone fail to meet their potential who genuinely tried hard- it's true.
Encourage and praise them as much as you can. Even if they seem not to want this, they need it.
Help them stick to simple routines: eating well, drinking plenty of water and getting relaxation and sleep.
Make sure they get exercise. A walk or a short jog each day will be good for them whether it's with the dog, you or on their own it's better than sitting in front of the tv or gaming.
Make sure they see their friends- dare to believe that this will help them let off steam and for some it may even be a chance to revise in pairs or a small group.
Help maintain an emotional balance during the exam period- your child will need to off load feelings after each exam but your can help them to do this in a calm and helpful manner. Try not to react to their more emotive comments- they usually don't mean them. The important thing is that they learn from each exam.
Accept they will get upset before and after exams- we all did- and sadly it will usually be with their parents. Be there to listen, don't judge and help them to remain confident.
If your child does not volunteer pre or post exam information, resist the urge to enquire every time you see them or during a family dinner. They will speak to you when they are ready; it's not personal and they are just coping as best as they can.
Avoid comparing your child's exams with your exams and in particular do not emphasise how much harder they used to be in your day.
As my own parents will attest, exam season is a challenging one: things will be said by your child that he/she does not mean and your home will be an emotional place at times. Trust that this is normal and that it will pass- try to remain calm and remember that your son/ daughter's school will be able to help too- get in touch with them and ask for support if you need it. They go through exams every year and honestly have seen and heard most things before.