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Wednesday Wisdom

Revise, Rest, Repeat

- Reflect -

At the moment, plenty of parents are in the middle of ‘revision season’, or ‘nag season’ as a friend of mine refers to it. At this point, some teens will be working their way diligently through revision material, seeking feedback from teachers and asking for help at every interval. For others, there is little indication that they are making their best effort to do well and you might be pulling your hair out wondering what you can do to motivate them.

At some point, every parent has pondered these questions: how can I optimally support my child through tests and exams without sounding like a broken record? What little things could I do at home to really boost how my child performs at school? How can I shift my child away from self-doubt and towards self-belief? No matter the time frame, or how your child is coping with revision and the stress that accompanies it, I wanted to reassure you that there is always time to make a difference. 

The first and most important thing is that you care. It is a simple point, but caring is an indication that your child lives in a home where they are loved, valued and where you are highly motivated to do what’s best for them. Secondly, it is useful to think about the environment that envelops your child. Is your home as calm as possible as we enter exam season? That means considering how you might manage any transitions over the coming term (perhaps delaying anything that could feel like upheaval in the middle of an already busy month). 

It also means doing what you can to reduce the emotional temperature in your home if it feels fractious. As parents, we can help to create some balance between work and fun, encourage our children to reframe challenges with good humour, and sprinkle conversations with perspective and hope. Ask your teen if there is anything about home life that could be edited or adjusted to enable them to focus. Often, a temporary change in bedrooms or the creation of a special space for study can shift a young person’s focus for the better. If space is limited, a relative or close neighbour might be able to offer a quiet room for revision periods, or a local library might have a desk that can be booked in advance. Worth asking? 

- Motivate -

A positive home learning environment is one where children are enabled to focus, where a love of learning is promoted and where expectations are established.

By asking about what you can do to support your child with their study and upcoming exams, you are gently revealing your expectations without adding too much pressure. Teens already know what they need to do and our mission is to reduce their stress to a manageable level, so they are motivated and interested in their own progress. 

Eliminating stress altogether isn’t the ultimate goal. The “stress tightrope” is a term used within research literature, which helpfully describes the fact that we need a little bit of adrenaline flowing through our veins to perform, but not so much that it knocks us off course and inhibits our ability to function. How we manage stress is an important conversation to have within family life. 

What tips can you share with your children? How do you cope at work when you are giving a presentation and feel nervous? How do you calm yourself down when you are stressed in a traffic jam? What do you tell yourself when you experience a dip in self-belief? Surface these strategies and make them part and parcel of family dialogue. Talk about the times when you sailed through exams and the times you struggled. What made the difference? What did you learn from those experiences? As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it can reduce pressure on high-achieving teens to know that we are not all infallible, have made mistakes and still ended up doing ok! We need to ensure that our children walk into those exams with an invisible backpack of psychological tools to help them through the experience. Mapping out what coping ‘looks like’, ahead of time, is important. 

On a practical note, have you actually ever seen or held in your hand a copy of a GCSE or A Level paper? Do you know what the 11+ exam is about? Have you sat down and tried to answer a question on the Baccalaureate? Turning over the page on the exam paper that your child will actually sit can enrich parental empathy and insight, which in turn can help you to support your child better. 

Further practical tips include giving them a fantastic breakfast every day and a great sleep at night. Paediatric nutritionist, Anjanee Kohli, of City Dietitians suggests a brain boosting breakfast might contain porridge oats with walnuts or peanut butter, sliced banana and dark chocolate, wholemeal bread with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or spinach, or a tomato and cheese omelette. She also recommends that teens should avoid skipping meals, or consuming either energy drinks or too much caffeine. 

During exam periods, teens are prone to poorer quality sleep. What can we do about that?  A good starting point is to ask them about it. “How has your sleep been over the last couple of weeks?” “Does it take you long to fall asleep?” “Do you wake up during the night?” “Do you feel rested?” Educating teens about the importance of sleep for ‘charging their brains up’ and helping their memories work optimally, helps.

Asking them to jot down their top three worries earlier in the evening (along with some solutions), or suggesting that they use an app like Worrytree, can also help to alleviate late-night worrying on the pillow, which can prevent sleep. Emotionally arousing arguments with our teens late into the evening can also play havoc with sleep. So, if you have something to bring up with them, bring it up earlier in the day. 

- Support -

Now, imagine, everyone is feeling good, revision spaces have been created, expectations set and breakfasts planned. What are the best ways for students to revise?

Learning is complex, but it is my job to translate what we know from research into something that you can use in your parenting. So, here is what I know about revision. Reading, rereading and highlighting might look and feel like revision, but many studies point to the fact that they simply provide “an illusion of competence. Our teens might look like they are being industrious, sitting at the desk, staring at a page, but are they really engaged and learning? By contrast, if you see your teen reading, getting up, pacing around the room and asking you to quiz them about what they have just read, chances are they are engaged in effective revision. Checking if we know stuff, leaving time between bouts of revision, or walking the dog and coming back to what we were reading, are all well-established, efficacious methods for absorbing material and enhancing understanding. 

Encouraging our teens to ‘mix it up a bit’ by interweaving a few physical stretches whilst reading or summarising notes is a good idea, as is asking them to tell you what they have just done. Don’t forget to bring them snacks (if they want them) and consider reducing those requests to tidy their room over the exam season (if they are working well).

Accept that they will moan a lot over revision season and that revising for exams is tough. It takes courage to embark on revision and fortitude to keep going. As soon as you see glimpses of these qualities in your teen, notice and comment on them. Knowing that you value their persistence can ignite the sort of motivation that we all wish to see. 

Throughout exam season, as at all times of the year, mental health matters. It is good to take care of your own too, so nudging the whole family towards little walks and engineering funny moments where you can let your collective hair down can reduce family stress. Finally, don’t forget to double check when exams are taking place, so that the family diary is clear and you or another supporter can be available on those critical days.  

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

Luckily, the Tooled Up library is packed with resources to help your child grow up to be a resilient learner and help them to feel calmer, more relaxed and well-prepared for exams, whatever the outcome and whatever their age and stage.

Check out our webinar on balancing academic achievement with good mental health. Read evidence-based advice on talking to primary-aged children about assessments, discover 30 tips for parents of tweens in years 7 and 8 (or watch our video), find optimal ways of preparing teens in their GCSE year (both as a tip sheet and video you can share with them) and help your 16-18 year old manage A level exam anxiety. We’ve also put together a great list of questions to use with older teens at various stages of the revision process, to help them feel exam-ready. You might also like to listen to our podcast with Dr Duncan Astle, for some fantastic revision tips, straight from a brain and memory expert or watch our brand new webinar with sleep expert Dr Faith Orchard, who gives us her top tips on helping teens to get good quality sleep!

If your child does feel anxious about upcoming tests, it’s a good idea to help them reflect on self-soothing strategies that work for them and share what works for you. Use our new Coping Menu to kick-start any discussion. Check out our list of mindfulness apps, 30 drawing ideas, breathing exercises or list of apps that help to connect children with nature for further inspiration and ideas. 

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Have a great week.