It’s that time of year again when exams loom and schools start to circulate exam timetables and remind parents about the importance of getting our kids revising as early as possible.
You may recall that last year, there was a great deal of press coverage about parents protesting about the stress some of their children were feeling when faced with Year 6 SATS. In fact, some parents were so incensed they pulled their children out of school on the day of the test.
Here in Wales we have the National Reading and Numeracy Tests which Caitlin (now 9 and in Year 4) and Ieuan, (aged 7 and in Year 2) will be sitting in the second week of May. These tests enable recording of a child’s academic performance on a database so that this can be compared to the national average.
I can see no point in pulling your child out of school in protest. It will not change the system and nor will it help the child to cope with the stresses Academia places on all of us for as long as we are students. The most sensible approach, I think, is to view these examinations as a ‘learning curve’.
These tests offer a chance for our children to begin to learn how to deal with examination stress and to make the vital psychological link between effort and results. These tests are also a chance to learn other skills, such as revision, planning and even self-care in the face of times of worry and pressure.
If our children learn these skills early on then, arguably, GCSEs, and A Levels may be slightly easier to cope with.
What is important, I think, is how we as parents explain all this and how we help our children to understand what the results mean.
Whilst an exam result is an indication of intelligence and effort, it is a marker in the sand. Because the results are calculated taking into account the performance of your child’s peers.
There are other variables such as how the child felt on the day. For example, are we really saying hay fever sufferers who gave a poor performance on the day of the test due to summertime sniffles are less intelligent? And what about those children whose teachers have been absent and replaced with a totally disinterested supply teacher?
We need to explain to our kids that the result of their test will be an indication of their current ability and no more. With the proviso, of course, that they need to give their best effort. Once that is done they can do no more.
We must also be careful not to communicate our own stress about their performance to our youngsters. After all, exams can be retaken.
As a nation we are not the economic powerhouse we once were, largely because we are not as competitive as, say China.
I am not saying we should hot-house our children as is the way in some parts of Asia but we do need to teach our kids that competing is a vital skill if you want to move up the career ladder.
Our children will need to compete for university and college places. They will need to compete for jobs. We do them no favours if we don’t at least begin to explain how the world works in this regard.
In classes of mixed ability which we now have, the pace seems to move to accommodate the slowest child and, although this makes sense from the point of view of developing a strong social community where each individual is valued, the trade off is an environment where those who could benefit from extra attention don’t get it and teaching staff have to struggle to cope with behaviour that is often driven by far more than just occasional naughtiness.
Some parents think that if a child is not particularly academic it is not fair to subject them to tests which may dent their self-confidence.
But surely with the right attention and tuition, overcoming learning challenges may actually boost the confidence of these children.
There are, after all, enough hugely successful entrepreneurs whose own academic performance was dismal. Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs to name but two.
So how can parents help their kids?
I wrote a practical guide to revision which you and your children may find helpful. “Revision Tips To Show Those GCSEs Who’s Boss”. You can read it here.
But here are some things we, as parents, can do.
If you make these exams / tests the be-all and end-all you will add undue pressure on your child. Hence, Ieuan’s school is very wisely calling the Year 3 testing a ‘Quiz’.
Make sure you familiarise yourself with your child’s curriculum and study topics
Our school sends out regular term updates so we know what our kids are studying and what their learning outcomes are. If you have been working with your child throughout the academic year, you will be better placed to help them with their revision.
You will also feel a bit calmer because you will know what needs to be covered.
Invest in some study guides
There is a lot of age-appropriate / Key Stage learning material you can buy or download. In Wales, past tests can be downloaded free of charge from the Learning Wales website.
There are also websites such as Twinkl which, for a nominal monthly subscription offer a great range of educational resources.
Set a regular study timetable
Design a timetable which has study ‘periods’ of about 45 minutes and help your child work through his topic book or a past paper.
All gadgets stay off until the homework is done (even if it means changing the WiFi password!).
Add an incentive
Whether this is extra family time – such as a trip to the cinema or to a favourite local attraction, make sure you prioritise down time too.
Ban Late Nights
For you and your children. You’ll need your sleep to cope with an emotional, antsy child and to keep your patience in the face of the inevitable “I don’t want / need to revise” rebellion.
Improve your diet
Mainlining on take-aways and high sugar foods will make you all feel low and under par. Now is the time for some proper home cooked meals.
Why not form a little study group with your child’s best buddies and their parents. You may find it more effective to get the kids studying in a more relaxed atmosphere. They can then do a fun activity once the work has been done, football, swimming or some other form of stress relieving exercise.
Work with the school
If your child is really struggling, don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s teacher to see if there is the possibility of any extra tuition or support.
It may be there is a gap in your child’s knowledge (perhaps something that was covered when your child was off sick) that can be easily filled by a fact sheet or online resource.
Exams, tests, whatever blood-pressure-inducing terminology we apply to them, are designed to put us under pressure to see how we perform.
Watch for signs of extreme anxiety / depression
If you feel that your child is really suffering physically or mentally through exam stress, you need to get your child to open up and talk about their fears. It may be worth taking them to see your GP if their anxiety symptoms are becoming unmanageable.
If they won’t talk to you, perhaps they will talk to another trusted adult or perhaps an older sibling who has gone through the pressures they are facing.
As parents there is a lot we can do to help our child and, in doing so, help ourselves to feel a little more confident too.
We just need to remember that exam results do not define who we are and certainly don’t dictate who we will become.