Exam-time FAQs: What parents ask us

Is your mind brimming with questions as your child prepares to write the upcoming exams? Let our FAQ guide answer all your questions.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 12 min read

Exam-time FAQs: What parents ask us

Exams are a not just a period of anxieties but also of numerous questions and ‘doubts’ for both parents and students. To make things easier for you, we have come up with this exclusive FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) Guide. Read our FAQs, clarify your doubts and breathe easy.

My 15-year-old just doesn’t study. No amount of scolding, nagging, and lecturing is working. In fact, our house is like a war zone. How do I turn things around?
Dear parent, your worry is understandable. However, addressing your own anxiety before you seek to help your teen will be beneficial. Consider a few reasons why fighting over studying for exams doesn’t make sense:

  • First, when parents work harder than their adolescents to solve their problems, their adolescents get weaker, not stronger. If you act as if its your job to see that your teen studies for his exams, you reinforce the mistaken belief that somebody other than he is responsible for getting his studies done. He doesn’t have to think about it because, on some level, he knows that eventually you will ‘make’ him do it.
  • Second, you can’t force a teen to do something he’s dead set against. Your attempts to assert control over your son can trigger his determination to reassert his own control, even if its means doing the opposite of what is in his own interest. So, in short, back off and tell him that studying is his responsibility! Being worried about his choices doesn’t mean you have to constantly project a tone of disapproval. You could (and should) relax with him without thinking that every minute of your time together needs to signal the gravity of the situation.

Does this mean I just let him be and not worry about his preparation?
Not at all. There are ways to be supportive, without being controlling. You can always offer your support with statements like, “Is there anything you’d like help with? I’d like to know, so I can plan my evening,” instead of “Shouldn’t you be studying instead of wasting your time?” Apart from that, these are some strategies you can try to be supportive. For them to work, it’s a good idea to suggest these as a recommendation, not as a forced directive.

Is it true that physical exercise can help during exams? Won’t children get tired?
Even short bursts of exercise can activate the brain enough to get started on something, partly by increasing the dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. Physical activity is physically activating. Encourage your child to take up light activity, such as walking, or exercise, such as cycling, or playing a sport.

Are joint studies good or bad during exams?
Finding an older teen to serve as a tutor or coach, or helping your child join a study group of more academic peers, can help his focus. Teens are developmentally wired to be attuned to their peers. Research has also shown that teens often learn better from other teens than they do from adults, and that when a homework coach is an older child, the one being tutored has a dopamine spike. However, you need to ensure that what goes on in this group is studying, not chatting about everything else under the sun!

Does music stimulate the brain during exam preparation?

Some children need music in the background to help them accomplish tasks that they’d otherwise avoid. Music can serve as white noise and block out distraction. It can make a boring activity less so. And it can ease anxiety. For others, quiet is better, your teen may have to experiment a bit to see which suits him.

What about breaks? How long is too long for preparations?

Children often do well when they work intensely for short periods marked by a timer and then take a prescribed break. So, twenty minutes of math, twenty minutes of science, and twenty minutes of social studies, with breaks in between, repeated twice may have better impact than forty consecutive minutes of each. Adding more starts and stops encourages the brain to be more attentive and motivated. Suggest circuit training as an option and ask your child if he wants to set his own timer or if he wants you to serve as the coach, setting a stopwatch and calling out “Time!”

Should I incentivise preparation? Aren’t rewards seen as bribes?

Yes, rewards are bad for developing internal motivation but sometimes rewards are okay as long as your teen understands that your goal is to enable his brain to activate (by increasing dopamine) so that he can accomplish what otherwise may not get done. However, refrain from offering material rewards.
Remember to implement these strategies in a respectful and collaborative (“We’re a team” and not a “You versus I” manner).

How can I motivate my child to be consistent with his preparation to avoid last-minute rushes?

This is a very common complaint from most parents. It may help if you share information with your son about how the brain stores and recalls the information. Our brains are wired to remember information that is encoded (or stored) over a period of time, and what facilitates remembering the info is practice. So, ideal conditions are: learning material over a longer duration and repeated practice or revision. Share with your teen how he can space his study sessions over a few weeks (rather than a few days) and practice mock papers (giving himself an opportunity to remember the learnt information), for enhanced benefits.

Do I need to keep ‘correcting’ my child’s mistakes during preparation?

It is important to realise that your position as a parent- offer suggestions and back off- is advantageous in many ways. It puts your child in charge of his decisions and helps him develop autonomy in dealing with his own problems. It is possible that sometime in the future his strategy may not work. And that’s okay! Making mistakes or failing will enable him to re-evaluate his strategy and adjust and develop the skills needed to do things differently. Remember that he needs to develop competency. And that won’t happen with you on his back.

FAQ 10
Are there any tried and tested methods to motivate children to work harder?

There are a lot of adolescents who just can’t seem to put in the hours necessary to get the job done. Have you ever helped your child, non-judgmentally and without lecturing him, see how things that don’t seem important now may be important to his long-term goals?
You can help your child find his own reasons for working hard at the things that are important to him. Help him see the distinction between things he feels like doing and things he wants to do. Could he be, for example, encouraged to tell himself, “Even if I don’t feel like studying, I want to do it because it’s important for me and my future.”? If he does, he will find that telling himself “I want to study” is more motivating than telling himself otherwise.
Any life coach will tell you that if a child can visualize himself accomplishing a goal he has chosen for himself; it tricks the brain into thinking he’s done it. The same is true of writing goals down—its powerful reinforcement, and if that goal is there in your child’s handwriting it’s a great reminder that it’s his goal, not yours. Writing goals down also helps people operate from their prefrontal cortex instead of reacting to what feels like a demand or pressure from you.

FAQ 11
How can I ensure my child is more realistic about her goals?

There are some children who get caught up in the competitive school environment and are intensely—even unhealthily—driven to excel. Their motivation is largely fear based, as they experience anxiety about not being able to achieve the high goals they’ve set for themselves.
Obviously, if the pressure is coming from you, the solution is simple: stop pressuring your child. Even if you are proud of your child, she may come to believe that she is loved because of her accomplishments. It will be helpful to communicate to her that you are proud of her, irrespective of her marks (and mean it!)
But if you have told her, “We don’t care about your grades or where you go to college” and she is still anxious, it’ll take more than a conversation to fix this.

FAQ 12
How can I ensure inner motivation for my child without undue stress?

More than anything else, what you can communicate to your child is- the most important thing she can do is develop the brain she wants for the rest of her life. Does she want a brain that’s so stressed and tired that she is easily anxious and depressed thereafter? Does she want a workaholic brain? Or does she want a brain that is powerful, but also happy and resilient? You can say, “You’re clearly bright enough to do this. The question is whether its healthy for your long-term development and consistent with your values.” Then encourage her to think about her values, what’s truly most important to her, and ask her to consider whether, when she thinks about them, she’s driving herself in the right direction. Then help her set goals that are values based, because when we set goals we’re in control of (instead of setting marks-related goals), our minds are happy.
In addition to this, you can read more about helping your child get adequate sleep and nutrition and helping her keep her exam anxiety at bay. All the best!

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 19 February 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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