Exam time! How can parents help?

With exams approaching, the pressure to perform creates stress for children. Parents being supportive but not controlling can help make things easier for their children.

By Aruna Raghuram  • 15 min read

Exam time! How can parents help?

It’s the exam season and nerves are on the edge. While you give her anxious looks and oodles of advice, your bleary-eyed teen may snap at you in irritation. It’s a tightrope walk as far as parental involvement during the exam season is concerned – if you are too involved there may be friction which will adversely affect your child’s ability to concentrate on her studies. But not being involved is not an option either. Parents should strive to achieve that fine balance.

Research backs the view that parental involvement during exams really matters. According to the 2013 US study, ‘Does Capital at Home Matter More than Capital at School?: Social Capital Effects on Academic Achievement’, parental support and involvement during exams can do more than good schools to improve a child’s results! The authors write: “Our study shows that parents need to be aware of how important they are, and invest time in their children – checking homework, attending school events, and letting kids know school is important.”

The study looks at how ‘family social capital’ and ‘school social capital’ impacts a child’s academic achievement. In the study, family social capital refers to the bonds between parents and children, including trust, open lines of communication, and active engagement in a child’s academic life. School social capital is a school’s ability to provide a positive learning environment for learning, including teacher effectiveness. The study concluded that while both school and family involvement are important, the latter is more important for the academic success of children.

Exams are a stressful period for both children and parents. However busy parents are, they should make it a point to get more involved with the lives of their pre-teens and teens before and during exam time. Not all parents may be able to play a significant role in helping their child with studies. But even behind-the-scenes support is invaluable.

Be aware: Get familiar with the exam syllabus and schedule (date and time of each exam) so that you can help your child prepare a study time-table to manage time better. Ensure your child has all the stationery and other requirements for each exam. Make sure he reaches the exam centre at least 15 minutes early and carries his admit card.
Be in touch with your child’s teachers so that you know what are the areas he needs to work on. If you are concerned about your ability to help your child study, take the help of a tutor or enrol her in a tuition class.

Be available: This is to ensure you have time for discussions, to help draw up a study plan and address your child’s concerns. Parents need to be an effective sounding board. They could listen without being judgemental and offer encouragement.
One key support is to ask questions to get the child to think about how they are studying - what they are finding difficult- how they plan to go about studying. Allow the child to drive the needed support.

Ensure healthy diet: Ensure that your child eats nutritious food and preferably with the family so that he gets a break from studying. Keep the conversation at the dining table light. Keep healthy snacks handy like nuts and fruits. See that he avoids sugar-rich foods which may give an instant boost of energy but will also cause the blood sugar levels to crash soon. Avoid giving your child food that is heavy as it may make him lethargic and sleepy. Too much caffeine can make a child hyperactive, irritable, and moody. On the morning of the exam a breakfast rich in complex carbohydrates and proteins is ideal as it will improve concentration.

Monitor sleep: Ensure your child gets a good night’s sleep. Discourage late-night study. This is particularly true for the day before the exam. Refreshing sleep will improve exam performance. Apart from keeping your child alert, it will calm exam nerves. Your child should sleep for at least six hours in the night before an exam This will ensure some REM sleep which helps consolidate memories. It will help him remember what he studied in the day.

Motivate your child to exercise: Ensure the study schedule leaves time for physical activity like a game of football or tennis which is a great stress reliever. A brisk walk too can clear the head and fresh air works wonders.
Being in nature helps relieve stress too. A 2008 study titled ‘The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature’ by Berman and others published in Psychological Science, observes that nature can promote improved cognitive functioning and overall well-being. That’s why students who take a break connecting with nature feel refreshed and perform better on returning to their studies.

Factor in breaks and recreation: Continuous study is not just impossible, it is not effective either. After hours of studying, children are bound to experience fatigue and waning concentration. A short break of 10-15 minutes every hour is ideal. Your child could stretch, walk around the house, and have a snack in the break. Breaks reduce stress, boost memory, and sharpen concentration. See that your child has enough time for recreation – to connect with peers or watch a television show.

Offer suitable rewards: Motivate him with the promise of a picnic, movie, or a visit to his favourite restaurant after exams are over. However, it is important for your child to develop intrinsic motivation. One way to help him do this is to encourage him to think about his goals in life and see how studying and exams relate to them.

Provide a good study environment: The study area should have a comfortable chair, sufficient light, and required books and stationery. Ensure a quiet, distraction free environment for your child to study. However, see that your child does not feel isolated – he should continue to interact with friends and family members. Help your child keep away from digital distractions and manage mobile phone use. Avoid arguments at home so that your child can concentrate on the task at hand in a stress-free environment. During exam time do not get into conflict mode over minor issues like keeping the room messy.

Help your child handle stress: As a parent, you need to ensure that your child is neither too relaxed nor too anxious. Teach your child relaxation techniques like deep breathing. You can also help him with visualisation techniques so that he develops a positive attitude.
While ‘optimal’ stress is good during exam time, know when it is getting too much for your child and seek professional help. It is important to be clued in to your child’s mental well-being. While ‘exam nerves’ are normal and some amount of moodiness is to be expected, if your child has sleep disturbances, loss of appetite or is making very negative statements (like “I am a failure”) it may be time to consult a certified counsellor or clinical psychologist.

Focus on effort, not result: Agreed, it is important for parents to have academic expectations about their children and inculcate in them a value for education. However, it is equally important to adjust one’s expectations according to the aptitude and abilities of the child.

Never compare your child to other children: Tell him that no exam defines his self-worth. This unconditional love and support is the biggest gift you can give him at this stressful time. And, make it clear to him that in your opinion effort matters more than the result. Don’t hesitate to praise your child for working hard. Nagging and pressurising him are of course a no-no. Avoid statements that make exams sound like a life and death matter. Also, do not communicate your stress to your child.
A 2016 study authored by Haimovitz and Dweck, published in Psychological Science, titled ‘Parents’ Views of Failure Predict Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets’ focuses on the views parents have of failure. The study observed that parents can see failure as debilitating or enhancing and these mindsets predict parenting practices and children’s intelligence mindsets. Children can keenly figure out their parents’ mindset. If parents see mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn, the children are more likely to develop a ‘growth mindset’ and feel that they can make a difference to their abilities (especially intelligence) and performance.
In contrast, when parents see failure as debilitating they focus on their children’s performance and ability rather than on their children’s learning, and their children, in turn, tend to believe that intelligence is fixed rather than something that can be developed.

Getting involved in your child's academics

These are some steps you can take without getting into micromanagement:

  • Understand how your child learns best
  • Get him to teach you to strengthen his concepts
  • Monitor her progress in terms of how much course has been covered and discuss exam strategy
  • Encourage a regular, consistent study schedule
  • Encourage him to take mock tests regularly and evaluate his performance to find out weak areas
  • Help her prepare self-help aids such as small sheets or flash cards with mathematical formulae, historical dates, science facts, or vocabulary lists
  • Encourage him to develop the habit of independent study by not hovering around all the time
  • Ensure she is regular with homework through the year so that she develops study skills
  • Develop questions in various subjects and quiz him
Exam time! How can parents help?
I am parent of a primary schooler and a middle schooler. My approach to exams has always been to keep it simple and stress free right from when I was a student myself. I see exams as a process of evaluation for the learners to understand where they stand with respect to understanding the concepts and expressing their subject knowledge for others to understand.
Here is what is practised in our home for both the children:
  • Routine study (every day, for at least an hour) to recap what was taught in school that day. I spend about an hour every day with either the primary schooler or the middle schooler (rarely together) to enable maximum undistracted time. Each day of the working week is dedicated to one or at the most two subjects (one chapter from each) to study and assimilate.
  • Revision and informal assessment (oral and written) during weekends.
  • Routine revision during the exams, at their pace, without adding to exam stress.
  • Healthy, nutritious food is the norm but fun treats are also allowed when they make conscious efforts to reach their learning goals.
  • The extra-curricular classes after school (like karate, art, music etc.) are never compromised during exams. This gives them a break from the constant pressure of exams and refreshes their mind doing what they love and enjoy.
  • Positive use of screen time for learning goals.
  • Regular outdoor play – this helps in providing healthy physical activity and also doubles up as relaxation time.
  • Once they finish their exams and come home, their performance is never judged. If they are feeling down because they think or have figured out that their performance in the exam was not great, the only suggestion given is to address why it was bad and do better the next time.
-Aarthi Prabhakaran, mother of Madhumitha, 12, and Rohan, 8

Whether parents play an active (helping them with studies) or supportive (ensuring a healthy routine, being a good listener, and encouraging and motivating them) role, at exam time, their involvement is vital. It will not only ensure good performance but also help in reducing exam-related stress.

In a nutshell

  • Parental involvement during exam time is vital for academic success and to reduce children’s stress levels
  • Parents need to be aware of the exam schedule as well as available to lend a listening ear and support
  • Not all parents may be able to play a significant role in helping their child with studies. But even behind-the-scenes support is invaluable

What you could do right away

  • Give your child a warm hug to assure her of your unconditional love and assure her your love is not related to her exam performance
  • Fix a copy of the exam schedule on a soft board or on the fridge where you can refer to it easily
  • If you find your child is very anxious or stressed, approach a counsellor or clinical psychologist

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 1 February 2020.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 2 February 2020. Updated 6 March 2020
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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