Best years of our lives? The Agony Aunt helps with exam season

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “With exam season looming how can working parents help their teenage children prepare and keep their own sanity? – is perfectly timed, with schools and education very much in the air in homes around the UK.

For parents with children aged 11, about to make the giant step from primary to secondary school this September, March is the month when you get the all-important phone call, letter or even text these days, confirming that your son or daughter has been offered a place at their first choice school. In too many postcodes across the UK, this good or bad news can be life-changing, with some children skipping off to outstanding schools, while others slope in to others judged by Ofsted as ‘requiring improvement’. Remember the days when every lawyer in the land could afford to send their children to private school, and by-pass the world of performance league tables and Government inspections? Nowadays, most people are looking to buy a house close to a good Academy, rather than work every hour of the day to pay the £15,000 a year private school fees, plus all those skiing trips, and school uniforms, and keeping up with the Armstrong-Joneses …

Then, just as you are recovering from this selection ordeal, exam season looms on the horizon, casting a dark, worrying shadow over the long hot summer. The word ‘mock’ has never felt so cruel.

One letter (written in best handwriting) that was slipped into my school bag this week went to the heart of the issue. One of our consultants asked: ‘How can I manage my teenage children’s study with my own work?’ Of course, just when the demands on parents at this critical time in the school year couldn’t peak any higher, you then have to juggle this with the pressures of your job.

Any mention of school always takes me back to my own school days, and without wanting to sound like one of those ‘old fogeys’ in a bus stop or sitting on a park bench, things are very different these days aren’t they? When I was growing up, parents did grown up things, like go to the pub, or read the paper, or hand their children over to a nanny. Now, it’s de rigueur (I learnt that in French, in 1982) for parents to be so hands on, especially when it comes to learning and personal development, that they barely lose contact with their child during the day.  Reading at bedtime is a beautiful and important thing. And helping with homework is fine (if not slightly challenging, or is that just me?) But in today’s world we run the risk of being de facto (I think that’s how you spell it, I struggled with Latin) home tutors, with not enough time for our work, ourselves or our wider families.

So, what is the best approach for parents to take ahead of exam season, to make sure their children prepare well, and they remain sane? The answer is (now turn to page 142 in your books …) there are two positive approaches you can take; the Supportive Bystander and All Round Support.

Supportive Bystander

Rather than adopt the role of a strict teacher, giving orders to your child about the work they have to do, be sympathetic about the work load they are facing. It’s a clever tactic to say: “It’s so tough, all this work. I imagine it feels really intense.” By being supportive, you can be involved.

Remind your child they are not alone, and steer the conversation towards the revision and exams that the entire school year is facing. Ask how other children at school are managing, and what tips the teachers have given the pupils:

  • How teachers have suggested you should plan your time?
  • Tips for effective revising?
  • Have they been given any past papers?

And the Supportive Bystander will offer to help:

  • Create their child’s revision plan
  • Visit school to hear what needs to be done and focused on
  • Set the time table for revision and deadlines
  • Get all the essential books and materials
  • Condense notes onto postcards to act as revision prompts
  • go through school notes or listen while their child revises a topic
  • time their child’s attempts at practice papers

All round support

This approach relies on the whole family playing a part at this critical time, so the home feels calm and secure. Everyone in the family needs to be aware of the pressure that their son or daughter, brother or sister, is under at this time. A happy, healthy home will create a great platform for learning and a confident performance during the exams.

Make sure there are lots of healthy snacks in the fridge and try to provide good, nutritious food at regular intervals. Keep energy levels and well-being high.

Encourage your child to join family meals, even on busy revision days – so they can dive back into family life and take a break from their books and computer.

Suggest your child takes regular exercise. A brisk walk around the block can help clear the mind before the next revision session.

And it’s important that your child gets a good night’s sleep before an exam, so discourage them from last minute, up all night cramming sessions.

So, support is critical for both roles, whether you choose to be the supportive bystander or take the all-round family support approach.

Above all, it’s vital that your child knows you’re interested in their work and that you are proud of them.

Bribery isn’t always the best tactic, but it’s fine to provide small treats to drive their performance; a piece of cake after a chunk of revision, or a Friday night trip to the cinema after a week dedicated to school work.

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Next week’s question: “Do you know how to market yourself via social media?” With over 90% of employers using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to screen candidates, it will be fascinating to hear your stories of how your tweets and posts have led to your rise or fall. Write to the Agony Aunt via our Contact page, and feel free to use more than 140 characters.