How to Prepare Your Kids for Exam Pressure

With exam season upon us, Bede Brosnahan offers some useful tips for parents to help their kids prepare for the big days.

We all want the best for our kids and, with exams on our doorstep, it’s natural for parents to want to take control and help children through what can be a stressful time. A few simple tips can help you to break some of the pressure traps.

In our view, dealing with pressure is a skill and it’s important to improve your ability to recognise where your attention is. We show this through a simple dichotomy – having a ‘blue head’ focusing on useful things – or having a ‘red head’ focusing on things you can’t control. In other words, being ‘off task’.

Everybody has moments where the pressure will make them feel anxious and take their thoughts to unhelpful places. This is normal. It’s a part of what drives us to get better. In fact, you don’t really get better without putting yourself under pressure. The risk to doing well, though, is that the pressure becomes a complete diversion. 

Having such a simple explanation and picture of what happens to the head when you are off task (red) or on task (blue) really helps. In that one simple picture, you can see that what might be happening in your head is normal.

Acknowledge you’re having a ‘red’ head moment

When we’re under pressure, we tend to lose this perspective. We know what we should focus on, but it’s hard not to let things that are out of our control consume our thoughts and feelings. With exams, we worry about the outcome, for example, or what questions might be beyond us, or how well others are doing. And once we start thinking those thoughts, then we feel anxious and may fluster our way into it rather than rationally refocus.

Once you accept ‘having a red head moment’ as normal, it’s much easier to let it go and to refocus. There are a few strategies that can help you to deal with it when it happens.

First, acknowledge it is happening. Recognising that what you have your attention on is not helpful, is the first step to refocusing on something that is.

Students and parents alike can practice recognising this quite easily. You need to accept that where you place you attention is something you can control. And then make sure that what you put your attention on is clear and simple and useful. It might not always feel comfortable, but it will always help.

Being a ‘blue headed’ parent

When it comes exams, most parents want to find the solution to help their children e.g. to focus. In our experience, what most children want when they are in the red, is empathy and understanding for their feeling of stress. Explaining that it’s quite normal to feel that way and, in fact, expected, usually reduces any anxiety.

It’s a simple message – try to be there to listen and help – and connect to their feelings. Recognise their worries and help work out a process to manage it in the most practical ways. This is a useful place to put your attention as a ‘blue headed’ parent.

The 3 Control Circles

It helps to have some specific things to focus attention on. We designed our tool ‘The 3 Control Circles’, to help people go from a red head to a blue head. By understanding two key circles – the things that you can control and those that you can’t – you focus your attention firmly on the things you can influence. This becomes your own Control Circle and you have a plan of action to help you take control of the pressured situation you find yourself in.

It’s the same for children. If they understand the triggers around pressure that can make them feel out of control, they can switch from a red to blue head.

Complete your ‘Screw Up Cascade’

Another way to help them to normalise pressure and come up with good exam strategies is to complete a ‘Screw Up Cascade’ or ‘SUC’ list: How could I really suck at exams?

Get them to make a list of all the ways that they could really mess up their exams. (Alternatively ask them how you could be the worst household in the world at helping them prepare for exams!) It’s usually a very easy list to come up with and can even be quite amusing.

The reality kicks in when we pick our favourites from the list – the things we are most likely to be doing. Then, we need to come up with a strategy or way of doing something different. When we start to feel the pressure, being able to zoom out and refocus will be much easier if we have prepared and practiced for those big moments.

You’ll find your children know exactly what they should be doing – revising regularly, eating well, going to bed on time. However, the fear and pressure of failure is all they can think about – rather than concentrating on what they can control. Going through this process helps them take responsibility and find the solution, recognising how they can take ownership in a positive but practical manner by creating a plan of action. If they need support, the student can also define how to involve the parent.

What is your role as a parent?

As a parent, it is important to focus on what your role should be – being the best parent you can be by creating a supportive learning environment in which your children can get on task and concentrate; one that makes it easy and rewarding to study. Creating routines and explaining the importance around the quality of these rituals is very important to help children keep their attention on what they should be doing.

When you’re under pressure, being aware of where your attention is and consciously moving from ‘red to blue’ is the key. Once children start to recognise the pressure triggers, they’ll start to revert to learned behaviours with familiarity and comfort – whether that’s creating revision rotations of 30 minutes, three times a day followed by a break to avoid the stress of cramming, or a 9pm bedtime rule in exam month to avoid inevitable tiredness – and hopefully reduce the stress around exams in a practical way.

Keeping a ‘blue head’ comes with planning and practice. Having a ‘red head’ is normal and natural; and is easier to manage once it is recognised and accepted. Everyone is vulnerable and everyone can get better. Exam preparations are a great chance to practice where we place our attention. From that place everything else follows.

We can’t control the outcome but whatever situation we are in, we can give ourselves the best chance of doing well by keeping a blue head.

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