Summer term conjures images of sunny walks to school in the sunshine, sports days, shorts, and strawberry stains. However for most children nowadays, the Easter holidays and the advent of the summer term also means a smattering of exams. If your little one begins to associate the cycle of exams with anxiety and peer competition, there is a danger that exam stress will have long-lasting repercussions as the testing becomes more rigorous in the future.
We need to reframe the conversation around these exams, which have become synonymous with stress for children of all ages. Whilst the government has recognised that the constant stream of exams for children at such a young age is possibly unnecessary and intense, there has been little movement to stop them. As such, with the experts at Oppidan Education, we’ve put together useful tips for helping alleviate some of the anxieties associated with exam season – for both adults and children.
Before you can help your child or the children you spend time with, you must first help yourself.
It can be all too easy to get caught up in the playground chat of the #smugthers (n. Smug mothers, judgey & intimidating at the school gates), or #parentshamers doing their best #mumsplaining (n. Other parents or adults dispensing unsolicited advice – reductive, fear-making missives accompanied with an eye-roll).
These interactions are often unavoidable but totally unhelpful for your own self-esteem. Parent-shaming takes many forms but the bottom line is that it doesn’t lead to patterns of wellness, especially if children hear the chat, and begin to internalise the dialogue around workload, pressure and expectations of exams. Stress may begin to manifest in both yours and your child’s approach and relationship with their school and school work.
Be kind to yourself, you’re doing the best you can
It doesn’t matter how much work little Jimmy’s au pair says he is doing after school, and how many practice papers someone else’s child is getting through per week. A drilled child is not the be all and end all, children need time to be children. More research than ever is showing that the increase in technology in children’s daily lives (interactive whiteboards, iPads at school, computers at home), is changing the essential function of the brain and our creative wiring. There are imperative changes that can be made to ensure cognitive flexibility, resilience and positive self-concept are nurtured.
Keep the home stress free
Implementing healthy habits for kids can be simple and effective such as trying to follow a routine as much as possible; the juvenile brain responds well to structure. Moreover, creating a safe and stress-free home environment is one of the keys to keeping your chicks calm and enjoying their childhood. Your space is a nest and whilst it would be naïve to refer to it as a constant haven – with 3 small kids home can be noisy and mealtimes become both an abstract art studio – there are small and totally manageable ways in which the nest can avoid exam stress being thrown into the mix!
1. Active listening
The first, and possibly most obvious but often overlooked is active listening. As parents, you’re always listening to hear, but occasionally not listening to understand what your kids are saying. There can be subtle nuances in the way that the children inform and convey more complex emotional states such as anxiety. Woven into this is the opportunity to understand the child’s motivation for learning.
Mindfulness practice in children is a field broad enough for another article entirely. However, in a bite, here are a couple of ways to integrate mindfulness practices at home for everyone. – Body scanning (no, not an airport security x-ray), is a useful way to check-in with yourself. Sit around the table, with your feet planted on the ground and close your eyes and think about how your toes are feeling, through to your knees, your elbows, spine etc. Once familiar with this exercise, which needs only take a couple of minutes, if you’ve got busy schedules, ask the kids to lead the practice. Practising gratitude can be done simply, with any age children and can be done on the trip to school, at bedtime, or over a bowl of cereal in the morning. Acknowledging your individual reasons to be grateful and taking a step back to voice them, or write them on notes to share with each other is a way of bringing cohesion and appreciation into the home, and diminishing stress.
Play is serious business and should never be underestimated. Play comes in many forms; arts and crafts, pretend play, or active play wildly running around in the garden to broadly name a few. The commonality is that every playful interaction which is child-led promotes cognitive flexibility, the benefit of which is seen in the child’s ability to think outside the box. Don’t be a helicopter parent – let the kid take the lead and go with their flow.
4. Safe spaces
Create spaces to revise that aren’t centred in spaces such as on the child’s bed where they need to be calm, and sleeping – not associating with flashcards, practice papers etc. Identify a place that won’t be associated with downtime, this risks blurring lines.
Kids attitude to capability is dependent on siblings and those they look up to. Managing sibling expectation and performance comparison can be tricky. Don’t talk about academic performance in relation to one another instead, talk about the positive potential of each child and what they are capable of. This positive talk encourages a growth mindset and a flexible attitude to problem-solving, necessary for a positive examinations experience.
Try different ways of revising with your children and celebrate when you find a method that works! Try mind-maps, keywords listing, colour coding, drawing pictures, making up raps, doing news-reports… let the children teach you! The reflective process of a child teaching the material has proven to be one of the most effective methods of engraining the learning into the child’s memory, a process which will clarify the child’s understanding of the concepts they’ve learnt.
7. Togetherness – cook, read, play, have fun!
Enjoy downtime with your young ones, school is demanding enough. It’s okay to watch a movie with them on a Wednesday evening, read a fun storybook together before bed, or do something fun and unexpected like riding a bike in the park after dinner. Spend time together not doing any work but engaging in other activities which will keep your little ones’ minds and brains engaged. This nurturing time is helpful for the child to feel supported at home; easing performance anxiety and allowing the child to practice making mistakes.
8. Healthy habits
The tried and true adages of exam term, as passed down from my parents: eat your greens, keep your brain fuelled and happy. Stay Hydrated. Get outside and oxygenate the brain!
words by Olivia Buckland at Oppidan Education, child mentoring specialists.