5 ways to help with GCSEs, A levels and, well, anything really

It’s a tricky thing, parenting at exam-time.  How can you best encourage without pushing?  What is the most useful stance to take?  Well…as my son does his GCSEs, this is what I’ve been saying.

1. Get perspective.  Yes, GCSEs are important but, in the scheme of life, they’re not the be-all and end-all.  Try your very best, put in the work you know you should and, truly, after that there is no point in stressing.  You can’t control what topics will come up but you can control the way you react to a paper – both during the exam and afterwards.  Don’t waste time stressing over what has been and gone. It’s in the lap of the examiner.

2. Change your mind.  It all comes down to attitude – the messages you feed your mind will alter your entire psychological and physiological response.  Tell yourself you like exams, you enjoy exams, exams are actually – yes – fun.  You might not believe it at first but keep going and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It works in the same way as affirmations – the more you bombard your psyche with a positive message, the more the subconscious will work to make it a reality.  Why should you enjoy exams?  Because when you enjoy an activity, you are putting yourself into the ‘zone’, into a place of calm, focused awareness.  Of course, your friends might well mock this attitude – so I advise keeping this as a secret ally.  Whenever they whine and moan about how much they hate exams, are scared of exams, dread exams, just nod while repeating quietly to yourself – ‘Not me, I love ’em!).

3. Focus on the now.  There is so much anxiety about exams, so much energy wasted on fretting about the future and so much energy wasted on lamenting the past.  Keep focused on what you are doing NOW.  Whenever panic rises, breathe – breathe slowly and deeply, flooding your mind and body with oxygen.  Practice the ‘right now’ trick – ask yourself if you are okay ‘right now’, right this very moment.  Of course you are!  There’s no point stressing about the exams you’ve already done – they’re gone.  History!   You need to motivate yourself enough to put in the work for future exams, of course you do, but there’s no point going rigid with fear over what hasn’t happened yet.  It’s a waste of energy.

4. Don’t create drama.  It’s easy to create drama about things, we all relish a bit of arm waving, shouting, wailing and gnashing of teeth but, really, what good does it do to throw books around, rail about the unfairness of exam topics, the hopelessness of teachers, and so on and so forth.  If you’ve got a load of tension built up, I advise a good session of cushion bashing to release muscular tension, or some kind of tough physical activity – a run, a cycle, some vigorous car washing or vacuuming (clever ploy, that last one, huh – kills two birds with one stone).  But cushion bashing is best.  Why?  Because it is so stupidly pointless, you quickly realise that all the drama is a bit…silly really.

5. Watch your food and drink.  Keeping hydrated is hugely important.  Your brain can’t focus if your body is crying out for water.  I’m not a big fan of energy drinks – I’d stick to water or coconut water.  Food for exams?  Well, you don’t want to be dozing off in the middle of an exam, so I’d say go for a light but nutritious protein and veg – tofu stirfry, cheese and veg frittata, or – for the meat-eaters – grilled fish and veg, chicken kebab and salad.  Nuts make a good snack.
Steer clear of heavy carbs (bread, pasta, baked potatoes) as they can make you dozy.  Equally, don’t be tempted to scarf sweets and chocolate – they will spike blood sugar levels which will then crash, leaving you feeling lethargic.

I could go on, but those are the five major ones that we’re finding useful. You can find all the technical stuff on revision online easily enough.  Final note to parents – do remember that, ultimately, it’s not our business what our son or daughter does re exams.  It’s their life, their exams, their future. Tempting though it may be to berate and nag or shout or sneer, resist at all costs.  To be honest, it’s counter-productive – ten to one you’ll make them want to rebel, to stick two fingers up by flunking the lot. Motivation has to come from within, it has to be intrinsic. Carrots (rewards for good results) or sticks (withdrawn privileges, love, approval) won’t work.

What else can you do?  Be there, ask what support your child needs and try your best to offer it. Some might want you to help with revision (if so, ask them what would be most useful for them – remember they aren’t you, so what worked for you might not work for them).  Some might just appreciate being left in peace, with occasional snacks and drinks being taken.  Some might want to offload anxieties, just to talk about stuff.  Some might appreciate being encouraged to go outside for a kickabout, see friends, have a night off.

You know what?  These are actually pretty good tips for life in general really… don’t you reckon? Good luck, one and all.