As a coach who teaches mindfulness and resilience in schools, it’s usually pretty easy for me to give advice around stress management for exams, however, today my son is taking his first GCSE (the day before his 16th birthday) and it’s tough as a parent to watch your child have to go through this kind of pressure. So, I thought I’d share my top 5 tips based on the research I’ve done through my work, but also my experience as a parent going through this right now.
1. Manage your own stress.
This is about them not us, our role as parents is to offer emotional and practical support through this process, so no matter how worried or concerned we might be, letting them see this isn’t going to help. It’s really easy for us to forget that our children look to us to measure how bad a situation really is, if they see us panicking it will stress them out even more. So, whether it’s exercising, chatting to a friend, meditation, walking in nature, reading, listening to music, get yourself some good stress management practices in place so that you can fully be there to emotionally support your child when they need you.
2. Reward effort not outcome.
I get that this might be a controversial thing to say, but all the evidence points to the fact that rewarding outcome (extrinsic motivation) actually has a negative impact on performance, because it puts more pressure on the student. If your child is suffering from stress or anxiety around exams it’s likely that they are stressed enough about passing, without having the extra pressure of knowing that they will only be rewarded by their parents if the results are good. The more that is at stake the more stress they will feel. By rewarding the effort put into revising you are encouraging them to work hard regardless of the outcome. After all, all we can ask of our kids is that they work to the best of their ability to prepare for these exams, that’s the only thing in their control, the results of those exams aren’t.
3. Use mindfulness techniques to help them manage their stress.
It’s important to understand that stress is a normal response to a real or perceived threat, but when we get stressed we are not able to think clearly, that’s why our minds can sometimes go blank, not great in an exam situation!
Mindfulness promotes present moment non-judgemental awareness which helps manage stress. By becoming aware of being in the present moment we are no longer thinking about what has happened or what might happen and minimizes the risk of catastrophic thinking. A simple technique for this is getting your child to notice how it feels to be sitting where they are, bringing awareness to the breath, noticing how it feels to breathe and allowing thoughts to come and go without forming any attachment to them. When we learn to become the observer of our experience rather than the participator we can notice our thoughts without emotionally reacting to them. There are lots of great resources for 3-minute breathing spaces and other mindfulness practices out there (including apps) so it’s easier than ever to find something that will work for your child. Also yawning and stretching for 60 seconds has been shown to have a positive effect on the brain, it’s one of the quickest ways to calm down and can be done at any point in the exam itself.
4. Focus on positivity.
Negative words strain a child’s brain, but positive words lower anxiety. By bringing mindful awareness to language we can make better choices in the words we use. If we speak negatively about exams or revision, we are increasing our child’s stress without realising it. Teaching children to use more positive words helps them to have more emotional control & increased attention span. Like negativity, positivity is contagious, the more we focus on the things that are good and important to us (our values) the more motivated we feel. Help your child to focus on all the positive aspects of revision and exams. E.g. Revision will help me pass my exams, exams will help me get a job I love.
5. Keep perspective.
My last piece of advice would be this, keep perspective. Even if the worst was to happen and your child doesn’t get the grades they need they can re-take and things will work out. Sometimes, the most amazing experiences we have in life come along when things haven’t gone the way we wanted and when we look back we realise those were the best things that could have happened to us. Yes, it’s tough to watch our kids grow and have to go through these kind of stressful situations, but it’s one more step for us to take with them on this incredible journey of being a parent and that is a gift in itself.
I asked my 15 year old son what the biggest parenting mistake I’ve made is and this is what he said…..
Parenting is hard, I mean really hard, sometimes it’s great but often it’s hard. Most of us have no clue what we’re doing, no-one gave us a manual, we’re handed this precious bundle and pretty much left to get on with it, using our intuition and our own experiences of being parented as guidance.
Yes, we can read parenting books, we can set up reward systems, we can look to ‘experts’ to help us and of course this can all help, but it can add pressure too. When we place overly high expectations on ourselves we often fall short, we compare ourselves to all of those we think are doing a much better job and we berate ourselves endlessly at every perceived failure.
As a Mindfulness & Resilience Coach I work with both adults and children and I often hear myself promoting a ‘growth mindset’, preaching about not fearing failure and learning from our mistakes, but the truth is, none of us really want to feel like we’ve failed as a parent, do we.
Another thing we don’t get is feedback. As a stay at home parent, I don’t get a yearly review and a pat on the back for all the things I’ve got right (I’m lucky to get a Mother’s Day card quite frankly) and I don’t get constructive feedback on the things I could have done better (I’m not sure accusations of child cruelty from enforced restrictions on gaming and sugar consumption count).
This is when I decided to bite the bullet and actually ask for some. Not from another adult or an expert, but from one of the very people at the coal face of my parenting, namely my teenage son. So, I asked him what he thought the biggest mistake I’ve made as a parent has been and I waited for a diatribe cataloguing all the mistakes I’ve made and arguments we’ve had over the years to be thrown back at me. But his response really shocked me, because he told me that on the whole he thought I did a really good job and that the only thing he would criticise me for is not restricting his brother’s laptop use more (I will confess, he has got a valid point with this).
Now this may make me sound like an awesome parent, I can guarantee this is not the case, I’m as flawed as the next Mum out there and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but the truth is that from my son’s perspective he’s not as bothered about this as I am. We may have our ups and downs but on the whole, he thinks I’m doing OK and that’s good enough for me.
So, I guess what my son has taught me is that I need to have more of a ‘growth mindset’ myself around parenting, that I need to remember mistakes are OK and that’s how we learn to ‘parent’ better, not from a book.
I love doing resilience work in schools. Resilience is a buzz word at the moment and it will mean different things to different people, but for me, a core element of resilience is self-acceptance.
When you look at some of the most inspiring people in life they have often faced real challenges and adversity, but have still overcome those to become successful. Often you will hear such people speak of their incredible self-belief and refusal to allow anyone to define them.
So how can we do this and develop that kind of belief in our own lives? Well, we can start by addressing our internal dialogue. What we say inside our heads matters. Using mindfulness we can start to notice what that dialogue may be, but we still need something to help counteract our self-criticism. This is where positive focus on our strengths comes in.
By focusing on what our strengths are, we are making changes in our brains, so that we start to notice the positive in ourselves and not just the negative. Think about it, we are very good at putting ourselves down, we don't like to show off or make ourselves appear big-headed and whilst that may make us more socially acceptable it doesn't do much for our well-being. The fact that it is more socially acceptable for us to speak badly of ourselves is a sad reflection of the culture we live in.
So how can we start to focus on our strengths? Well it's as simple as writing a list, write a list of all the negative stuff you say in your head and another of all the positive. I bet the negative one was easier and is probably longer. Take a bit of time everyday to focus on the strengths, start to notice when you use them and how those strengths are unique to you. Some of these strengths you will have been born with, but others you may have learnt or developed eg. learning a musical instrument, your strengths are not fixed and you can create new ones all the time.
By taking this time to focus on your strengths rather than your perceived weaknesses, you should start to notice an increase in your self-belief and well-being.
I would love to know if you have any other suggestions for increasing resilience. Please feel free to leave a comment.
Mindfulness, it's everywhere...it's even made an appearance on 'Cold Feet' and had a Ladybird book written about it. But what is it exactly?
You might think it's just another form of meditation but you'd be wrong. Yes there are formal sitting practices, but the great thing about mindfulness is that it can pretty much be incorporated into any aspect of everyday life.
So let's get a proper definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn the guy who introduced mindfulness into mainstream culture with his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme...
’Practising mindfulness means monitoring, in real time, your experience and doing so in a non-judgemental way’ (Kabat-Zinn 1994).
How can mindfulness be used in daily life?
'Mindful awareness’ can be practised at any given moment, where you become the observer of your experience and accept it without judgement. Being non-judgemental allows us to free ourselves of our beliefs and look at the situation exactly as it is. It also allows us to cultivate resilience in response to challenges.
How can mindfulness be used in meditation?
There are 2 formal sitting meditation practices. Focused attention and Open Monitoring.
Focused attention is about bringing attention to a particular target. E.g. body scan meditation, where you concentrate on different parts of the body in turn.
Open Monitoring involves non-judgmentally monitoring your experience. This helps when coping with stress because when you are in mindful awareness you are only experiencing what is happening in the present and not worrying about what has happened or what will happen.
So why not bring a bit of mindfulness into your life today!
For more information on mindfulness, meditation & wellbeing coaching please contact me here.
After Jon Platt's High Court victory last week, there has been endless speculation about how this will affect legislation and how the DfE will respond. As a mindfulness & resilience coach for kids, I'm not really interested in political point scoring only about the wellbeing of children, so these are just my personal views without any agenda.
Firstly, holidays are important, they really are. They are a small window of 'quality family time' in our ever increasingly stressful lives, they allow us to forget our worries for a while and focus on just being together. They create memories that will potentially last forever and when you get to an age when you no longer have your parents around anymore, these are the memories you hold dearest. There is also a limited window of opportunity where children still want to go away with their parents and unfortunately this coincides with the years they attend school. So when you understand how precious these times are you realise they shouldn't be reserved only for those who can afford them, you would have to be pretty hard hearted to endorse that view.
The lack of common sense or flexibility around this issue saddens me, it shouldn't be the DfE, teachers and parents at war over something that is potentially so beneficial to children and parents shouldn't be made to feel like criminals just because they can't afford, or circumstances won't allow for, a break during school holiday time.
I'm not saying that children should be taken out of school on a whim, but I also believe that there is a distinct difference between those parents who habitually take their children out of school for a variety of reasons and those who just want a family holiday. That is why the High Court was right to look at the overall attendance and circumstances of Jon Platt's case. When officials start talking about the evidence around term time absences affecting academic achievement, I think we need some context we really do. The trouble with most statistical evidence is that it's just that, a broad snapshot of children who have missed a lot of school and their performance has suffered as a result. That makes sense, I mean, if you're a child who misses school regularly because of personal circumstances, illness, truancy etc. of course your education will suffer, but that is a very different situation from a child who has an exemplary attendance record missing a few days during the school year to go on holiday, as was the case with Jon Platt.
I don't think that anyone genuinely believes that missing a few days in a school year does permanent damage to a child's academic career. I've personally never had a panicky phone call from my child's tutor if he's missed a few days through illness, telling me that he needs to do lots of extra work or else he won't meet his targets. So how can it be that if a child with a high attendance record misses a few days of school through sickness it's ok, their academic targets remain intact, but if they miss the same period due to a holiday it's an academic catastrophe? That doesn't make sense to me and when something doesn't make sense it makes me think it's probably not true. After all, independent schools have ludicrously long holidays and their students seem to do ok!
So can we just have a bit of common sense around this issue please. Parents need to support their children's education and ensure any school work is caught up on, but schools need to be mindful that quality family time is really important to the wellbeing of their students. Surely we all want the same thing at the end of the day, happy, well educated children, so let's work together on this one.
Shirley Blanch is a mindfulness & resilience coach for kids, teens & adults. For more information about her work check out www.getmindful.co.uk