My son’s stressed? What about me?!! 17.03.17

Naturally the Grammar School is very concerned about the levels of stress that examinations cause our boys. Parents may feel that ‘in our day’ less was at stake when we sat our O Levels, GCSEs and A Levels. I dare say that we experienced the pressure, but that the passage of time makes it difficult for us to recall precisely what it felt like. However, the truth is that university entrance is a lot more competitive than it used to be, as the proportion of school pupils continuing to higher education has seen a stratospheric rise over the past three decades. Even those boys taking GCSE in two months’ time know that their grades will have an effect on the universities to which they might aspire. For the current Year 11, all A Levels will be terminal exams – in other words, all the exams that ‘count’ will be at the end of Year 13. Therefore, their GCSE grades will be the only hard currency appearing on their university applications. The pressure for the Sixth Form is obvious: Year 12 need good AS grades to go onto UCAS forms, and the Year 13 are trying to meet the terms of tough university offers.

Last week the results of a survey on were splashed across the press, reporting that parents felt just as ‘stressed out’ as their children. Although this was a lengthy article, I might summarise the causes of this stress in two categories: (a) not knowing how to help a child effectively or (b) not being sure when to step in and when to step back. I hope to be able to help!

In the survey, 42% of parents said not knowing how to help their children with revision made them feel as if they were “not good enough as parents”. I have blogged on the topic of revision before, so please refer to my earlier post if you are interested in knowing more about the amount of work your son should be doing over Easter and the techniques he should be using. Broadly speaking, there are two key phases to revision. Firstly, there is consolidation of knowledge. A boy who has worked consistently hard throughout two years of a GCSE or A Level course may not have to spend as much time on this phase as a boy who has taken some short cuts. Once the knowledge is ‘in the tank’, he must then practise the application of the knowledge. This requires testing himself in some way. Past papers are very useful as they replicate the precise format of the real examination. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the first exams at A Level this year, so past papers do not exist. Staff have nevertheless done their best to create their own questions based on the sample papers produced by the exam boards. Another good tactic is as follows: once the revision of a topic is complete, your son should return to the same questions done several months previously in class and attempt written answers from memory. It’s not sufficient just to write down fact after fact; there must be a concerted attempt to apply the knowledge. If he is willing to accept your help, ask him to explain a difficult concept to you. If he can make you understand, he is showing his ability to move beyond facts towards the higher order skill of analysis.

Does your son tell you that he doesn’t know how to revise? Parents often tell us this, despite the fact that we discuss revision techniques in detail from Year 7 upwards. Don’t believe him! Ask him to think about what he has been told and about what he has tried before. In our experience, the ‘I don’t know how to revise’ complaint is a surrogate for ‘I don’t enjoy revising’ or ‘I don’t know where to start because there’s so much’! As with any form of procrastination, the advice must be to get stuck in anywhere. Once we start on a complex task, we know that it appears less frightening and that we build momentum. To paraphrase a famous sports brand – “Just start it!”

Parents also complained about having little idea about how hard their children were working, but about being wary of being too critical:

“It’s hard as a parent because you’re not quite sure how productive the time is, if it’s effective revision, whether he’s procrastinating and not really revising.”

I understand this difficulty. What I would say is that your son will only cease to be a procrastinator when he realises it is counter-productive, not because you remonstrate with him for time wasting! I would therefore advise that you would be better to focus on creating the conditions for effective revision. My earlier blog referred to simple measures one can undertake such as removing distractions and finding the ideal place in the house in which to revise. This is more likely to be successful in the short term. At a time when your son is likely to be feeling the pressure, try to agree the ground rules on his working conditions in advance because constant battles about work ethos will help neither of you.

You may have noticed that I refer alternately to ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’. I believe that these are the same thing, merely perceived differently. ‘Stress’ is a negative emotion while pressure is a reality of life, and can be very positive in driving us on to higher standards and achievements. We have all experienced the adrenaline surge of pressure that makes us perform better and for longer than we believe ourselves capable of. However, most of us probably also know in contrast the debilitating effects of stress.

We should not seek to eliminate all stress/pressure from our lives. An environment with low pressure is likely to create low expectations. What we need is a culture of high expectations coupled with moderate, manageable pressure. It would be utterly wrong to tell our children that exams don’t matter. We can lower pressure this way, but we will be teaching them to be satisfied with low standards. We should have high expectations but monitor the stress that our sons are under so that we can release the pressure valve when things threaten to get too much. We must remain conscious of the need for balance during this exam period. The advice we give boys on planning their revision highlights the need to include rewards in their work schedule. I’m sorry to be repetitive but physical activity is vitally important in allowing the release of stress. Exercise decreases stress hormones such as cortisol and increases endorphins – the body’s feel-good chemicals. At the risk of being boring, please don’t be tempted to cancel all sporting activities as the exams approach. No boy can work for 14 hours a day, and your son needs the release that exercise can afford.

Finally, I’d like to mention relaxation techniques. You may have read about Mindfulness; which critics describe as a ‘fad’. I must admit to having been sceptical for years … until I actually tried it. Perhaps the word is the problem, suggesting new-age mumbo-jumbo. This is certainly what I thought. However, it’s simply about calming yourself down by concentrating on your breathing and focusing on the moment so that our brain can file away the white noise that we are carrying with us. Boys often tell us that they are so nervous in their first exams that they feel paralysed and take quite some time to get started. They need to take some deep breaths and to re-set themselves. We have introduced Sixth Formers to relaxation techniques through PSHE, and we have a visiting speaker for Year 11 at the start of Summer Term. If you are one of those parents who gets stressed yourself by the prospect of your son’s examinations, perhaps you would like to join us in a new initiative we are trying. We will be running in the first weeks of Summer Term an introductory session on Mindfulness for boys in exam years and their parents. We have no idea how many boys will choose to participate. However, if you are sceptical, I urge you to give it a try. I have personally found it very helpful in helping me to filter out the large amounts of information in my brain and to re-set myself. We will write to you in the next few weeks with details!