How to look after the business leaders of tomorrow during a stressful exam season

Duncan Byrne

Exam season is upon us, and stress is running high. Duncan Byrne, Headmaster at Loughborough Grammar School, tells us how parents can help their children cope during this difficult period. 

As young people across the East Midlands prepare to sit down and tackle their GCSE and A Level exams, it is only natural for parents and teachers to be concerned about the levels of stress that this can cause.

What can we do to make sure our young people do not feel unduly anxious about this education milestone in their lives?!

Parents often tell me that they cannot help their children with revision because “they know far more than me”. However, that does not mean that you cannot be of assistance. To help young people in the run up to exams, being available as a sounding board can be a great support. If, for example, you ask your son or daughter to answer a tough question out loud, they are testing themselves in terms of their understanding and ability to articulate complex concepts. If they can explain a difficult concept to make you understand, they are demonstrating an ability to move beyond facts towards the higher order skill of analysis.

This is a way of testing themselves. Musicians and athletes prepare for their performance by putting themselves into the same environment and testing themselves. A test batsman spends hours in the cricket nets and Usain Bolt performs repeat starts and sprints in training. To perform in a written exam, students’ revision must feature written work. Sitting on the sofa and just reading their notes for hours hoping that everything will miraculously sink in will not work! They require active revision: they must summarise existing notes; they need to write down definitions and draw diagrams from memory; they should use past papers as a way of testing themselves and, once they have finished, use their notes and books to check their answers.

The second thing parents can do is to create the right environment for constructive work. Students should use the same workplace every day so that all resources are quickly to hand. Check that the lighting and temperature of the room are suitable, that it is in a quiet part of the house, and that they keep well hydrated. We all like to procrastinate, and teenagers are particularly prone to social media diversions. Therefore, remove distractions such as mobile phones, and encourage them to write notes by hand rather than typing them, not least because this is the format of the actual exams.

Discuss your child’s revision plan. Students must be realistic about how much revision they can achieve on a given day. Build in breaks and rewards. Encourage your son or daughter to think about how to reward themselves. It may be a chocolate biscuit halfway through a session. It may be a full evening out with friends to help them decompress. Finally insist on proper sleep. Burning the candle at both ends is counterproductive, increasing stress and reducing the potential to think clearly.

Balance is essential during this exam period and physical activity is vitally important in allowing the release of stress. Please don’t be tempted to cancel all sporting and social activities as the exams approach. No one can work for 14 hours a day, and your children need the release that exercise and human interaction can afford.

Another way of calming a revision-fuelled panic is to open a dialogue early on about what else, aside from exam grades, have a positive impact on a young person’s future. Work experience, volunteering and extra-curricular pursuits demonstrate a well-rounded individual on a CV. Your child will benefit from understand that the inter-personal and organisational skills learned from contributing to a community or gaining a glimpse of the world of work are an essential part of what will help them to stand apart from the competition as business leaders of the future.

It would be utterly wrong to tell our children that exams don’t matter. Of course they do. But we need to help them understand that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Having a revising teenager at home can be stressful. We may question their work ethic. They may provoke us with their short tempers. However, there is never a more important time for parents to bite our tongue and to explore our reserves of patience. What young people really need during this tense time is our understanding, our reassurance and our empathy. If we can implement some of this advice, we will instil traits of focus, commitment and determination, which will be vital in nurturing successful, well-rounded individuals, who will one day be at the helm of our businesses and society.