According to recent data by the NSPCC, there has been a 200% increase in the number of young people seeking counselling for exam stress. In 2013-14, a total of 34,000 contacts with Childline related to school worries and exam stress – putting school stress in the top ten reasons why children reach out to Childline. There is growing evidence that children and young people in the UK are experiencing a mental health crisis. And with England’s children being among the most tested in the world, it’s hard not to wonder if school stress is playing a part in this.
But are parents making this problem worse?
“I am about to take my GCSEs and I am under so much pressure as my parents are expecting me to do really well. I am going to revision classes and trying really hard but I feel like it is not good enough for them.” (NSPCC)
Two of the keys issues cited by young people experiencing school stress are not wanting to disappoint their parents and fear of failure. When parents push children hard at school (with the best of intentions), children can interpret this as a signal that they are not good enough. Which, perversely, can impact negatively on their actual performance.
As parents, we have high aspirations for our children. We want them to be successful and reach their full potential so that every possible door is open to them. But there is a fine line between encouraging children and piling on the pressure.
When a child doesn’t seem to be putting in the effort, it’s tempting to resort to scare tactics (“You’ll get moved down a table if you don’t do well in your spelling test” or”You’ll end up working in MacDonald’s“). But there is lots of evidence that these kind of threatening fear appeals increase test anxiety and decrease results.
One of the hardest things I have learnt as a parent is that we have to parent the actual child we have, not the ideal one we wanted to have. Parenting a ‘must try harder’ child who is frequently ‘off task’ and doesn’t put in the effort is intensely frustrating but, in the end, there is nothing parents can do to force learning into a child’s head or to force cogent thoughts out of it. The best we can do is to support and encourage them and to provide the right conditions for good learning habits.
Little and often
Cramming before a test is a sure-fire way to increase anxiety and leaving homework until just before bed or until that dreaded Sunday evening slot tends to create tension. Set up a regular homework/study slot every day. Make it a reasonable length for their age (I would suggest 30 minutes is plenty until they get to secondary school). Encourage your children to do whatever reading or studying they have during that slot (no matter when it is due) but stop once the time is up. If you have to write in your little one’s reading diary that you ran out of time to finish their book, then do that. The idea is to learn to study smart not long. (See How do I stop the nightly homework fights? for more on this.)
Encourage good sleep habits. A good night’s sleep is a great cure for stress, including school stress, and is essential for the brain to consolidate learning. You can’t force a child to sleep but you can insist they are quiet, in bed, with the lights out and no electronic devices. (See Teenagers and sleep: developing good habits for tips for teenagers.)
Parents often have mixed feelings about rewards and learning. Rewards are really about motivation and, just like business goals, they need to be SMART:
- Specific: be very clear on exactly what you are rewarding – will sitting at the table with the book open for an hour be enough or do they need to have memorised the whole periodic table?
- Measurable: Exactly how many hours’ study or words written is going to earn the reward?
- Achievable: If it’s too big a stretch then no amount of reward is going to succeed. Go for small stepping stones.
- Relevant: Focus on process (which children can control) rather than outcome (which they can’t). Rewarding work accomplished rather that grades achieved is less likely to create anxiety or add to school stress.
- Timely: small frequent treats and incentives tend to be more effective than a final big reward if they do well in all their exams.
If you want your children to do well at school, send them outside to play. Physical activity before, during and after school promotes academic performance both in terms of cognitive functioning and engagement in learning.
There is a clear link between diet and learning and between food and stress. We tend to crave glucose (sugar) when feeling stressed so provide those exam stressed teenagers with lots of healthy snacks to keep them going. Prioritise breakfast – this sets kids up well for a day’s learning. Children should be encouraged to drink water throughout the day – if your child’s school doesn’t facilitate this then challenge them on it.
You might not end up with a little Einstein and your ‘could try harder’ child might continue to underperform (in your opinion). But it’s really important for parents to keep a sense of perspective. Attainment at school is not the be all and end of success and happiness. And there are always second chances for kids who aren’t mature enough to get it right the first time around. Professor Brian Cox went on to be a Physics professor (via a quick career in pop music) after getting a very unimpressive ‘D’ in his Maths A Level!
So, when you are feeling infuriated and find yourself pushing a little too hard, remind yourself, failing at school is not the end of the world but destroying a child’s mental and emotional wellbeing just might be.
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