During my final year, my relationship with my parents fluctuated as rapidly as my mood. For most of the year, things were great; we had healthy communication and my parents were incredibly supportive. However, as my stress levels increased in the lead up to exams, things changed.
I was more irritable and sensitive, and the pressure from my parents didn’t help things. In the lead up to exams, students often adopt a ‘with me or against me’ mentality in relation to their parents. Right or wrong, parents are often demonized for simply tracking progress and giving friendly reminders to their children. Even parents with great intentions struggle to balance the idea of involvement and trusting their child’s sense of responsibility and autonomy.
Unfortunately, while students can be unreasonably emotionally reactive to parental advice, being a good final year parent can mean taking this in one’s stride. That is, sometimes being supportive can mean pandering to oversensitivity, and taking a tactical approach in providing tips and input.
The tactical approach is as much about the ‘don’ts’ as it is about the ‘dos’. Sometimes, knowing what not to say is as important as the right things to say. Therefore, this article addresses the behaviors to avoid, and the techniques that can be used to reinforce good study habits and great results.
Don’t be a police officer
There are a vast range of concerns that parents have throughout their child’s final year of high school, however one remains the most popular; “is my child doing enough”. This concern is widespread because it is valid. Despite it’s validity, voicing this concern to your children can be alienating.
The following are examples of three rhetorical questions posed to me by my parents throughout year 13, none of which provided me with extra motivation or drive:
“Do you think you’re studying enough?”
“Do you think you really need another study break?”
“I think you should maybe cancel a few of your activities. Is that friends party really necessary? School is about prioritizing. Work out what is important to you.”
When considering the above questions objectively, they are both reasonable and necessary to determine a student’s attitude and workload. However, parents often forget that when people experience high levels of stress, they are often over-sensitive and defensive.
I remember when my parents asked me these questions. Completing a year that was very much ‘about me’, I didn’t consider their perspective and their concerns. I viewed such questions as adversarial, and as an interrogation.
The issue with this approach is that it alienates the student, and leads them to resent the well intentioned question. When my parents reminded me of my workload, I felt patronised and misunderstood. Of course I knew that I had to study hard; reminding me of this fact made me feel that my current efforts were unappreciated. I remember when my parents suggested that I not attend a party, my frustration at their intrusion only motivated me to attend the party and somehow ‘prove’ my ability to self-manage; even if they were correct.
How to Fix it: Working as a Team
Fear not! There is a way to gauge your child’s ability to manage their time without imposing. The key here is communication and cooperation.
It is most certainly important to do a ‘check in’ with your children every once in a while to make sure that they are meeting their goals and timelines. However, I found that when working with my parents early on, I could avoid feeling like I was under the microscope. Two months before my exams, we sat down for 20 minutes and devised a ‘study timetable’. The operative word here is ‘we’.
My parents allowed me to determine my own goals and study habits, however they provided helpful suggestions in the process. Given that we devised these documents together, it made me feel like my parents were on my team, and also it kept me accountable to myself because I knew that I was in charge of determining my study, not my parents.
We decided to make a study timetable. I expressed to my parents that while I had lots of study to do, I didn’t want to give up all of my hobbies. I took guitar lessons once a week, and played basketball and other sports quite regularly. As a result my parents asked me to set out all the activities that I felt should remain as part of my life during my exam period. This included sports, television, playing video-games, and seeing my friends. We estimated how long I spend doing each activity, and then put them into a study timetable in an excel spreadsheet. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was still plenty of time to get my studies done; as long as I planned in advance.
Writing everything down helped conceptualize things concretely. I then put my studies into the gaps in my timetable and proceeded to study in the allocated periods. It also reversed my perception of a study timetable. That is, because I put my hobbies and sports in the timetable first, I felt as though I was prioritizing them and not making a study timetable that I would be a slave to.
I conceived of it as a life timetable that included study as a necessary element.
I think it was particularly helpful that my parents had a copy of my study timetable. This kept me accountable, and also stemmed the flow of questions about my study commitment. After making the timetable, I would not be faced with guilt trips when leaving the house. My parents knew what I was doing. Further, they understood that the timetable was a helpful device, and not a rule-book. That way it was a general guide for me and my parents. I really felt that making the timetable together was a team effort. It put my parents on my side and made my life easier.
Make life easier, not harder: Exam months with reduced chores and work-shifts
It’s really important to remember just how challenging exam preparation is for students. In the months leading up to exams, students are dealing with multiple subjects, each requiring significant time and effort to master. As a result, they may find it difficult to balance the study with everything else. This point may seem contrary to the previous point regarding study timetables. The major point of the study timetable is to provide structure; it cannot make more hours in the day.
Study timetables may also serve as a reality check in that students may find that they do in fact have to reduce some other activities. For example, a student who works once or twice per week in a part time position may want to consider working once per fortnight. My parents encouraged me to put my part-time job on hold for the month before exams, and in doing so, I felt a massive weight lifted. It meant that I could use my spare time to relax and de-stress, and work was one less thing to worry about.
The pre-exam period is not a time to remind children about their chores and ‘grown-up’ responsibilities such as work. If you can support them in these ways, it is worth doing so that they can hone their focus on their exam preparation.
Invest your time: Study with your child and offer to quiz them
I studied Psychology and Drama, which required a high level of memorisation. I was cognisant of the fact that memorising in my bedroom was very different to being examined. My parents were really helpful in this regard.
For Psychology, I wrote the definitions of key terms on speech cards and used mnemonic techniques to learn the definitions. Once I felt comfortable with the content, I asked my parents to spend half an hour testing me on the definitions. Once I had demonstrated that I understood the material, they would then shuffle the speech cards and ask me again to further test my memory. I also used a similar process with my drama scripts. I found it incredibly helpful to have someone test me.
It is important to remember however, that offering to quiz your children can go either way. If the quizzing is not welcomed or initiated by the child, it can be viewed as overly intrusive. It is important to offer the opportunity to help them with their studies but not to push it, or insist upon it. If a child seems hesitant, it is not worth pushing the matter. Simply offering help with studies can be an appropriate way to show that you are on their side.
As a parent it’s really easy to forget how sensitive your children become before exams. As a result, treading carefully will be constructive and help your children to see you as a friend during this period. Psychological studies have shown that difficult goals are easier to attain when motivated through positive reward behaviours, rather than through punishment and fear.
Rather than checking up on your child’s progress and reminding them of the importance of the year, it is much more constructive to sit with them once at the beginning of term, or in the months before exam and to work out a plan of attack. Working with your child as a team shows that you trust your child and value their opinions. Consequently, when the student is in charge of setting goals and structures, they becomes accountable to themselves. In this sense they are able to increase their accountability, take responsibility and maximise their marks.