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Expat parenting tips: how to help your child through exam season

Updated 31 May 2017

Family homes become powder kegs during exam season, and sparks may fly. But recent research suggests that parents may be more stressed than children – and if the family has recently moved to a new country, this can certainly be expected to raise stress levels. Inevitably, parental anxieties, even if simply through tense body language rather than overt words, will be communicated to children.

A desire to protect your children from life’s darker moments is innate, and the good news is that there are practical measures you can take to help your child through exam season with minimal stress and disruption, even if it’s their first time writing exams in a new country.

Handling exam anxiety as a parent

Parents should make an effort to exude positivity, even in difficult circumstances. If your child has worked well throughout the academic year, tell them this is their opportunity to demonstrate their skills. If reports have consistently shown a “could do better” theme, or if there hasn’t been much time to get to grips with a new school and curriculum, then emphasise that many marks in exams come from simply following the instructions, keeping a cool head and using exam techniques to make the most of the knowledge they possess. So, pull on your best “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirt and set the tone.

Parental anxieties are often heightened by a sense of being powerless or a feeling of not being able to help. Not only is your personal history, and probably your education, set in another time and another country, but long division was also done differently back then. Generally, parents should see themselves as facilitators, providing snacks, support and study resources, rather than trying to act as stand-in after-school educators.

Planning and environment

Plan ahead for the examination schedule and minimise clashes with family events. Wherever possible, allow your child to continue with the activities they enjoy, such as music and sports. Schedule in some treats such as a cinema trip or an afternoon with their friends. Taking a break and forgetting about revision for a few hours can be invigorating. And generally maintaining the normal routine, providing healthy meals at regular times, and encouraging your child to switch off and relax before going to bed at a sensible time are all vital too.

Parents should make an effort to adapt the revision environment to their child’s needs but also allow them to study in the way that suits them best. If your child prefers to study in their bedroom, then make sure they have a desk and space to keep their materials organised and do your best to keep siblings relatively quiet. Other children are more productive at the kitchen table amidst the family din – so even if this is not your idea of what is conducive to revision, go with the flow.

Tips for helping teenagers

Few teenagers are able to concentrate and revise for every waking hour. Parents should learn what their children are capable of and set realistic – and adaptable – expectations. Remember too that these are irrational teenagers. They may come in from a week of exams and pack in another two hours of revision on a Friday evening and then, burnt out, manage just 40 minutes on Saturday.

In addition, smartphones and headphones have become part of a teenager’s life. Some work well listening to music, and some can still concentrate on academic work through the constant banter of social media. For others, technology is an undeniable distraction, but mid-exam season is not a good time to ignite a disruptive family row that may simmer on for days.

If this is the last session of school-level exams your child will ever take, then be thankful. If not, use this exam season as a learning experience. Should you have confronted the headphones issue earlier in the year? Should you have discussed and identified potential troubles earlier and discussed the problem with the school? Would some tuition sessions help? If so, facilitate this and get a professional who, for an hour at a time, is only thinking about the needs of your child. There are also tutors who specialise in working with expat kids and can tutor a child anywhere in the world using Skype. This can be particularly useful for a child struggling to acclimatise to the new environment.

Final thoughts

Examination season is the very time when parents should be using their experience and wisdom to put exams into perspective for their children. As we know so well, a set of examinations is just one hurdle in a long list of life’s hurdles. The principal of a school in Singapore recently had some wise words for parents anxious for their children to do well: “Please do remember among the students who will be sitting for the exams, there is an artist who doesn’t need to understand Maths. There’s an entrepreneur who doesn’t care about History or English Literature. There’s a musician whose Chemistry marks won’t matter.” 

At the end of the day, a well-rounded child who has been helped to do their best and has emerged from exam season intact, still speaking to their parents and ready to embark on the next stage of life’s journey, is what we want for all our children. Being aware of our own behaviour as parents is key to striking a balance during exam season and is sure to result in the ideal atmosphere for children to study for exams in a way that optimises the learning process.

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