10 practical ways to help your children overcome exam fear
How should kids build resilience to cope with the challenges ahead? By Lisa Salmon
Exam season is here and many children are stressed out and worried about not doing well. What's more, some parents feel almost as nervous about the approaching tests as their kids.
But parent coach Lorraine Thomas, chief executive of The Parent Coaching Academy, has plenty of advice on how to build resilience in children, to help take the fear out of failure for them. Her strategies can help younger ones cope with other early challenges too, from music and ballet exams to sports day and simply making friends.
The author of forthcoming children's book Super Coach Arty vs The Shadow: Taking the Fear out of Failure (to be published on July 5 by Jessica Kingsley), Thomas points out that although parents want their children to enjoy life and achieve their potential, many aren't sure how to make it happen.
"Supported and happy children are more likely to succeed and believe they can," she stresses. "Children put under the wrong kind of pressure will be less resilient."
So how can parents strike the right balance between being positive and being too pushy? By helping children learn how to fail, says Thomas.
"For many children, failure is their greatest fear. They worry about letting mum and dad down. But success and failure is something we all must learn how to manage. Learning to fail can help motivate children to rise to challenges."
She explains that failure can also encourage reflection, connects children's actions with consequences, and teaches patience, positive thinking, determination and problem solving. "It helps them to learn to manage disappointment," she adds.
Here are Thomas' top 10 tips for parents:
1. Define what success means in your family
It may mean living by your values, taking responsibility, trying your hardest, being positive and treating other people well. When your child is being 'successful', give them specific, evidence-based feedback about the personal value, strength, skill or quality they've demonstrated. This information is filed on their inner personal memory sticks and strengthens resilience, giving them tools to use when facing challenges.
2. Practise family relaxing
In today's busy world children rarely relax, so build it into your family schedule. Practising regularly will make it easier for them to do this when they're tense. Teach them to breathe in deeply (think of smelling their favourite pizza) and breathe out (like blowing a bubble). They could tense and relax different parts of their body, or end the day with relaxing classical music.
3. Understand their 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' brain
Help children understand there's a neurological reason why they find some feelings so challenging. Their emotional voice (downstairs brain) is very well developed from an early age and is loud. Their rational voice (upstairs brain) only develops fully in their mid-twenties, and it's much quieter. That's why feelings can seem so overwhelming.
4. Name it and tame it
Talk about and get children to draw their whole range of feelings. All are natural and play an important part in their emotional toolkit. Giving a feeling a name is the first step to helping children believe they can understand and manage it, rather than fight it. This is particularly important for painful feelings like fear, anger and sadness.
5. Create their inner Super Coach
Visualisation is a powerful tool for children. Ask them to draw their own unique inner Super Coach (upstairs brain). In stressful moments, taking time to breathe and picture their coach gives them an opportunity to think about their choices and how they want to respond to a situation with an action in their control - rather than just react. In other words, being calm and making good choices.
6. Develop their growth mindset
Giving evidence-based feedback that recognises ACE (attitude, commitment and effort) nurtures a growth mindset and children are more likely to be motivated to succeed and believe they can. It helps teach them to be enthusiastic learners thriving on challenges.
7. Be an imperfect role model
Perfectionist parents often have perfectionist children. Seize opportunities to 'celebrate' when things don't go to plan for you, reflecting on what you learn and how you might do things differently next time. This encourages problem-solving, patience and determination. Demonstrate that it's a strength to ask for help. Many children think it's a sign of weakness if they can't do everything for themselves. Show them that you ask for support too.
8. Build on strengths and weaken weaknesses
Focus more on what children can do than can't, as this gives them a sense of perspective. Concentrate on their skills, strengths and qualities. It reduces pressure and builds confidence, making them more likely to succeed in weaker areas.
9. Know the power of the word 'yet'
Be clear there's a difference between the task children are attempting and the person they are. Not completing a specific task doesn't reflect on them as a person. Using the word 'yet' helps them to re-frame a task or activity, creating the possibility that they'll be able to do it in future, for example 'you don't know your six-times tables yet'.
10. Aim for connection not perfection
You can't be 100% mum or dad all the time, but you can be some of the time. These times have a significant impact. So press the pause button and have fun together. Strong, positive connections will always help children feel valued and secure.