Thursday, 14 May 2015

More exam stress...

Lovely Mumsnet contacted me on Monday, asking if I wanted to write a guest post about exam stress similar to last week's blog: 700 words. 

Always tricky to try and condense what I want to say into so few words. Writing for newspapers and the rest is rarely what you think it's going to be - even when it was you who pitched the idea. So often there's a low word count or a very specific brief or, in the case of writing in for The Daily Mail, a right-wing agenda.

Of course I said I would love to write for Mumsnet, who wouldn't? I love them. I'd love to write more for them, lots more, and for some money would be nice if they ever have some spare kicking around. (Why is it that writing is so undervalued as a profession? If I'd worked as a professional lawyer for the past eight years no one would ask me to do a bit of lawyering for free, but I think I'm straying off topic.)

As it happens there's a great deal more I'd like to say on the subject of children and exams: that we test them too much, that schools pile on too much stress, that exams can always be retaken but childhood can't (I read that somewhere yesterday, good isn't it?), that it's important to keep the household calm and relaxed, running smoothly while exams are in progress, and that being attentive to the poor exam-taker is paramount but take care that attention doesn't tip over into added pressure through constant nagging and dictating how much revision they should do.

And then I turn to page two of The Guardian this morning and there's a headline: "Surge in young people seeking help for exam stress," going on to describe a 200% increase from Childline in children approaching them specifically with exam stress, adding that the NSPCC also report 87,500 visits to their website over the same issue. "My parents won't let me do anything apart from revision," says a quote from one child.

How many of these parents, currently piling on this sort of pressure, put in the amount of revision for their own exams that they are now expecting from their children? And even if they were incredibly conscientious themselves, that was their decision, taken about their own life (presumably), their child's life is equally their own. Or it should be. 

It's just not reasonable or healthy to expect a child - anyone in fact, let alone a child - to work all the time. Having free time to do other things, read something unrelated to school work, play a musical instrument, watch a movie, go out with friends, is incredibly important in order to achieve some sort of balance and some much-needed perspective. 

Anyway, I could go on and on, in the meantime here's the piece I wrote for Mumsnet in case you missed it, which you probably didn't because they tweeted it a lot. I'll be blogging on another subject tomorrow. Promise.

Guest post: "How to *really* help your child during exam season"

With exams looming large, Elizabeth McFarlane - whose son is taking his GCSEs - shares what she's learnt
Elizabeth McFarlane
I don't know how she doesn't do it
Posted on: Tue 12-May-15 14:39:13
Lead photo
'I can't do it for him, but I can be his roadie offering backroom support'
Exam season is upon us and with it comes the stress: sweaty palms, palpitating heart, the constant need to pee… and that's just me, not the actual child. As it happens, my GCSE-taking son seems fine. I may have been through it all before with the eldest, but it's no less terrifying second time around.

Rewind a few years and a friend with children lagging slightly behind mine in age exclaimed in wide-eyed innocence: "Surely it won't affect you? They're his exams aren't they?" How I laughed a year or so later when I overheard her describing the revision timetable she was drawing up for her son because: "He just hasn't a clue!"

It does seem to be the mothers of boys who particularly struggle, possibly because on the whole they're a conscientious and organised lot who probably approached their own exams with a colour-coded efficiency they're now expecting from their sons. Disappointment looms, because here's the rub: in my experience most boys aren't much fussed. My sons don't seem to measure their self-worth against academic success in the way I did, and mum whinging on day and night about doing some actual revision just gives them something to rebel against. I'm sure that goes for plenty of girls too, I just don't have any of those.

I heard tell of a boy banished to his room to revise, laptop and games console confiscated, who texted his mother the minute she'd gone out: "Ha! I still have my phone up here. I'm playing games on that!" While another mum I know hid outside by the front window and leapt out, catching her son red-handed going straight for the PlayStation, when he'd promised to revise. If they're determined to fritter away study time on displacement activities like playing the guitar, or suddenly becoming incredibly politically active (my Year 11 has just joined the Liberal Democrats), they will. On the plus side middle son has, at the last minute, implemented an impressive revision system - unlike his older brother, who approached studying in a frustratingly haphazard manner.
My sons don't seem to measure their self-worth against academic success in the way I did, and mum whinging on day and night about doing some actual revision just gives them something to rebel against.

There's obviously a balance to be struck here. It's lying somewhere between constant policing and going through the entire curriculum with him piece by painful piece, and not caring a jot. I've concluded that middle son needs only a few things from me at this stressful time: to know that it is an important time, that his future will be affected by the outcome, but also that we are here for him and that we will help in any way we can. Above all else, he needs to do this by himself. It's his performance - he is the one about to step out on to that stage. I can't do it for him, but I can be his roadie offering backroom support.

So here are a few dos and don'ts from my experience the first time around, not all of which I've managed to stick to…


1. Be anxious or over-dramatic: "So you want to fail ALL your exams not doing ANYTHING with your life, do you?” Bad.

2. Pop into their revision sanctum every five minutes for an update.

3. Write out a revision timetable for him. That's your plan, not his. He has to own it.

4. Provide a constant countdown of months/weeks/days/hours left: "You only have a week to go you foolish child, you had better get on with it!"


1. Be supportive, interested and sympathetic. Murmur comforting things like: "It's a rough time" and "Poor you."

2. Provide revision guides, paper, pens, Post It notes, highlighters, a quiet place to study away from siblings and distractions. Then stay away.

3. Provide snacks, treats, favourite meals, and a good breakfast on the day.

4. Pin the actual proper exam board timetable up so he knows when they are.

5. Encourage him to plan his revision a few days ahead at a time. Huge plans are hard to maintain.

6. Suggest keeping a tally of all the revision achieved. This accentuates the positives. Good.

7. Encourage fresh air and exercise: both great for dealing with stress.

8. And above all else remember it's his life not yours. (Good luck with that one.)
By Elizabeth McFarlane
Twitter: @doesnotdoit

Love E x 

The piece in The Guardian to cut and paste -

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