Let the exam countdown begin…

It’s December! All the joy and bustle of the holiday season is upon us, along with all the stress. If you have teenagers, your household is probably dealing with another source of stress: exams. Whether your school system gives exams before or after winter break, most likely you are seeing signs of the pressure your teen is under.

For some reason, our culture has turned exam week into a nightmare that it really shouldn’t be. There are steps you can take to help your teen be successful; as a bonus, these strategies will help him or her succeed later in life, when the stakes are higher. And no, sleeping with your head on an open textbook is not beneficial. My college professors will confirm that this particular strategy did not help me one bit. There is definitely a better way.

The most important key to mitigating exam week stress is planning ahead. Yes, I know it’s already December. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a plan. Most middle and high school students don’t instinctively know how to plan their time; they won’t admit it, but they need help from their parents. I’d suggest sitting down with them and talking about each subject, the material the teacher has indicated they need to know, areas of weakness and areas where they are feeling prepared. Then decide what needs to be studied and when, and build a schedule from there. When faced with an enormous to-do list, many teens get overwhelmed by all the things and wind up shutting down. A schedule makes life manageable.

It also isn’t realistic to pull study sessions that are hours long. Kids learn material better in small chunks, so when you help your child build a schedule, focus on realistic amounts of time. It is better to study something every day for ten minutes than to dive in one time for two hours. Frequent repetition is super important, too.

Don’t forget to plan time for mental and physical breaks.  In my opinion, this should not be social media time. Instead, carve out dinner time with the family. Insist that your child take time to go for a walk or a run. Board games and non-academic books can even be relaxing. A brain that’s stressed, overloaded, and overwhelmed is not going to perform well. Also, there’s lots of research about the benefits of moderate exercise; it can actually make you mentally sharper. In addition to helping your child survive exam week, you’ll be teaching them to manage stressful situations later in life.

Eat well. I vividly remember a college exam week where I subsisted entirely on m&m’s and IBC rootbeer. This might come as a surprise, but I felt awful by Friday. Teenagers don’t seem to notice the impact of their food choices the same way adults do, but they are affected nonetheless. Even though it is tempting to consume convenience food (and caffeine) all week long, try to help your teen make the choice to eat healthy food at regular intervals. After fourteen years of teaching, I’ve lost count of all the families who made dietary changes and saw a marked difference in their child’s ability to focus.

And while pulling an all-nighter is perceived as an exam week necessity, it doesn’t have to be. Set a bedtime and stick to it. That extra hour your child stays awake probably isn’t going to help his or her grade, but it will negatively impact brain function. Again, kids don’t seem as aware of the impact of sleep loss as adults are, but that is why they need you.

Make those flashcards. Flashcards, mnemonic devices, and songs all help us memorize material. The time your child spends making them will pay off in greater confidence and higher grades. Sometimes there is no substitute for memorization.

I’d also recommend limiting social media access. You know how Facebook works; you intend to check it for just a minute, and suddenly an hour is gone. If your teen has cell phone access while he or she is studying, I can promise a lot of time is being wasted. You can turn off the data on the phone or simply require the phone be kept in a public place where you can monitor the use, but don’t allow unchecked access.

Start as soon as possible. Even if your child’s school has exams after the holiday break, start studying now. That gives your child time to seek help from teachers and really learn the material instead of cramming and forgetting it. And this is a great time to help your child understand what to do NEXT semester instead of putting off all the work until the end.

And finally, it isn’t too late to ask for help. Connections has tutors who specialize in study skills and helping students prepare for exams. They can help your teen form a strategy and create a study system, and they help set them on a course to be prepared when spring exams roll around.

Written by Laura Simon, Connections Blog Contributor