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Whether you remember your school days fondly or not, the idea of having to sit an exam will likely come with daunting flashbacks. For parents of VCE students, it can be a nerve-wracking time. While you want to help your children as much as you can, you also don’t want to overstep the mark.
For students, the stakes often feel high because exams are such an important contributor to ATAR scores. Even though their ATAR score isn’t the determining factor on whether a student will be successful or not, many hold the belief that a poor score means no future, or no possible pathway into their dream career.
Deakin University Lecturer in Education Dr Joanne Henriksen says three lines were engrained as her mantra during her senior school exams, allowing her to reassure herself to take a beat and launch into any challenge that lay ahead:
‘My father pushed a piece of paper my way in his heavy-handed, capital letter black scrawl, “Nothing to fear, nothing to prove, life is not a test,”’ she recalls.
Here are her tips on how to support your VCE student through these challenging times.
As a parent you probably remember once being in the same position as your child. However, Henriksen advises ‘carparking these memories’ so you can talk about what your teen prefers and focus on understanding their own lived experience.
She suggests ‘talking often, asking questions and listening to understand rather than solve or answer’. Here are some questions Dr Henriksen recommends asking:
It is essential your teen has a quiet study space where they aren’t distracted by other people in the house, especially if they have siblings.
‘Many individuals find focus and flow when left to their own company, so having the mental, physical and intellectual “space” to study is important,’ Dr Henriksen says.
If this is the case for your teen, remember that unplanned interruptions can be distracting, so develop a plan that means you’re not going to intrude.
‘Talk to them about how they plan to break up their study. Use a schedule as an opportunity to check in on them or provide snacks and cups of tea – make sure you have agreed with appropriate times to do this,’ Dr Henriksen says.
‘However, some students thrive in study groups, bouncing ideas or concepts off peers, talking through approaches and self-correcting each other as they trial and error approaches,’ she adds, so understand your own child’s preferences.
A certain level of stress is probably inevitable when it comes to preparing for exams, but it pays to be prepared with coping strategies.
Dr Henriksen advises ‘talking about what stress looks like to them, what is sounds like and what is feels like for them’.
‘Having a chat with your GP and or other mental health providers is recommended,’ she adds.
‘As parents of a young adult, you undoubtedly want to support and advocate for them, and be wary of gate-keeping access to external help. Make sure that you empower your child to ask for help and have these contacts available for them to enact should they feel they need them.’
Respect their boundaries
While you want to be able to assist your teen when they need help, it’s also important you give them agency, Dr Henriksen advises.
Open-ended questions are best, like ‘How did you feel you went?’, ‘How can I help you further?’, or ‘You seemed a little frustrated by that task, did you want to talk about it?’
However, she warns against ‘forcing a conversation about an exam’ and instead suggests asking questions about simple logistics rather than about the exam itself. A few questions you could ask that might actually help reduce stress include:
Parents can play the role of study assistant, but it’s better to wait for your child to ask for your help to avoid over-reaching.
‘Let them lead the approach and way in which they want you to help,’ Dr Henriksen suggests. ‘They may want you to ask questions or use flashcards to reinforce terminology or read over something.
‘But avoid trying to solve problems for them, chastising them or telling them answers.’
Providing positive reinforcement will help your child build confidence in the lead-up to an exam.
‘Talk to them about the content they are confident in and their “not quite there yets,” while asking them what approaches they might take next,’ Dr Henricksen says.
‘It’s important to be continually reinforcing the positive of what they can do.’
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