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Exam time is stressful. Here’s how to make it work

As parents, we can get swept up in the stress of our child’s exam preparation. Here’s how and why it’s worth reorienting our perspective on this

Exam time is stressful for both parents and children
Exam time is stressful for both parents and children (iStockphoto)

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When it comes to exams, even the most well-meaning parents can send their children off the rails. For many parents and students, an exam is a ticket to the next academic year, and the next, until they reach the big-bad board exams, which then is a ticket to the rest of the child’s life.

With such expectations hanging heavy in the air, exam prep is rarely a smooth and focussed time. To avoid the larger-than-life feeling of it, children use every trick in the book to escape studying.

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When I was a tween, my parents would sit with me to help me revise and suddenly, I would insist on answering every calling bell or telephone ring with the utmost diligence, something I never cared about on regular days. Says a friend about her daughter, “I remember once, it was unusually quiet for a long period and when I went to check on her, she’d been busy building a zip line using strings to send her dolls careening down the daredevil path!”

I don’t believe exams indicate the full extent of one’s abilities. They can be unnecessarily stressful for children, exacerbated by the demands that schools and parents often place on them. College entrance cut-offs are higher than ever, competition is fierce, and suddenly, everything is at stake.

Building skills, both parent and child

But perhaps we ought to take a moment to relook at exams as great opportunities to build life skills, both for the parent and the child, especially in helping them deal with uncertainties and disappointments.

For Rashmi Salunke’s 14-year-old son with a hearing disability, this meant preparing for his secondary NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) exams while dealing with a broken hearing aid and a bad cold. This made Salunke anxious for her son but she kept herself in check, knowing that it would only add to her son’s burdens.

“I just gave him a badge to wear on his shirt which says 'be patient, I’m hard of hearing' and that’s it,” she says. “He came out of the exam hall with a smiling face and said, “Amma, I answered every single question!”

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Moments like these are examples of why for a parent like me, with a child who learns differently, exam prep time can be one filled with opportunities.

If you have a child who has a differently programmed brain, you set different benchmarks for the child’s success. Structures, mock exams, questions and rules no longer threaten you; they become signposts in a maze that is otherwise difficult to navigate.

How to view and deal with mock tests

The trick, and one that can work with children of all abilities, is not to set unrealistic expectations, or to let these structures control you. Find out what your child knows, what she is yet to understand, and whether she can actually apply her learning.

“Study skills as early as grade 6 and upwards, reinforced along with consistent practice, make studying pain free and all about learning,” says Sangitha Krishnamurthi, co-founder of The Teachers Collective, a group of teachers who work with children and make learning fun and interesting, including a popular Study Skills program. “By grade 8, this is internalised enough that kids do daily practice and weekly review. Then the time before exams is only for solving papers and working on any niggles that haven’t been sorted out,” she says, adding that this works for all kinds of kids, including homeschooled kids, and those with learning difficulties. "It can also help children focus and work on skills that have other uses, like keywords, filtering out unnecessary information when answering, and more,”she says.

For my daughter and me, getting through the tests and working on clear outcomes has helped. When I get my daughter to do a mock exam or test at home, it is a great way to slowly remove the training wheels and allow her to get at it on her own.

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Teaching children to comprehend the questions accurately for instance, is an important step — both in life and for the specific purpose of exams. Sequencing, the skill of arranging events or ideas in a logical order, is another one my daughter needs— and exams are great ways to organise, sequence, group, and recheck. And executive skills are always useful, aren’t they? 

Can exam prep re-wire thinking?

I won’t lie — this year, when I sat down with my daughter to prepare for the tests, I was worried about what lay ahead. But once we started prepping and working on mock questions, we actually started to like the process.

The school had also set some interesting questions. Here are some examples: “Imagine you are Columbus. Write an essay to convince the Spanish King to sponsor your travels." Another asked her to make information posters on why we need to eat chemical-free food.

Not all questions can be interesting, of course, but once in the groove of preparation, even routine questions can suddenly make you think about their content in a different way. For a child with learning difficulties, a question in a test is an opportunity to reframe experiences. In some cases, it may even rewire the brain by looking at the same content from a completely different perspective.

Eventually, I know that I have to get her up to speed so she can ‘pass’ her exams in the higher classes, but until then, things are not too difficult. And somewhere in the midst of this process, pure learning shines through.

Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru

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