As the summer exam season approaches, parents might think their primary role is to keep their teenagers well-fed and rested.
But as well as such practical help, positive psychology and emotional support is a key part of keeping the whole household calm and stress-free during the exam period, says happiness expert Andy Cope.
Cope, who’s studied for a PhD on the science of happiness and positive psychology, and has written a series of books on the Art of Being Brilliant, is offering parents tips on how to make teens feel more positive about themselves and their exam prowess.
“As we enter the silly season, when kids get stressed about exams, teachers get stressed about kids not living up to expectations and parents get stressed trying not to nag too much about revision, it’s important to stay calm and positive,” he points out.
He promises the following tips can help the whole family sail through the exam period:
The 8:1 ratio
An attitude that equates success with hard work can lead to nagging, punishment and pointing out what’s wrong, says Cope. As a result, kids learn to stick to what they know to be safe which leads to a fixed mindset – for example, ‘I’m rubbish at maths. I’ll never be able to learn it’.
But Cope says positive reinforcement can avoid such a mindset. “One of the most effective things a teacher or parent can do is use a positivity/negativity ratio of about 8:1,” he advises.
“It may seem a lot and it can be difficult to get it right, but catch your child doing things well. Notice the little things and tell them. And mean it.”
Parents need to be ‘active constructive’, says Cope, by celebrating success with genuine enthusiasm.
“I’m not suggesting an over-the-top punching of the air celebration for every smidgeon of good news, but a raising of your levels of enthusiasm.
“Your active constructive response means they know you’re proud. The result is that everyone feels great and your child will want to repeat that behaviour.”
Praise effort rather than talent
Positive psychology advice is that if your child accomplishes something, don’t say, ‘Well done, you’re a genius’, but rather ‘You put the effort in and got the reward’.
Never pay for exam results
Cope acknowledges it’s tempting to give cash for results, but warns: “What you’re effectively saying is studying is horrible and you appreciate that your child will only do it for money.
“You’re teaching them, albeit innocently and subconsciously, that learning is a chore.”
He suggests parents should instead suggest a family day out as a reward for hard work.
The seven-second hug
The average hug lasts just over two seconds, says Cope, but if you hang on for a full seven seconds, “oodles of nice warm chemicals flow around both bodies and the love is transferred”.
But Cope adds the wry advice: “Don’t count out loud while you’re doing the seven-second hug as it tends to spoil the effect.
“But they’re lovely and they do help you stay calm.”
Too much love and encouragement gives children an inflated idea of what they can do, warns Cope, yet too little means they may be crippled emotionally.
“A lot of people beat themselves up about what they’re not good at to the point that it stops them celebrating what they are good at,” he says.
“Be a strengths spotter.”
“You can provide a silent room and a revision timetable for kids, but they still won’t revise unless they want to,” Cope points out.
“Getting kids happy now is the key. Rather than waiting to be happy if they get good results in August, if you create an environment where kids feel valued, happy and positive, with high self-esteem, it’s the starting point to good exam results.
“Getting them to revise because they want to rather than because they have to is a massive deal, and telling them how proud you are of the effort they’re making is an important part of that.”
THE TEACHER’S VERDICT
Secondary school teacher Kiri Tunks, junior vice-president of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), agrees that positive psychology is an important part of exam success, although she points out that other, practical steps are also important.
“The temptation is to pile on the guilt and put pressure on teenagers at exam time,” she says.
“But try to have a more positive conversation about exams, help them without being ‘on’ them the whole time, make sure they’re taking rest breaks and reassure them if something’s going wrong.
“There’s no point trying to revise if you’re in a panic. Take them out for lunch and get them into a more positive mental state, and maybe communicate with the school and find out what they need to do, as they may be panicking about unnecessary things.”
Be organised about revision, and timetable it for the time of day you work best.
Revise with other people when possible.
Include time to relax and exercise in your revision timetable.
Remember that sleeping, eating well and getting fresh air “feed the brain”.
Don’t cram and don’t panic. Remember there are second chances if your results are bad.
If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a teacher, parent or friend, or contact an organisation like Childline.