GCSE and A-level exams start this week and many parents will be wondering how to get their kids through them while also keeping the peace at home.
Here, Katharine Birbalsingh — head of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, North London and known as Britain’s strictest teacher, gives her top tips on getting through exam season successfully.
NEGOTIATE A CONTRACT: The fight over the next few weeks isn’t between you and your child, it’s with the enemy — and that’s the exams. You’re in this together and if either of you let the side down, you won’t win the battle.
Talk to your child using language like, ‘Don’t let me down and don’t let yourself down’, and, ‘We need to succeed — we don’t want to fail’.
Draw up a contract and write down — on a piece of paper is fine — what you agree on. Things like when your child wants to take their revision breaks and how long they will be. Put in there what you will do to support them as a parent.
Call it, ‘This is how we’re going to ace these exams’. If they’re feeling defeatist, explain the contract is there to make sure ‘WE do the best we can’. Be flexible, figure it out together and if the contract doesn’t work the first day, rethink it.
LIVE LIFE BY ALARMS: During the exam period kids should go to bed and use an alarm to wake up at exactly the same times every day. Children in particular thrive with a routine especially when they’re under stress. ‘Plan something to look forward to post-exams’
Alarms stop you and them from spinning out of control — and they push you forward. If they wake up at 7am, their first job is to set another alarm. Time everything throughout the day — a cheap timer used for cooking will do the job.
Break up the revision into chunks, between 25 and 45 minutes, then schedule a break to get a drink or eat lunch. Not only does an alarm focus the mind, but it tells your child there’s an end in sight.
They work for half an hour, then they get a break, but make sure all breaks are timed too.
BEWARE EMPTY THREATS: The stakes are high during exams and kids are very volatile so if you can, shy away from threats and punishments.
Instead, keep having positive conversations about how you want your child to succeed, and refer back to the contract you both agreed to stick to at the start.
If they keep breaking the contract you might have to bring in the discipline but think carefully about the punishment to make sure it’s the right one.
You cannot make a threat and not follow through, so beware of empty threats because you don’t want to take away that one thing that’s motivating them to reach the end.
FEED THEM THEIR FAVOURITE FOOD: Getting children off junk food and eating healthily is a long-term goal — but right now you have five weeks to survive.
Give them whatever they are happy to eat and it’s important you encourage them to drink plenty of water. Your kids are in high-stress mode and need to eat well and stay hydrated.
Don’t encourage eating McDonald’s every day but don’t feel guilty about giving them fish fingers if that’s what they want.
TREAT THEM LIKE TODDLERS: I tell parents that when kids turn 11 and start secondary school, they suddenly think they’re grown-ups. But they’re not — they’re children and should be treated that way.
Kids are stressed right now. It’s your job to hold on to them in much the same way as you did when they were learning to walk. If they fall, you pick them up again — you’re their scaffolding.
They need daily rewards for sticking to their revision and that could be taking them out for ice cream or watching TV together — anything that helps them to switch off completely of an evening.
Plan something to look forward to for when the exams are over. It could be a holiday, or a meal at their favourite place — rewards like this will keep them perky over the next few weeks.
LOCK PHONES AWAY FOR WEEKS: If you want your child to do better in their exams, ban phones and social media for the entire exam period.
Ideally, you’ll have taken them away two months ago. Put phones in a lockable box and keep the key with you at all times, even when you’re asleep. Kids are very sharp — you have to stay one step ahead.
If revision work must be done on a laptop, watch them like a hawk and they must not be left alone in their bedrooms while they’re online.
It might look like they’re working, but I guarantee you they’re not. If they have a desk, move it into the living room or set them up on the kitchen worktop — you can poke them when they daydream.
Have it written in the contract that it’s your job to keep them focused so there’s no, ‘Leave me alone’.
Kids are constantly arguing on social media. What if some idiot in class insults your child on there? You don’t want them in tears during their science exam the next day.
Make up for loss of social contact with their peers by encouraging phone calls in the evenings.
BE SELECTIVE WITH PRAISE: Their job is to revise — your job is not to get stressed and to know when to offer praise or encouragement. You are their calm waters through all of this, even if paddling furiously underneath.
Talk in a very calm, measured voice and if you show your stress, apologise and move on.
There’s also this idea kids need to be praised all the time. But they’re not idiots — if you’re constantly telling them they’re wonderful they’ll know it’s not genuine. On the other hand, it’s easy to get negative and see things they’re doing wrong which upset you. So seek out things to praise but be selective. If they go back to their revision after a break without a sigh or complaint, tell them how brilliant that is.
- Britain’s Strictest Headmistress is on ITV on Sunday at 10.15pm