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Exam Stress

Quick-fire tips - in no particular order ...
  • Help your child understand the big reason for doing their studies. If they know the BIG reason it can very motivating and can help to create good habits. e.g. “You are doing exams to help you get to the career you want or the University or College course that you want to do.” “You are doing maths to help you in later life when you need to do use it in everyday tasks like business accounts or online banking”.“These are all things I’ve had to do at work.”
  • Encourage them not to use lined paper but use plain paper – it helps as they can use it to do mind-mapping and ‘spidergraphs,’ etc.
  • Find out what works best for them – what keeps them motivated and engaged? Try different strategies. You’ll find a combination that works.
  • They can read their text books and notes and make them into audio files on their phones, then when you are travelling or away from a desk/home they can use them to remind them about facts and rewrite and use the info to revise.
  • Encourage them to talk to their positive friends, the friends that’ll keep them going and on task. A good positive chat is so helpful.
  • Revision, rest and recreation all go together.
  • Fifteen minutes focused study followed by a five minute break is better than 1 hour staring into space. Find the best timings to suit their brains. Use kitchen timers or countdown apps to time their study times.
  • The best revision is the revision that was started weeks or months ago, the next best is the one that is started now.
  • We all have 86,400 seconds a day, no matter who we are, it’s all about how we use that time in the run up to exams.
  • “Working hard is important but there is something that matters even more: believing in yourself” Harry Potter – spoken in the film “The Order of The Phoenix”
Be a coach not just a manager

Coaching our teens gets the best out of them. We become an encourager not just a nagging voice.

I really believe in changing our view of parenting into becoming our child’s ‘coach’ not just their ‘manager’. People who manage tend to manage ‘stuff’ not people, like me you’ve probably been on the wrong end of a bad manager at some point in your working life. They can be negative, jobsworth and not much fun to be around but a coach is a different thing altogether.

In the sports world coaches are everywhere, they help the teams and athletes be the best they’re capable of being. A good coach will of course have to tell you off when you are not doing so well but really their job is to encourage and to keep you on track so you can do more than you think you are capable of doing.

My friend Matt is a top-flight basketball coach, I’ve seen him win games and lose games, but what I see most in him is the ability to steer, adjust and encourage his players to get through, overcome, and to even enjoy the tough games that they have to play. Even when players are taken off the court they’re not shouted at but given a reassuring high five. They don’t get a lecture because in 10 minutes time they may have to go on again. I think that parenting is always about choosing the right battle at the right time, because there are many battles and we can’t fight them all. Exam time particularly is the key time to let some things slide to focus on what’s important – getting them through their exams in the right frame of mind with full support from us and our families. Exams are just a season, they don’t last forever (thankfully!) and they just require focus from us and them.

Be positive with our children

  • I don’t like to tell people to ‘be positive’ as it almost seems aggressive to me. But the fact remains that a positive attitude from us as parents makes a real difference to our children’s success in school. I like to think of being ‘realistically positive’.
  • Things to do:
    • Find out where they are with their estimated grades (teachers/reports can tell you this).
    • Help them to believe the positive truth about themselves (i.e. that they can do well, and certainly better than they probably believe).
    • Encourage them to be positive towards their exams and their future.
    • Encourage them to be positive towards learning and the school.
  • Often in my talks in schools I tell the students “do you realise that you are here for a reason? You’re here because you can make it, you can do it, otherwise, to be frank, you wouldn’t be in this school, and you’d be somewhere else”. Sometimes I can see the light go on in their heads at this point, and I often see a “Yeah, he’s right” smile start to develop as their confidence grows. It’s great to see that. It’s one of the reasons I do what I do. The occasional ‘lightbulb’ moment keeps me going.
Rewards and incentives

Rewards can work really well to help them keep motivated. Some teens respond to small financial rewards, treats or clothes etc, but many don’t.

Find out the ‘little trophies’ and the ‘big trophies’ that work for you, what you can use as a treat and reward for hard work not just great results. It’s more about rewarding effort – if your child is putting in the effort then reward them daily with comments and the occasional treat. Then maybe talk about a ‘big trophy’ (reward) at the end. Some parents offer big financial rewards as an incentive, this might work for some, but can have downsides too. We’ve tried to take a different approach.

One of my daughters has been invited to go on a cheap foreign holiday with a friend (and their grandparents) after her exams and so that’s become her focus, and we have encouraged and rewarded her towards that. We haven’t paid for it but we’ve paid bits of it and helped her to get ready for it.

As you know spending time with your teens while doing stuff that they want to do is often better than just giving them money. Coffee shop / bagel house trips seem to work well in the Jackson house. Be creative and reward effort in your own family style. We all need a carrot occasionally.

Work hard and sleep

Work hard

They’ve been told it a thousand times by teachers and by you, that’s because it’s true. Hard work (esp. smart work) works!

It gets us from where we are to where we want to be and is much more reliable than a lottery or an X-Factor audition! Controversial American author Larry Winget has written a book called It’s Called Work for a Reason! and while I often cringe at his blunt, brash style he has a point. If we are lucky enough to have a job that we enjoy then that’s amazing. I love my job, but that still doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sat here at my computer writing this doesn’t magically happen, I’ve had to lock myself way and get it done. I love communicating with good people like yourself but I don’t enjoy being stuck on a computer typing when I could be out in the sunshine. But today I am. It’s called work for a reason.

The trick with teens though is to tell them this without sounding like a song on repeat (we used to say ‘like a broken record!’).

GCSE revision is a season of hard work, it doesn’t last forever, and as one Head Teacher said to me the other day “Lee, at the end of the day I get 13 weeks of holiday a year, I try not to forget that.” A school year is about 37 weeks, it doesn’t last forever, so encourage them to work when they have to and enjoy the breaks when they come.

Show them how hard work has worked for you and encourage them to keep on going like you’ve had to learn yourself.


In recent studies teenagers and their sleeping patterns have been looked into. There’s no doubt that their bodies and minds are in growth mode and need sleep to help that, but good studying needs sleep too. Check your child’s bedroom. Is their bed comfortable? Do they have blackout curtains? But most of all what presleep routine do they have? Getting them into a good routine sets them up for good results and for the rest of their life. Late night food binging, distractions, arguments and too much screen time before bed can cause sleeplessness. So encourage them to eat well, and get ready for bed at a reasonable time with the right routine. Which brings me onto the parenting hot potato…

Mobile phones, screens and tablets

I think the best way is to make some good family rules, slowly and steadily.

In some recent press articles “teenagers” have been re-named “screenagers”. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation 1 the average 8-18 year old spends 7 hours and 38 minutes using media (i.e. in front of screen) on a daily basis. That’s over 53 hours a week. When I speak to parents that I know or when doing parents evenings, this is their biggest battle or “fl ashpoint” these days. It’s a tricky subject, but there is hope, according to the Kaiser study – ‘Only about three in ten young people say they have rules about how much time they can spend watching TV (28%) or playing video games (30%), and 36% say the same about using the computer. But when parents do set limits, children spend less time with media. Those with any media rules consume nearly 3 hours less media per day (2:52) than those with no rules.’ It’s up to us, during the GCSE course your child is on, and especially as the fi nal few months approach, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for teens to consume that amount of media and do well in their revision/exams.

It just cant be done.

Maybe decide to all leave your phones downstairs at night for example. We love a bit of TV but the teens don’t have one in their bedroom and they don’t have a computer either. They have a smartphone of course like many do, but we negotiate about that a lot and their phone is always the fi rst thing to go when we feel like the need for sanctions. Removing a phone or just a wifi code may be the most powerful thing we have in our parental tool bag. Most teens have phones and are on social media – but they can affect their concentration levels, studies and revision skills.

The power of focus

Remember those old camcorders with the big red button on the back of the handle? Well, it turns out that our brain loves a record button.

“It seems like memory is sort of like a camcorder. If you don’t hit the record button on the camcorder, it’s not going to remember what the lens is pointed at. But if you do hit the record button – in this case, you know what you’re going to be asked to remember – then the information is stored.”

Sometimes they’d all like to think that they just take stuff in and retain it without trying, but that just isn’t the case. To really use our memory well and for us to help our teens to retain the information they need for exams we must help them to learn to press that record button.

But how?


Purely focusing on a piece of work or revision will make a big difference. Even just encouraging our children to switch off all distractions for an hour or so can mean the difference between getting the grade they deserve or not.

Our phone and social media can be switched off.

When I go into schools, I joke about the ‘off’ button being the same button as the ‘on’ button – I say it as a joke, but I’ve met people who genuinely never switch off their phone, ever. They are the people who keep twitching every time they hear an electronic bleep and don’t sleep at night without checking their Instagram ‘likes’. Scary.

If we help our children focus and reduce their distractions in a quiet room ready for work. I’ll guarantee them two things:

  • They’ll get on better with their work.
  • When they do switch on their phone again they will still have friends! Trust me on this. It may sound very radical to them but it is worth it and more importantly, it does work.

Don’t panic, I reckon we’d all survive if we switched off our phones once in a while.

Group study

Group study can be a great thing to break up the monotony and loneliness of revision, but like anything else it can be a reason for procrastination too. It can work well for modern foreign languages but not so well for more technical subjects. If they want to do group study, then fantastic but it needs to have a goal or purpose or it can be a big time waster. Ask what they are going to study and encourage them but be aware that it can be a reason to not do work. I know that from my own revision

The Olympic legacy

During the London Olympics a new phrase entered our vocabulary – ‘Marginal gains’. Marginal gains as described by British Cycling’s performance director Dave Brailsford is finding out all the factors that go into riding a bike faster and increasing them by 1% then they will see much better performance. He even talked about learning to wash their hands properly so they didn’t get ill as often and taking the same pillow to sleep on to feel better.

All the little things add up, and marginal gains can take our children from where they are to where they want to be.

From a ‘D’ to a ‘B’ for example. It won’t happen overnight but bitby- bit, day-by-day it will add up and their results will change. We just have to help them make the changes that make the difference. Better results won’t happen without changing the little things that affect the overall picture. We have to change and keep on going to see the results we want.

It can be done.

Revision technique

So, what overall revision technique is proven to work when getting ready for GCSE exams?

In my Collins GCSE Study Skills book I talk about the gift of time. We all have it, we can all use it well if we choose. No matter who we are in life: important, vip, famous, rich or just normal, we all have the same amount of time in the day (86,400 seconds to be precise). One of the keys to good revision and study skills is to use time well and start early. It’s proven to work. In fact Prof John Dunlovsky the co-author of the snappily titled “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology report” mentions ‘distributed practice’ as the best technique. To you and me it’s starting early and revising regularly, he says it is the “most powerful” of all the strategies and is the approach used by Collins in their revision guides. Simple and effective.

Getting going


…is probably the longest word I know and one of the most seductive. Some people have put the pro in procrastination! Including myself at times. When exams are approaching it’s weird how Cash In The Attic, Bargain Hunt, and other daytime TV become so attractive. The other word for procrastination is Facebook! Have a chat about procrastination and work on a few strategies to stop its effects.

Here are a few simple suggestions:

  • Get the ball rolling, starting is tough so do something that gets you going.
  • Once you are going, start the big fat horrible task fi rst.
  • Start by chipping away at it, much like I’ve done with this booklet. I’ve done it in steps and chunks, not sat and done the whole thing in one sitting – that would have overawed and ultimately, frozen me.
  • Tell someone to ask you if you’ve done it, accountability can be a powerful tool.
  • Reward yourself once you’ve done something big, a chocolate bar for a tea break after you’ve done a big task can be a powerful (and more tasty) carrot.
  • Remember perfectionism is the fuel for procrastination – it’s much better to start imperfect than to sit there just thinking about something being perfect.
  • Doing nothing isn’t ‘doing nothing’, it’s a choice that we make.
Revision plan

A good revision plan is a must – you make your own (don’t take too long on it though!) or you can download one for free from Collins here.

Rest and relaxation…

…is a good habit to encourage. It may not seem probable but is possible for teens to over work for exams! During the busy pre-exam season especially, just staring at books for hours isn’t being productive. In the last few weeks, just weeks from their GCSE exams my twin daughters have been watching TV, seeing friends, going to youth group and doing fi tness classes too, it’s good to encourage exercise and breaks as much as work. The two feed each other. In fact I’m just writing this section after spending an hour having a coffee with my wife. I needed a break, and now I’m being more productive again. Encourage them to timetable fun/ rest/exercise onto their revision/exam timetable too.

Quick tips and advice

The teenage scale of study!

Laid back/horizontal <........................................................> Keen/worrier

Teens react in different ways to school. Some can almost over study and be stressed out, while others virtually don’t realise that they are in their GCCE years! Once you know where they are at, you can learn the strategies to help them succeed. There’s no right or wrong it’s just different personality types and backgrounds. Even we as parents can be on our own scale too when it comes to the pressure we put on our children. Where are you on the nag scale? Again, it’s not right or wrong it’s just who we are, that said, we, as well as our children will need to make some adjustments in the GCSE years. As I’ve mentioned before we can’t fi ght every battle, but we must establish boundaries around their time and school work. The work of the school will be wasted without our support.

Never mention study <........................................................> Always nagging them

What do you think is the BIGGEST thing a parent or carer can do to help their children through their GCSEs?:

  • Stay calm and be supportive, not pressuring.
  • Be actively involved with school.
  • Keep in touch with class teachers, regularly read and respond to comments in the planner, make yourself aware of what’s going on.
  • Encourage them to do their best and that their best is good enough.
  • Tell them you are proud of them and that you love them.
  • Get the fridge and cupboards stocked with nice treats and snacks for the duration of the exams.
  • Make sure home is calm, warm, and that there is no tension. • Make sure the journey to school is stress free too if possible.
  • Recognise how stressful this time is for teens. Strike bargains, build in ice cream and video nights. • They appear to not want to be with parents but they need to.
  • Create a peaceful place for the children to study. Be interested in the subjects they are revising.
  • The bomb site / dumping ground which is the offspring’s bedroom will not be commented on for the duration.

As the main exams draw near…

The amount of revision and work to do will seem overwhelming to your child. This is where prioritisation becomes the key to GCSE success. Get them to find out the key things to revise and prioritise those, then get them to do the hard stuff first, maybe the subjects they don’t like to work on are actually the most important. Get the teachers help to prioritise, and do a plan so that they don’t feel swamped by the amount they have to do. And once again just remind them that it’s only for a few months.