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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 12-May-15 14:39:13

Guest post: "How to *really* help your child during exam season"

With exams looming large, Elizabeth McFarlane - whose son is taking his GCSEs - shares what she's learnt

Elizabeth McFarlane

I don't know how she doesn't do it

Posted on: Tue 12-May-15 14:39:13


Lead photo

'I can't do it for him, but I can be his roadie offering backroom support'

Exam season is upon us and with it comes the stress: sweaty palms, palpitating heart, the constant need to pee… and that's just me, not the actual child. As it happens, my GCSE-taking son seems fine. I may have been through it all before with the eldest, but it's no less terrifying second time around.

Rewind a few years and a friend with children lagging slightly behind mine in age exclaimed in wide-eyed innocence: "Surely it won't affect you? They're his exams aren't they?" How I laughed a year or so later when I overheard her describing the revision timetable she was drawing up for her son because: "He just hasn't a clue!"

It does seem to be the mothers of boys who particularly struggle, possibly because on the whole they're a conscientious and organised lot who probably approached their own exams with a colour-coded efficiency they're now expecting from their sons. Disappointment looms, because here's the rub: in my experience most boys aren't much fussed. My sons don't seem to measure their self-worth against academic success in the way I did, and mum whinging on day and night about doing some actual revision just gives them something to rebel against. I'm sure that goes for plenty of girls too, I just don't have any of those.

I heard tell of a boy banished to his room to revise, laptop and games console confiscated, who texted his mother the minute she'd gone out: "Ha! I still have my phone up here. I'm playing games on that!" While another mum I know hid outside by the front window and leapt out, catching her son red-handed going straight for the PlayStation, when he'd promised to revise. If they're determined to fritter away study time on displacement activities like playing the guitar, or suddenly becoming incredibly politically active (my Year 11 has just joined the Liberal Democrats), they will. On the plus side middle son has, at the last minute, implemented an impressive revision system - unlike his older brother, who approached studying in a frustratingly haphazard manner.

My sons don't seem to measure their self-worth against academic success in the way I did, and mum whinging on day and night about doing some actual revision just gives them something to rebel against.

There's obviously a balance to be struck here. It's lying somewhere between constant policing and going through the entire curriculum with him piece by painful piece, and not caring a jot. I've concluded that middle son needs only a few things from me at this stressful time: to know that it is an important time, that his future will be affected by the outcome, but also that we are here for him and that we will help in any way we can. Above all else, he needs to do this by himself. It's his performance - he is the one about to step out on to that stage. I can't do it for him, but I can be his roadie offering backroom support.

So here are a few dos and don'ts from my experience the first time around, not all of which I've managed to stick to…


1. Be anxious or over-dramatic: "So you want to fail ALL your exams not doing ANYTHING with your life, do you?” Bad.

2. Pop into their revision sanctum every five minutes for an update.

3. Write out a revision timetable for him. That's your plan, not his. He has to own it.

4. Provide a constant countdown of months/weeks/days/hours left: "You only have a week to go you foolish child, you had better get on with it!"


1. Be supportive, interested and sympathetic. Murmur comforting things like: "It's a rough time" and "Poor you."

2. Provide revision guides, paper, pens, Post It notes, highlighters, a quiet place to study away from siblings and distractions. Then stay away.

3. Provide snacks, treats, favourite meals, and a good breakfast on the day.

4. Pin the actual proper exam board timetable up so he knows when they are.

5. Encourage him to plan his revision a few days ahead at a time. Huge plans are hard to maintain.

6. Suggest keeping a tally of all the revision achieved. This accentuates the positives. Good.

7. Encourage fresh air and exercise: both great for dealing with stress.

8. And above all else remember it's his life not yours. (Good luck with that one.)

By Elizabeth McFarlane

Twitter: @doesnotdoit

ItsRainingInBaltimore Tue 12-May-15 17:18:16

Ok I have pretty much failed on all of the 'What Not To Do' points already blush I know, I know but it's SO hard…

But I am also doing really great on the 'What To Do' apart from number 8 so I suppose it all evens out in the end. smile

Hassled Tue 12-May-15 17:32:36

My third DC has just started AS Levels - at this stage the only think I'm sure of is to downplay everything. It isn't a big deal, there are always retakes, you'll be fine, everything's chilled and mellow, it'll all come out in the wash etc etc. I say it so often I start to believe it and end up in a state of zen-like calm.

And it does all come out in the wash - sometimes they just need the passage of time to mature enough to work out what matters; this was certainly the case with my oldest (who did need both GCSE and A Level retakes, then went on to get a First).

Piffpaffpoff Tue 12-May-15 18:09:44

My mum always insisted on a cooked breakfast on exam days. grin

ItsRainingInBaltimore Tue 12-May-15 19:28:45

i am making eggs and bacon for all I'm worth this week...

Carriemac Tue 12-May-15 20:04:43

Reward the effort not the result. Say "you've been working hard let's have a treat" and sit down and share a hot chocolate/ episode of modern family with them. Don't Campari them to anyone else, siblings neighbours etc.

Springtimemama Tue 12-May-15 20:11:39

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

KittiesInsane Wed 13-May-15 08:48:26

Oh I don't know, Carrie, a swift Campari might go down very nicely with the bacon and eggs.

OddBoots Wed 13-May-15 09:50:35

It is a good list of dos and don'ts although I think it would vary depending on the child. My ds with mild ASD is doing his GCSEs and I have been very involved in helping him draw up his revision timetable as he is a hard worker who struggles to be organised.

He also has anxiety related to understanding the expectations of him so knowing exactly how much revision is enough in each subject is a comfort to him. He isn't putting in hours and hours every night, he is doing 2-3 hours some nights and doing nothing at all other nights and has been for a couple of months but it is all planned and ticked off as he goes.

elastamum Wed 13-May-15 10:06:56

I try not to stress out about exams.

A headmaster friend of my DP once said 'they can always resit an exam, but they cant resit their childhood'.

sunbathe Wed 13-May-15 10:19:28

I do point 2) and point out that their revision, or lack of it, will impact on their life choices, not mine.

And let them get on with it.

Nobody will be mopping their brow at university and poor youing them.

joannemelissa Wed 13-May-15 11:26:25

That is weird. My son also spends his revision time playing the guitar and is now joining the Liberal Democrats. He is doing his work experience with them in July.

GrassyBottom Wed 13-May-15 11:53:20

This is the fourth consecutive year of exams in this house. Two boys.
I think I would agree with most of the don'ts and dos although I leave revision entirely to them.

We always had "exam breakfast" for DS1. A lovingly cooked bacon sandwich which he really looked forward to but could seldom eat. I don't bother with that one any more.

I just generally try to molly coddle them a bit and go easy on them. No chores during exams, a lift to school or college instead of the bus.
Exercise really helps. It's good for stress and it tires them physically instead of just mentally.

No it's true no one will do this for them at university and I have one at uni. By then though they be older and more mature and will have had years of practise at exams, learned how much work they really need to do and hopefully some techniques to handle the stress.

DidgeDoolittle Wed 13-May-15 12:16:53

I have three boys who all went to uni. My youngest child starts his finals on Monday.

I can't tell you how relieved I am that it's nearly all over. I have never had a problem getting mine to do the work, thank god. The problem I had has been managing their stress levels. My youngest son, in particular, works extremely hard and sets himself very high standards. He is at stratospheric levels at the moment.

I do agree that the only thing you can do is make sure they eat well, get some fresh air and listen to their moans. I always make sure that I'm v busy washing up or something when they come down for a break. That way, I can let them get it all out whilst I busy around the kitchen, making appropriately sympathetic noises.

One final point, if you think this is stressful, you wait until results daygrin.

Good luck everyone.

Madlizzy Wed 13-May-15 18:14:16

I have triplets doing GCSEs now. DD does the most revision and the boys slot it in between anime/GTA/playing the guitar/waveboarding. I encourage them, make sure that they're okay then pretty much leave them to it, with the occasional, "come on, crack on then you've got your free time later".

juliascurr Wed 13-May-15 18:45:12

sunbathe I'm hoping to maintain a relationship with dd when she's at university. I'm guessing sometimes I might be sympathetic if she's upset

Bonsoir Thu 14-May-15 09:11:15

IME different DC require quite different sorts of exam support. As a parent, remaining calm and positive, and providing emotional regulation and an ordered household, are non-negotiable. I ask nothing of DC doing exams and give a lot.

chocolateee Thu 14-May-15 17:45:52

I'm a maths and english tutor so I'm hopeless at keeping my nose out at exam times. Also both my sons are very dyslexic and dyspraxic so any hope of a revision timetable was about as likely as an evening without a bottle of red wine ( me not them ) .
My eldest went to a Special School and I'll love them forever for just taking care of everything - I din't know how lucky we were . Youngest is doing GCSEs now and the difference is gobsmacking ! Funnily enough he's started playing the guitar too ... there'a theme emerging in this thread ! although he's yet to join the Lib Dems.
I'm still reeling at MadLizzy's post and the thought of having triplets doing GCSEs . Does that mean you get to drink 3 times as much alcohol after a day's revision ?

Madlizzy Thu 14-May-15 17:52:00

If I could afford it, I would. wink Actually, I'm not finding it too difficult. The way I look at it, they're their exams, not mine. I've given them the tools, they know what they need to do and they have to find their own motivation. No point me moaning at them, as it's counter productive. I'm quite happy for them to have loud music as background as it helps them concentrate. I still need it on in the background when I have to concentrate on stuff.

measles64 Thu 14-May-15 18:58:59

I acknowledge the excellent advice above, however, how do I get DH to stfu and let DS get on with it with as little stress as possible.

ancientbuchanan Fri 15-May-15 14:41:32

Good advice.

But also, I think one of the tricks that DS has not yet learned is to look at the topic, not the hours put in. Hours are inputs but not outputs.Topics known are outputs. And should lead to better outcomes.

Another one he hasn't yet cracked is the gentle art of reducing self deception.

And a third that I shall make sure he learns for A levels is exam technique.

Another a friend passed on was to explore contingency plans, with some of them amusing. So we have being a jackeroo in the outback ( poor sheep), going to learn French properly doing scullion jobs in a hotel somewhere ( hope French H&S either less stringent or customers strong)' taking up an apprenticeship in an area that interests him, and going straight into the job market, Dutch HEIs, etc.

if you have or can borrow a dog for exam season, preferably an aged one, it is the best stress absorber possible. Combines activity ( walkies), cuddles, unconditional love, snoozing, proof of life outside.

And for me, that no one gives a shit when you are forty how you did.

In case this sounds smug, I was so full of suppressed rage last week that I rejoiced when I discovered an art installation at a local festival. You take a bulb, a trowel, a label, a pen. You write the subject of your rage ieg DS' s revision on the label. You plant the bulb with label and pat the earth in to cover using as much force as necessary to bury your rage or stress . V odd, quite funny, remarkably effective. You have buried your rage and something productive and positive will come out. When you feel irritated, you think back to the session. Do I care it's not planting season? Not at all.

Greenrememberedhills Fri 15-May-15 15:09:37

It really isn't right to feel terrified for our kids sitting exams, surely? I'm not terrified. Why would I be? They're not my exams. I think that any parent who harbours a sense of terror is bound to communicate that, even non verbally.

ancientbuchanan Fri 15-May-15 15:13:09

Green, you are in theory right. How did you cope in reality, when so much depends on it including a and for me most importantly their self esteem ?

Greenrememberedhills Fri 15-May-15 17:29:48

Well I don't think an A is a key market of self esteem.

Also, I have academically driven kids and ones who are less so. They have different qualities.

Remember how it was for us. I would have been stressed to hell if my family were anxious about whether I got As or not.

Also in workplaces I find that very often the best managers are not the most A* qualified. They don't necessarily have the best emotional intelligence.

Greenrememberedhills Fri 15-May-15 17:34:08

And it isn't for us to cope. We just need to help them cope, and not make them feel that they are less valuable with lower grades. There are lots of markers of success.

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