School’s back and while many families are glad to be over the summer exams the 11+ are in fact just a few weeks away in January and for those children just starting year 6 the pressure will start to build over this term.
Parents need to get prepared for what their children will face and also realise that the Christmas holidays will inevitably include some revision time - just at the time when younger siblings and other members of the family are having fun! If you can get a head start on it then perhaps the holidays will be easier.
So if this is your first time doing the 11+ or any other exams that are conveniently set at the start of term here are some essential tips gathered from many a veteran of the process.
It’s too easy to say “make a revision schedule and stick to it” because we all know this will work in theory, but what we want to know is HOW we can do it in practice. What’s the right amount of revision? Too much, too little - how do we get the balance right? We all know we need to make revision motivational and rewarding, but we can’t keep handing out sweets or letting them use the i-Pad, so what can we say and do that will encourage a child to persevere and feel confident they can do what is required? We all know that on the day it’s going to pay off to be organised, and if the child is getting anxious, they will need to breathe. But what is the best way of preparing ourselves and our child so they go into the exam with the best chance of doing their best? For full details on how to motivate without pressurising and how to support children’s learning see our publications on 'Creating Happy Learners' and 'How to Handle Homework Horrors'. Below are three ideas that we know will help, but aren’t usually mentioned.
LET them do it their way (mostly!) and have a choice
And this doesn’t mean doing NO revision! Try, whenever possible, to let your child revise their way rather than insisting they do it your way. Most children find it very hard to sit still and simply regurgitate facts and in fact being forced to be still may impede their learning. Many learn better by moving, maybe hitting or bouncing a ball, or simply walking around the room. Others are more visual and need pictures – get drawing with shapes and flow-diagrams on a white board, or blank postcards. Other children are more auditory and they may find background music helpful and not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – it doesn’t matter if these are wacky and not very serious. They just need to be memorable to your child. Your child remembers things differently to the way you do now as an adult.
ALLOW them to be upset or worried – name it to tame it!
This is probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some tears and tantrums, but this doesn’t spell doom and disaster.
Our instinctive reaction is of course to reassure and try to push them through to feeling ‘better’ about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be absolutely fine soon, it will all work out” or “You poor thing, this is just awful and unfair” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset, it’s just a test, you need to toughen up and get your head down, getting cross doesn’t help any of us….”
Instead we need to really listen to how they feel and then help them work their way towards a solution. We have to connect first, before they can trust us to redirect them. For example: “I sense this is really getting you down right now. I wonder if it feels like this is all you get to do, and maybe you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe you’re scared about what will happen after you’ve tried your best….”
This doesn’t make them feel worse, or feel anything they don’t already feel, but it does make them feel connected and understood. This in itself is calming. Take care not to add “but….” afterwards because this undoes everything you’ve said so far. It’s usually best to keep quiet and hear how they respond. Most children feel less resistant after they’ve been allowed to express their reluctance to do something.
And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics will never make children perform better.
UNDERSTAND their reluctance
We can understand how they feel about revising, and still require that they do revise. But we need to understand why they don’t want to do it. It’s not always what we assume. We often start with the assumption they are lazy, not taking it seriously, etc, and when we approach it this way, it ends up negative and confrontational. And ineffective!
Children in fact do want to do well – it’s in their nature. And they do care about the result and their future (to the extent that they can imagine their future), and what we think about them, even when it may not seem that way!
The problems come when they start to believe they can’t do something well, and that we are not happy with them, so they pull back from trying. Some children will bluster this out and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put much effort in. In their mind, they believe this will protect them from the failure they fear is coming – the price they have to pay on the way is to accept the negative reaction they get from us….
Our best approach is to face this head on – but not with a direct question, let alone an accusation! So, try “I wonder if you’re worried about trying hard, and still not getting a good mark. It’s scary to push yourself to the full, and not know whether you will achieve what you hope for. It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows the more you make it struggle with things.” Wait here; this isn’t the time to go on to lecture about how this is how life works, and they have to learn to knuckle down and get on with things….. Let them open up and talk to you about how they feel about the exams. It may be quite illuminating – they may have some crossed wires in their understanding, which you can help untangle. Or there may be some real issues that are concerning them that you can help them address. These things don’t come out with direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment in the question that they are wrong to be worried etc. Empathise also with the fact that they’d just rather be playing and that other children (and adults) don’t have to be working as they are.
Make sure they do have some down time.
Remember that this stressful time will pass and think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to handle the stress that they will inevitably encounter in life. Encourage them to employ some anti-stress measures such as physical play and having a good laugh. Make sure you look after your own stress levels too.
Did your child go back to school or start at a new school this week? If you’re wondering how to help him maximise his potential this year at school come along to our 3 part workshop series on this topic. If your mind is turning more to their friendships, read on.
Friendships can be lovely - affirming, supportive and nurturing. They can bring a child out of themselves and challenge them to try things they wouldn’t on their own such as climbing a tree, tricks on a skateboard, joining a choir or the Brownies. Friends can learn from one another in an academic context too. Being with friends teaches trust and intimacy and cooperation. Negotiating with peers teaches communication skills and compromise. Having friends of different backgrounds teaches respect and understanding. And learning how to break up and make up is also useful. Arguing helps a child to learn conflict resolution, including how to repair relationships.
Friends can help children through tough times, help them develop their own personality and help them transition toward independence. They are the forerunners for adult intimate relationships with a mate. Friendships can buffer a child from the negative effect of family conflict or break up, illness, poverty or lack of success at school.
Human beings have some basic primal needs –the first is to satisfy our physical needs and to be safe, and the second is to belong.
Friendships can also be troublesome sometimes – children fall out with each other; some kids find it hard to make friends, some are bullied. Children can be left out or have mean things said to or about them. They can be physically hurt themselves or their belongings hidden, stolen or broken. They can have hurtful words hurled at them, face to face or via social media. Children can be very cruel and fickle –they may be best buddies one day and off with someone else the next. Children may have immature responses to differences of opinion, feeling jealous, being unwilling to share possessions, wanting to dictate how the game goes etc etc.
Friendships are relationships chosen by the children themselves, nurtured, broken, repaired and perhaps discarded, and by and large it’s best if parents let kids navigate these relationships themselves. Child-child relationships are egalitarian in a way that adult-child relationships are not and that freedom should be protected. Kids will learn more from their own failures and successes in relationships than if parents muscle in.
“Friendships matter to children because they are relationships that are all their own – created and nurtured by them.” (Dr Eric Lindsey, Texas University
That doesn’t mean that parents can’t help their children at all to successfully manage peer relationships. Here are 8 ways we can help:
1. Provide play opportunities
Provide opportunities for children to play together- but don’t butt in too much. Children need both physical and emotional space to play! Research has found that how mothers behave when children have friends round can be a key to children’s popularity. Parents who micro-manage children’s playtimes tend to have offspring who are less well-liked. Hard as it is, try not to intervene in every spat. Children can often work it out for themselves.
2. Involve children in groups outside school
Involve them in after-school activities of their choosing; sporting or arts clubs or youth groups, active groups doing physical or creative things or community involvement. Encourage children to take part in extra-curricular groups to get them outside themselves and find out what they’re interested in and to provide a friendship pool other than at school.
3. Let them choose
As kids get older their friends will be those they choose to hang out with rather than the children of your friends. Friendships are generally transitory in the 5-8 age group – this is the time to try a lot of different friends. We shouldn’t direct or limit this as it is a learning time; the ‘wrong’ children are as important as the right ones because even a ‘bad’ friend can be a great learning experience. Don’t criticise their friends. When appropriate ask your child what they think about the friend’s behaviour, rather than criticising the individual.
4. Give lots of approval
Let your kids know how much you value them, both to build connection and self-esteem and so that they don’t become over-dependant on peer approval. Children who don’t get much approval at home can be vulnerable to peer pressure which may lead to poor behaviour that they mightn’t engage in otherwise. Provide them with regular positive family time so they feel connected there. All families need to spend time together, so that conversations can occur during non-crisis moments such as around the dinner table. Praise them descriptively for any good friendship qualities they show.
5. Model being with your own friends and being friendly with your partner.
Demonstrate loyalty, commitment, self-respect, constructive dispute resolution, and communicating and managing feelings.
6. Train children in social skills through play and practice tricky situations in role play.
Teach children to be aware of their own and others’ feelings by watching films or reading books with emotional content. Ask them what the characters are feeling. How do they know? Have they ever felt like that? If they’re feeling that way how are they likely to act? Use role plays to prepare for difficult conversations or conversation openers or retorts to teasing. Use games like ‘Simon Says’ and ‘Chinese Whispers’ to practice listening and collaboration and games of chance to practice following rules and winning and losing well.
7. Acknowledge how they feel when children are upset about friendships.
Don’t brush their feelings aside in an attempt to cheer them up and don’t rush in to advise them what to do. If you let them release their feelings it will free up their thinking brains to allow them to come up with solutions for themselves.
8. Help them to be thought detectives.
When your children assume that their friend’s behaviour has a malicious motive, listen to those feelings first, then gently challenge their thinking by asking questions. Encourage your child to be more accurate in their thinking by:
* Catching his thoughts (“No one at school likes me.”)(“Ed thinks he’s more important than me.”)
* Collecting evidence (“Sherry and I do homework together—she’s a friend of mine.”) (Ed pushed in front of me in the line at breaktime.)
* Challenging her thoughts (“Is it really true that no one at all likes me? Where is the evidence?”) (“Ed might have been in a hurry to get inside after break. Maybe he needed the bathroom.”)