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Brain Block Happens. You Can Help!

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based on 6 ratings
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Updated on Dec 10, 2008

It’s time for that big exam – you know, the kind that counts for thousands of points. The kind that makes even the keenest students groan. Your kid has actually studied this time, and seems prepped for success. But in the moment of truth, when the pressure is on, your kid’s memory freezes up. Brain Block has hit, and it hurts.

As a parent, it’s easy to think that you’re stuck, too. But even though you can’t exactly take the test for your kid, you can help. Although schoolwork belongs to your child, parents can share a deluxe toolkit for getting it done. In fact, your coaching can help cultivate skills that may stick with your kid for life.

Here are five strategies I recommend, developed and tested over my years of teaching:

  1. Be human. Any veteran of Brain Block will tell you: it feels horribly shameful. If they tell you they froze up on today’s test (don't be surprised if they don't!) make every effort to show compassion. If Brain Block has ever hit you, share a quick story. And it’s crucial to say, calmly and cheerfully, that you’re not giving up, and neither should your kid.
  2. Practice breathing. You’d be amazed at how unnatural taking a breath can feel to a panicked teen. Kids hunch their shoulders, lock their necks, and virtually hold their breath when faced with a paralyzing question. Urge them to stretch their hands upward, and take a deep chest breath while studying at home or being tested at school. This simple move can help reset a stalled, nervous inner clock.
  3. Write to grandma…or a little sister, or even your pet dog. Anything but the terrifying instructor! OK, so the essay covers the finer points of seaweed photosynthesis and your poodle couldn’t care less. But people are rarely at their best when faced with a scary authority figure. Encourage your child to free her voice by pretending that her audience is someone with whom she is completely comfortable who will read with rapt, accepting attention.
  4. Create a “wakeup call.” When Brain Block starts its cold creep, help your kid fight back emotionally. Ask your kid to think of a moment of pure, triumphant happiness, and make a mental snapshot. When panic looms, have your kid rap a knuckle on the desk, or bang a pen on his knee. The gesture can be used as a reminder to pull up that mental picture.
  5. Rehearse. Rehearsing is much more than extra studying. Invite your child to do a complete mental walk-through of the whole upcoming experience. Where will she sit? Where will his pens be? And what if those panicky feelings start to creep up? If you get resistance, talk about athletes or performing artists, who wouldn’t dream of performing without visualizing every possible challenge ahead. This is a great time to pull out that old adage: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. All too often, exams and essays are so scary that kids think they might as well play “academic roulette”: show up, fire blindly, and hope for the best. But I never saw a student who didn’t appreciate a crisis kit. Sometimes the tools work right away; more likely, you’ll need to give them a few tries. But stick with it, and you'll see results.
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