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How to Ace Exams... Without the Family Fight

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Updated on Oct 6, 2008

The Brown family is in an uproar again. Ron, their tenth grader, has exams next week and his guidance counselor has already warned you: either he studies and passes…or else!

Ron, it seems, couldn’t care less. First they caught him watching late night TV. Then he hung out late at the park with his friends. And then the Browns had their Big Battle. The result? Looks like Ron’s on strike again.

In sixteen years of teaching high school, I saw this scene again and again. I began to realize that kids want to succeed, but teens tend to think in short bursts. Cross this impulsivity with fear, and you can get a major case of Study Paralysis.

Want to get out of the struggle? Parents always said yes when I asked—and surprisingly, so did kids. Here’s what I recommend: Make a plan!

1. Get a clear picture of the test itself. No, I don’t recommend “sneak previews,” which were known in my class as “cheating.” But what your teen does need is information: how long is the test, what tasks will it require (writing, multiple choice, etc.) and above all, what will be covered. A high school student should be able to ask for this information, and you should applaud when he or she takes that initiative. Beware, however: if a teacher does not provide this information, you have every right to call the school to ask for it.

2. Get real with time. In a calm moment, invite your kid to sit down with a planner, break study time into chunks, and create a schedule. Offer to help if it proves too challenging. I always recommend studying over several days, in chunks no longer than 45 minutes at a stretch. I'm also a big fan of checklists, which look so very satisfying when they have been completed.

3. Don’t do the plan yourself, but support it. Remember: your child will take this exam, not you. But you can be an invaluable cheering section—and you may be amazed by what a difference it makes for your kid. They may not tell you themselves, but I have heard teens boast proudly about getting words of encouragement or special study treats. Above all, praise any positive effort you see. And if your kid is following a plan, don’t begrudge an afternoon at the park or a late night of TV. Those times mean that your kid is doing just what he or she needs to do: balancing work and play, restriction and freedom…becoming, in other words, the responsible person you want.

4. After the exam, focus on process, not product. If your child comes home with an A+ paper after a spell of very hard work, that’s an easy celebration. But, it's a fact of life, sometimes a kid will prepare fabulously, but still fall short on a score. Parents, this is your test: you need to stay as matter of fact as possible, and praise your child for effort. Only after at least five hugs and five compliments should you consider the next question, the next step…and even then, leave it to your child to bring it up.

Of course, there will be times that all these measures still seem to fail. Everyone has bad days, and some exams will hold tough surprises. If you see persistent problems, though, don’t hesitate to consult your guidance counselors and teachers. Just because it’s high school doesn’t mean you're supposed to disappear. In fact, teens may need you more than ever—it’s just that you’ll never hear that from them.

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