How can parents support their children during exams?

Parent support

How can parents best support their children during exams?

▪Seek to understand your child’s problems

▪Your understanding of their problems enables your child’s understanding of their problems.

▪By listening we create a ‘thinking environment’.

▪By listening you enable them to think for themselves.

▪By enabling them to think for themselves you build their confidence.

The exam period is not only a difficult time for students but a very difficult time for parents too. Often students are so caught up in their own experience of stress that it is hard for them to recognise how they impact on the wider family and especially on their parents.

Every parent I meet within the scope of my work has one goal in mind – they want to help their child. More than anything, they want to see their child succeed and they would like to reduce the stresses associated with that process. Embedded in this thinking is our instinctive understanding that too much stress reduces our performance and therefore our success. Parents want to help reduce their children’s stress levels, and help them perform better as a result.

The parents dilemma:

“As a parent do I push or do I take the pressure off?”

This is a key question associated with supporting someone in a high pressure situation. Do we challenge or support them?


I would like to suggest a different frame around this issue. Instead we could ask ourselves

“Are we providing short or long term support?” 


Finding long-term and short-term strategies:

As an Occupational Therapist my role is to enable students to achieve their best performances when they need them most. I help them look at their overall approach to their academic work and their life and we explore what is holding them back and where their strengths lie. From here we consciously start to use their strengths to support areas where they are struggling. This is a fusion of long-term and short-term strategies, and is made possible because of the way in which students come to see me.

Students often come to see me because they have immediate problems. Something is troubling them or going wrong and they feel that they would like some help to improve it now. Many students seek help throughout the year, but within our service, we have an influx in the run up to and during exams.


There are always longer-term issues underlying:

Now, in all of these scenarios, even with exams in progress, there are clearly short-term problems that need addressing, but  – and here is the key – there are always longer-term problems. In my experience both always need addressing. Inherent in the way that I work with students is the understanding that they will be coming back to talk with me again. 

This creates a frame around our conversations that is implicit – we can look at the short-term stuff but we will also look at the long term stuff too. 

It’s an interesting thought that within families we may feel that the same assumptions apply. We assume that any issues can be discussed and dealt with both in the short-term and in the long-term, over time. However, cutting to the chase – often this isn’t the case.


Because of the ways in which children seek help from their parents.

How children often seek help from parents: 

▪ At times when their parents are busy – cooking, tidying, getting ready for something else.

▪ When they are in total panic and they require an immediate solution from you.

▪ They ask in a way which suggests that they’ve taken a risk talking to you and you’d better get it right.


▪ They ask in a way which hands over responsibility and clearly says “Give me some solutions now!”

These scenarios are understandable. Often children speak to us when we are busy because it feels less intimidating to them. The downside is that we may not realise that we are seriously being asked for help in the middle of getting dinner ready. This phenomena is well recognised within mental health services. Much of the good work carried out by highly trained professional clinicians takes place in cars driving to and from appointments. This is because we are ‘busy’, side-on to each other so eye contact is less intimidating, and there is always the scenery to look at which allows for space to think.

Children often opt for this approach so we need to be mindful of this. If we cannot respond in the moment we should at least acknowledge and set aside time in the future, in a way that mimics the same set-up i.e. within activity.


Creating a ‘Thinking Environment’:

As a professional, I need to quickly get a feel for the student’s problems, create a ‘rapport’, and show an understanding of the issues.

As family members, you may legitimately feel that you do not have to establish that rapport. However, there is a crucial element to this process that actually enables problem-solving to take place for students. Because I need to understand each new student and the problems that they face, my approach is essentially one of asking questions. And as I ask questions, I enable that student to think. 

I am creating what Nancy Kline in her book “Time to Think” calls a ‘thinking environment’ It is that rare space in which students can think out loud. It is an ‘advice-free space’, in which students are able to pursue new lines of thought enabled by effective questions.

This is such a rare opportunity that I challenge you to think when was the last time that you experienced this?

1. A space in which you were free to speak – with no interruptions.

2. A space in which you felt able to speak your mind – with no barriers.

3. A space in which your thinking was not closed down by unasked for, unwanted or uncalled for advice.

4. A space in which you were being encouraged to think through your problems for yourself. 

“The quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking”

(Nancy Kline “Time to Think”)

Parent Support

The quality of your attention determines the quality of their thinking.


The quality of the listeners attention is key:

▪This means that the quality of my attention will affect the quality of a student’s thinking. 

▪ This means that the quality of a parent’s attention will affect the quality of their child’s thinking. 

This is such a key point. It asks us to consider the quality of the attention that we offer to those nearest us. It recognises that just in the quality of our attention we play a pivotal role in helping students and children to think through their own problems themselves.

As Kline points out, many of us need to hear ourselves think. We need to speak out loud and hear ourselves and, more to the point, hear and see ourselves reflected back and understood by others.  

Creating this ‘thinking environment’ is not easy. It can be difficult within sessions because all too often the temptation is to make assumptions and to offer advice. The temptation increases when the student is in distress and is clearly handing over responsibility to me. It’s easy as a professional to feel that one should ‘do something’. We should earn our wage and prove that we are of some value – and of course that is a valid goal. However, it is not valid if the student I am supporting has become used to handing over responsibility for their problems and feels incapable of resolving them for themselves.

This dynamic is equally, if not more, present for parents. Parents feel compelled to help. They want to limit distress and to provide support. All of which are necessary and fundamentally important.


The overall messages we give:

Giving advice and solutionsI don’t think you can solve your own problems. 

Exploring what solutions your child has considered =

I think that you can solve your own problems with my help.

Whilst simplistic this can provide us with an important message to bear in mind. Particularly when we consider the ways in which children may ask for help from their parents.

▪They ask when they are panicking.

▪They ask when they are distressed.

All of these are difficult pitfalls to avoid. A guiding assumption is that given the right support, most of us would prefer to solve our problems ourselves. We also feel better about ourselves when we do.


The benefits of this approach are: 

1. You don’t find yourself trying to ‘persuade’ your child.

2. You don’t face lots of “Yes, but…..” responses. If you are getting these then you are giving unwanted advice!

3. The pressure is off you – you aren’t problem solving! You are curious about how they might begin to frame their problems and solve them.

4. You are able to come from a place of confidence in your child.

Giving advice is OK!

It’s reasonable to feel that there are times when we just need to give advice. That’s absolutely OK!  However, bear in mind, that if we fall into this trap habitually, the overall result could be that your child isn’t learning how to problem-solve for themselves. We can help them by focusing on their own resources, resilience and strengths.


To recap here are three guidelines: 

▪Ask open questions and seek to really understand what is going on.

▪Find out what solutions have been considered and discarded already.

▪Find out what has already worked in other situations (strengths).

Our next blog will look at what happens to communication and thinking when we are distressed and how parents often get presented with a highly filtered and distorted message – and more to the point – what parents can do about this.